Lanchih Po is associate adjunct professor in International and Area Studies and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. She received her doctorate from the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, and taught at Peking University in Beijing from 2001 to 2006. Her research interests encompass divergent developmental paths in China's transitional economies and socio-economic changes associated with its (sub)urbanization process.
Your upcoming class is called Modern China in a Global Context. How do you define “global context” and how might it change how we think about China?
To develop a global context, it is important to establish a global historical perspective. And what is that? Very simply, it means that when we consider a place or its people we must do so by considering global effects rather than an isolated national history. What happened in the past impacts the present; it is not a separate story, it is important to integrate it into our current understanding. So in order to fully consider modern China, we must understand the global system within which it is situated. We cannot easily understand the formation of Korea for example, without understanding the interaction of all the players in Asia: Russia, China, Japan, etc. In the same way, it is impossible to understand China as a nation with a singular national history. We really cannot separate developments in China from changes occurring in the rest of the world. And the scope is so much wider when you apply this kind of perspective to a place like China. In my class we will try to focus more on these contexts than the national economy of China or its national party. Instead, we will look at patterns of exchange, the creation of networks, integration and interconnection: flows of capital and labor; mutual endeavors that mark the history of the Modern Age. And I will try to do so by encouraging students to develop a long-term perspective: to not only consider current events, but to consider history as it is currently in process. For example, what does modern China look like from a 500-year perspective, or a 200-year perspective, or even a 100-year perspective?
What is an example of one element of modern China that you would look at in a long-term perspective?
The exchanges that develop with the coming of the East India Company over the course of 100 to 200 years integrate Asia into a global production system. The spice trade had its roots in the beginning of the modern global trade system. These things influence China--and its trade patterns--to this day. You can consider more recent permutations--the opium wars, the creation of the modern Republic of China--as you move forward through history. You can then consider how China was impacted by and integrated into two world wars, its role in the Cold War, and post-cold War era which leads us into our conception of modern China and its developments over the past three decades. Now, we are probably witnessing the beginning of the era of a new Cold War. In order to fully understand this, we have to view it in a global context.
As Americans, it feels like we know so little about what is truly going in China--that it is somehow isolated and closed off to our understanding. Is this an accurate representation?
It is true that during some historical periods China was isolated and perhaps even sought to isolate itself. However, China's relationship with the world has shifted over time; sometimes it is more closely connected with its neighbors, and at other times it has been relatively isolated. From a long-term perspective, many global partners have shaped the trajectory of the development of China. The formation of the modern capitalism has impacted almost every country; even countries that are not directly involved adapt to this system and integrate in different ways. We see evidence of this in China, even in the early Iron Age, or, later, with the Opium Wars, Republican era and even the Russian Revolution. China and Russia also share the fact that they countered global capitalism with the socialist state, but each has since developed from that and are very deeply integrated into the global capitalist system--to the point that these exchanges are a major political tension between China and the United States of America.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about China?
The main thing is that China is not actually a socialist economy anymore. In another class, I plan to talk about this transition in detail, and it has been steadily shifting for the past thirty years. I think this is actually one very big--and persistent--misconception. Another is that I think it's wrong for people to use the word “China” to only signify the Chinese Communist Party. We need to also consider the China represented by and through its culture. It has a culture burgeoning with rich meaning and is a very complicated and diverse place, too. There is a vibrant youth culture, as well, and people don’t always think of that. There are people searching for new expressions of freedom. There are different kinds of NGOs and new modes of local access and the younger generation is doing all kinds of different things today: organic farming, recycling, etc. These are people who believe in their country and who are trying to make it a better place. This is very important. Also, China is huge. There are all of these different regional variations and expressions of culture: coastal regions are quite different from the inland regions; the north is different from the south; and each of these locations has its own regional and local issues. It is important to take all of this into consideration when we try to understand China.
Is there anything else you’d like to address?
Well, you mentioned Hong Kong in our previous discussion, and it has been on my mind a lot. It is an uncomfortable time for my generation. I was a student 30 years ago when Tienanmen Square happened. What happened 30 years ago--1989--seems to be happening again in Hong Kong. After my generation lived through what it lived through, we developed a very deep concern and also probably fear. We don’t want to see this end in tragedy. Hong Kong plays an important role as a gateway to channel international capital into China, and so I don’t believe that the government wants to destroy it. Still. I cannot say it's not going to happen. We really don't know what is going to happen. But I tend to think China will choose to remain connected to the global economy. That being said, it's also a very sad political reality in terms of public space in terms of the public discussion in China. The political atmosphere is really very bad nowadays. Democracy activists are very easily rounded up or arrested by the government. My main concern is that all people who have progressive ideas will be silenced. But there are important discussions about environmentalism, about feminism, about class, race, and ethnicity that should be included in the political discussion.
What are you working on these days?
What I have been looking at in China nowadays are the ways in which people are trying to develop a new way of being: as in something like the local food movement, which is very popular among the younger generation. These people have started to feel disillusioned about the way things are going; struggling, working all of these terrible, sometimes dangerous, boring low-pay jobs in the city, and they have started to go back to live off the land. They want to try something new in agriculture, or develop the rural economy, and also to bring back green-friendly ideas and to live that life. I am very interested in this new trend and its attendant political sensibility. Likewise, I am interested in gender issues. So I'm also trying to consider the role of women in this new way of organic farming or rural development in China. I am interested in learning how they continue their efforts and continue to organize in China even if they run up against authority. I truly respect this group of people and I want to tell the story of what they are trying to say and do.