A Common Language

This past Sunday I attended the first annual China Prospects Conference at Columbia University. Was excited for the opportunity to learn about China’s emerge from a variety of lenses—urbanization, health, business. Was not prepared to find a gathering of >90% native Chinese and panels conducted completely in Chinese.

Trying to get through all the vocabulary (especially the finance—I wouldn’t have understood even if you translated it into English) was a challenge. But being among such a distinctive audience gave me the invaluable opportunity to peak into the US-China issue from a distinctly Chinese perspective.

The US has been accusing China of using currency manipulation to survive the 2008 economic downturn. (Although the US Congress recently backed off.) Panelists at this conference claimed China had produced a “public good” by pouring in stimulus and slowing the global economic downturn—and has yet to receive the recognition it deserves.

US news sources and the BBC are congratulating Norway on selecting Liu Xiaobo as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. One conference audience member asked for the panelists’ thoughts on “Western countries using the Nobel Peace Prize to humiliate China”.

“When Western audiences hear China is undergoing ‘political reform’, they seem to think that China will disband the CPC and become a full democracy,” one panelist remarks. Chuckles all around.

Dr. Li makes a particularly striking comment that perfectly describes the situation I was witnessing: “China is trying to speak but it needs to find a language that Western countries can understand.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say this works the other way as well. I don’t understand enough about currency or political reform to strongly support either side’s stance, but I often do get the feeling that using terminology such as “currency manipulator” and “U.S. hegemony” is talking past each other and bringing meaningful discussion to a grinding halt. “It’s the next generation,” Dr. Li prophesizes (and I think she’s right), “that’s in the best position to bridge this communication gap.”

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