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University panel debates China’s place in the world

By : Katie Ellis

Is China a superpower — or a mega-superpower? That question was the topic of a Binghamton University panel discussion held last week at the Levin Institute in New York City.

Economics, politics and tradition each played into the discussion as Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author on China and Asia; alumni Bobby Liu ’93 and Joel Kellman ’63; and John Chaffee, distinguished service professor of history, framed the discussion for the audience in the room and those watching in real time on the Web.

Liu, senior vice president and general counsel, M.D. Sass Securities LLC, said, “The first question we need to ask is: ‘Has China emerged as a global superpower?’ and I would say yes, though not necessarily a mega-superpower.”

Bringing up three areas of concern that China must address before it can be considered a mega-superpower — corruption, China’s move to buy up resources around the world, and its social inequality — Liu said, “Seventy-five percent of Chinese believe corruption is a major problem in China today and they must address that to become a mega-superpower. It’s rampant and they need to tackle it to reach the next stage quickly.”

Though China is trying to “go green” in many ways and can be seen as a leader in areas such as solar energy, Liu said the country is resource poor and is looking to tie up agreements that will fuel its engine.

Noting that he’s “a fan of China,” Kellman is co-founder of GGV Capital, a venture capital firm that focuses on expansion-stage innovation around the world with a dual focus on the U.S. and China. He believes China is the irrepressible economic engine of this century, but expects major stumbles as it grows.

“China’s role as a leading supplier will continue to expand and upgrade,” he said, “And its middle class is emerging as a major consumer.

“China is wide open and you can try anything if you find like-minded souls to join you,” he added. “It’s no longer the Wild West, but a 24/7 center for what is new and compelling, and people from all over the world flock there.”

Though social inequality has been China’s tradition, including its one-child rule with heavy favoritism for male children, Kellman said China is not as imperious as many think. “I believe its leaders will fix the corruption,” he said. “But things are done differently in China than in the West and the Chinese are frequently misunderstood.”

He noted in particular that laws in China frequently begin as guidelines, which is not how we do it in the U.S.

Building on Liu’s and Kellman’s comments, WuDunn said, “I’m very bullish on China, but it has taken a different path. China is the land of opportunity and the land of crisis.”

In her travels throughout China, WuDunn has seen both sides of the social picture and called the treatment of baby girls insidious, noting that 30 million baby girls are missing.

“I started thinking what a terrible place China is, but over time I also saw hints of things bubbling up — encouraging things,” she said.

Telling the story of how donations enabled a young girl in a remote village to return to school, WuDunn said the girl then found a job and sent money home. Other girls were able to do the same, and their village now has a school and roads and has been transformed. “This is an example of how much China has allowed change to take place,” she said.

Chaffee, who was born in China and raised in Asia, is director of the University’s Institute for Asia and Asian Diasporas. He sees tremendous opportunity for partnerships between the U.S. and China, including a number of initiatives between Binghamton University and Chinese schools. The University has recently received approval for a Confucius Institute, which will have a specialized focus on Chinese opera.

“I’m convinced that China is a globalizing power of the future,” he said. “This globalization is not simply economic, political or military. A good part of it is cultural, too. It’s a challenge to our Eurocentric assumptions that China is now a world player, and we need to be aware of it.”

Panelists agreed that the United States will need to adjust to China’s rise as a superpower.

“That doesn’t mean you should close ranks and close borders, but the U.S. does have to think more broadly about what kind of policy to create toward China,” WuDunn said. “How do you adjust for those political, economic and trade relationships that need to be managed at a multi-faceted level to promote world stability? You can’t just slap tariffs on products. We’ll have to take more care than that.”

The panel, sponsored by Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, the Asian and Asian American Alumni Council and the University’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, was moderated by Yang Chen ’87, a founding partner of the law firm of Constantine Cannon and recently appointed the first executive director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York.


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Last Updated: 10/14/08