Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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Communism's last heavyweight holdout is increasingly about money. What does that mean for students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies? Magazine writer Joanne Cavanaugh paid a visit to find out.

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"C" is for Capitalist
By Joanne Cavanaugh
Photos by Joanne Cavanaugh and Brian Simpson

"Good morning, how are you?"
"I'm fine, how are you?"
"Fine, thank you. Where are you going?"
"We're going to market."
--Elementary school children in Nanjing practicing English exercises with their teacher.

NANJING, China--Along Shanghai Road, outside the front gate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, red stars adorn the roofs of tiny red taxi cabs. That's about it for public socialist paraphernalia.

Throughout Nanjing, those stars gleam on some of the 10,000 cabs darting among all the motorized rickshaws, workmen in paint-splashed blue overalls, and women wearing black pumps to pedal sturdy bicycles.

Photo by
Brian Simpson

In reality, these stars symbolize something quite different than Mao-brand communism. Ten thousand taxis means pretty good market penetration considering that a decade ago, only about 350 served this city of more than 4 million people. Today, the metered cabs and other modernized modes of transport carry shoppers and workers to high-rises that fill a polluted Nanjing skyline. Not long ago, the cityscape was known for two-story white stucco buildings and avenues lined with sprawling sycamores.

In the 1990s, at least 18 buildings have gone up that scale 50 stories, including the 55-story Golden Eagle Shopping Center, with its six floors of shopping, 17 floors of hotel rooms, and corridor upon corridor of space for offices.

Communism's last heavyweight holdout, the People's Republic of China, is increasingly about money--especially in the nation's cities. The real capital C seems to belong to the capitalists operating here--Chinese as well as a growing number of Americans and other foreign entrepreneurs. Among those discovering this post-communist reality are the Chinese and international students in the graduate-level certificate program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Photo by
Brian Simpson

"One dilemma we are facing," says the center's American co-director Elizabeth Knup, "is that Chinese students prefer more practical applications in corporate finance. The school is academic. So, when it comes to business studies or theoretical economics, where do you draw the line?"

The center, a joint venture by Hopkins and Nanjing University, was created in 1986 to foster an East-West academic crossover. Each year, about 80 to 100 Chinese and international students come here to live together in the green-roofed compound. They learn about China or America--spending a year studying a foreign language, politics, international relations, and history. During the evenings, students gather in the center's lounge to debate news headlined by CNN. Or they share a plate of garlic spinach at the Gold and Silver Dining Hall, the kind of place where the Chinese owner, Zhou (pronounced Joe), walks around lighting diners' cigarettes amid Christmas decorations and European postcards.

To explore China's new economy and learn something about Hopkins's role here, I spoke with dozens of students, alumni, faculty, and administrators at the center, which is operated under Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The center put me up for four days in a one-bedroom dorm-style apartment as I stopped here during a personal journey to East Asia. As China defines itself in the vaunted next millennium, the students who come here, like those at SAIS, have shifted their career goals in recent years. In China, I learned, graduates who previously set out to be professors, diplomats, or scholars are now intent on becoming lawyers, corporate liaisons, or business managers.

In the center's spring International Finance course, the sound of raucous elementary school classes next door filters in during a test. Chinese graduate students lean over long desks. Their test-taking talismans: pencil erasers, bags of Chips Ahoy!, and jars of tea. Nervous coughs are absorbed by the dark green carpet. Afterward, a few hang around to talk.

"I have some interest in literature, but I don't want to do literature analysis," Lu Lingyun tells me. "I'm also interested in women's studies. I see a scarcity of women's magazines in China: they are copies of foreign magazines--Elle from France and Cosmopolitan from the U.S. And they use foreign models. But there are beauties in China."

It's a new world for Chinese women here, and Lu, 21, has a few entrepreneurial ideas: "I want to create a magazine that tells Chinese women how to cope with their boss, or manage the relationship between family and work. A lot of women here are white-collar workers."

"Everyone wants to make themselves richer and richer," Zha says. "Perhaps you can call this socialism. It's hard for me to say. I'm not interested in big problems. I focus more on trifling things."
Photo by
Brian Simpson

Then there's 33-year-old Zha Wei, who, wearing yellow sandals, khaki slacks, and a pin-striped shirt, rests his hands on his pile of finance homework. Zha is a Chinese journalist who produces his own Nanjing prime-time TV show--he does mostly feature stories, such as a recent piece on the American traditions of Christmas and New Year's Day. Zha, who holds bachelor's degrees in English and in economics, came to the center to learn more about American-style economics.

I ask Zha and other Chinese students what's important to people in China today. The answer--especially among post-Mao-era youth-- often rings the same reverberating brass gong.

"Everyone wants to make themselves richer and richer," Zha says, closing his eyes as he chooses his words. "Perhaps you can call this socialism. It's hard for me to say. I'm not interested in big problems, I focus more on trifling things."

THESE ARE STRANGE YEARS for the Middle Kingdom. China is finishing a decade of dichotomy that has borrowed from opposing political, economic, and cultural points of view. Marxism still manifests itself. You need only see the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong gazing over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or hear the stories of crackdowns on Communist Party adversaries and tales of red tape that still restrict where some Chinese can live or work.

Despite the appearance of Kentucky Fried Chicken and T.G.I. Friday's, General Motors and Haagen-Dazs, the suction pads of an octopus-style state government still reach into business endeavors--usually joint ventures between China and foreign investors. China in many ways remains a planned economy, otherwise known as socialism with "Chinese characteristics." And many Chinese favor this brand of "market socialism."

Yet the Iron Rice Bowl of socialist offerings such as housing, health care, and retirement is starting to crack as the state "downsizes," a familiar trend in the United States. An estimated tens of millions of Chinese are unemployed, or looking for work. As the economy shifts more toward the free-market model, there's an increasing disparity between rich and poor, topped in some cases by corrupt Communist Party members-turned-factory CEOs.

And there's a lot of money floating around the PRC. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping opened the once-forbidden nation to outside commercial interests. Since then, China's economy has averaged between 7 and 8 percent annual growth, according to government statistics. Recently, that astonishing rate has slowed slightly because of Asia's economic woes, recent Chinese fears of spending, and twitchy foreign investors who already struggle to get through the bureaucracy here. Yet China is known as the world's fastest developing nation. To paraphrase one of Deng's most famous utterings about the practical nature of capitalism vs. socialism: It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

Just next door to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Chinese schoolchildren bone up on their English, among other lessons.
Photo by
Brian Simpson

Although French, British, and other foreign corporations operate here, American franchise culture is particularly strong. U.S. companies have invested more than $21 billion in China since 1978. China's capital city of Beijing boasts more than 40 McDonald's, and features a cast of fast-food joints including Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts, Kenny Rogers Roasters, and even three Starbucks Coffees. In Shanghai, the streets are decorated as though a Coca-Cola parade were coming to town.

In fact, I've never seen so much Coke propaganda anywhere. While taking notes during the journey, I found myself recording Coke appearances: Coke signs on light posts stretch to the city horizon in Shanghai. The red and white icon is splashed over menus, awnings, kiosks, walls, clock towers, doorways, adjoining billboards, cafe umbrellas . . . In Nanjing, the price of Coke dropped from 3.5 RMB to 2.5 RMB--about 45 cents to 30 cents a can. "There's an apparent glut," one student told me.

Many residents of Nanjing have their sights on the booming skyline in Shanghai, a three-hour train ride away and just close enough to fuel corporate sprawl here. Nestled on the south banks of the Yangtze River, Nanjing has served as China's capital at various times over the centuries but is still considered a sleepy, prosperous, conservative city. It's the burial place of Dr. Sun Yatsen, president of the short-lived Chinese Republic that ended China's imperial rule in 1911, bringing the capital briefly here.

But the past is a muted presence. This city, like many other urban areas across China, already boasts its share of bright ads for Foster's Beer and IBM Thinkpads. And, as more Chinese are pushed off state payrolls or pension lists, a free-form entrepreneurial sector has grown. In street markets, men and women sell aviator sunglasses, dumplings, AA batteries, Asian pears, tiny brass Buddhas, or ladies' underwear.

In the span of one afternoon, I see a young woman arrange pastries in a Western-style bakery, a street vendor stun palm-sized snakes and slice off their heads on a scarred board, and an old woman in a Mao jacket practice tai chi on the sidewalk as a metro bus rumbles by, a woman's piercing voice announcing the next stop to the workers seated inside.

This past fall, Hopkins-Nanjing Center students traversed city streets to ask questions and write reports about the travails of this new work force--a homework assignment for their Economic Development course. Sun Yi, a Chinese student, spent an afternoon at the Guangzhoulu gate of Nanjing University talking to peddlers selling pirated compact discs. The idea: for center students to learn more about this free-form economy blossoming in the shadow of Sheraton Hotels and other businesses.

"My first two interviewees are both natives of Nanjing," Sun writes. "One big boy about my age and a man around 45, both of whom sell [CDs]. From the chat, I know the boy has been doing informal jobs since graduation from primary school . . . like cab drivers and peddlers of different things, while his wife stayed home as a landlord lady. He told me that he liked these kind of free jobs and had no interest in getting a regular formal job. He does seem [to be] enjoying his life very much. One reason may lie in the perspective that this year is much better than the previous one."

When center students Kang Junwei and Cai Fanglei conducted their interviews, they found a variety of tales: a young prostitute in a "seedy bar" who says the retirement age in her line of work is 30; and a full-time fortune teller who moves from place to place to avoid cops and who predicts that in the year 2000 there will "be a great disaster for the whole world." The two students prepared their report with the flair of playwrights. Here are excerpts from their talk with an elderly popcorn seller:

Act One
Interviewer: Kang Junwei (hereinafter referred to as Kang)

Interviewee: Popcorn seller, old man (hereinafter referred to as Popcorn).

Kang: How much is a bag of popcorn, sir?

Popcorn: One kuai.

Kang: Is it crisp and sweet?

Popcorn: Yes, sir.

Kang: I want a bag of it.

(I gave him one kuai, and he passed me the popcorn.)

Kang: Uncle, could I talk with you for a little while? Am I in your way uncle?

[My note: Kang then asks the man several questions, and discovers that at age 62, the man spends winters in Nanjing, though his home is in the country. He earns 500 yuan a month, 300 yuan after expenses. That's about $37.]

Kang: Do you think your standard of living has been improving since the year 1978?

Popcorn: Yes sir. All the people in the countryside think so.

Kang: Do you like the reform and want further reforms?

Popcorn: Yes, sir. People all welcome reforms. We all believe reform is a good thing.

Kang: Do you like the way of your life as a popcorn seller?

Popcorn: Young man, what should an older man do to make a better living? This is what I can do.

Photo by
Brian Simpson

IT'S LATE AFTERNOON in the office suite of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center when George Rosen, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, walks in. Rosen was the first economics teacher at the center in 1986. He and his wife, Sylvia Vatuk, have come back for a visit.

Richard Schatz, a professor of economics from Whitworth College, is teaching in Nanjing for the center's 1998-99 school year. Schatz, who assigned the street interview reports, has been somewhat flabbergasted by his Chinese students' focus on high finance. He says many of his students act just like "45-year-old conservatives."

"There's tremendous interest in economics now," Schatz tells Rosen, who has settled into a couch they agree probably has the same rust-colored slipcovers it did 13 years ago. "Out of 50 Chinese students here this year," Schatz says, "I have 34 in my International Finance class."

"The first year," Rosen remembers, "I think there were 25 Chinese students, and I don't think I had more than 10 in my class. That was the first time they had even studied Western-style economics."

Schatz tells him: "Now, they come in here knowing about supply and demand."

The yearning for dollar- (or yuan-) oriented savvy is felt most strongly by the center's Chinese students. Many who come here majored in history or other focused tracts of study in Chinese universities, and had little freedom to take electives in economics. "They think, 'If I don't take economics courses here, I will never be successful,' center co-director Knup tells me. "We have a restriction on students that only two out of the three courses per semester can be in economics. We had to, or they would take all economics courses. The goal is to be broad."

The curriculum for international students--mostly American, but also a number of Australians, Brits, and others--is somewhat more broad-based because student demand is simply less focused on straight econ. Of the 21 courses offered this year to Chinese students, about half focus on money-related matters--up from a third five years ago. For international students, the breakdown has remained constant: about a third of the nearly two dozen courses focus on finance, trade, or economics.

Photo by
Brian Simpson

(An aside on how the center works: Chinese students take courses conducted only in English, while international students take separate classes taught in Chinese, a division set up partly because of language differences. There is some overlap, but many students and Knup want to bridge the divide by bringing back a course that lets students debate current social issues. Partly to foster discussions now, international students are paired with Chinese students as roommates.)

American student Michelle Meade, chatting with a Chinese professor after her International Relations Since World War II class, says the center's overview approach was a draw for her. "This program gives a thorough grounding in 20th-century Chinese history, economy, and international relations," says Meade, of Syracuse, New York. "I have a much clearer picture of this century now."

Meade, whose master's coursework focused on ancient Chinese studies, wants to stay and make a living in China in the next century--and that likely means joining China's rush to modernity: "I don't know exactly what I'd like to do," she says, pausing to touch her jade-style necklace. "Maybe work for a development organization."

The center's Chinese co-director, Chen Yongxiang, has some concerns about the shift toward economics. He, Knup, the center's SAIS-based Executive Director Anthony Kane, and Vice Provost Paula Burger are discussing the creation of a research institute that would enable scholars to come here to do research. "In my mind, I don't think I will put more emphasis on economics," Chen tells me. "I want students to focus more on international relations, rather than the economy. This is not a business school."

It seems a bit startling to think that assertion even needs to be made, considering China is still officially communist. Back in Washington, SAIS faces many of the same issues in shaping its curriculum (see "Is SAIS's Soul at Stake?" June 1999 issue). Hopkins president emeritus Steven Muller helped launch the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and says the goals remain the same, though the focus is evolving: "A purpose was to prepare future civil servants, future business people, future scholars and journalists who would devote professional careers to interacting with one another."

"Now," he says, "most of the jobs are in the field of international commerce and trade. It would be natural for that to be the emphasis."

Several Chinese students told me they needed finance-oriented coursework and corporate experience in order to be a marketable commodity in modern China: to get on board at multinational corporations like Citibank, or to juice up their chances to study abroad.

"No matter that I'm a literature major," says Lu, the future women's magazine executive. "I should know some stuff about the economy." Lu, like other Chinese students here, is also working on her graduate degree at a Chinese university. Over the summer, she plans to write her thesis on Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, while she works as a secretary for a foreign hotel representative. "It's very different," she says. "One is Joseph Conrad, the other is the Sheraton Hotel. It's a way to grasp both.

"I plan to go to New York University to study fine arts," she explains further. "I'm working at Sheraton just to say to a U.S. university that I have some work experience in a corporation, that I understand their corporate culture. U.S. universities want that."

TODAY'S COLLEGE-AGE REVOLUTIONARIES are most unlike the pro-democracy protesters who were run down by tanks at Tiananmen Square, an event which marked its 10th anniversary this summer. (On June 4, one brave man snapped open an umbrella emblazoned with protest slogans at the Beijing square, which was conveniently under construction for October's 50th Anniversary celebration of the People's Republic of China.) Recently, large-scale Chinese protests were staunchly anti-American, filling streets in Beijing, Nanjing, and even spilling into the center in the wake of the NATO-led bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo war (see June issue).

After protest posters were removed and apologies made, the center's students went back to figuring out what they were going to do after they finish in June. Chinese students I talked to say their classmates share the same focus: get good grades, don't raise too many political hackles, and better the standard of living in China, mostly their own and their families'.

It's late in the week of my visit, and Lu and a classmate, Yang Liehui, want to talk about where China is headed--a future, they point out, that's already being led by Great Wall Electronic Debit Cards. We discuss some of the belief systems young Chinese now face because of all the changes. They predict any struggle for democracy will take another 10 years.

Center students Yang Liehui (left) and Lu Lingyun predict that any struggle for democracy will take another 10 years.
Photo by
Brian Simpson

"The whole system is convergence," explains Yang, who has applied for a consulting internship at an American mining firm and hopes eventually to teach college-level economics in China. "Other systems take advantages from other systems. We admit that the first several decades of socialism didn't really work. The market economy is a good thing. [Yet] we want to keep our country going in a smooth way."

Says Lu, as she flips the ends of her long hair: "I have no particular belief, socialism or capitalism. I believe in the welfare of my country. It's not meaningful to argue about what is socialism and what is capitalism. The most important element is development.

"The leaders of China do not want to admit there is capitalism here; it would mean the failure of socialism," Lu adds. "Personally, I do not care. It's a market economy, and I want it."