A Modern China

By Veronika Ruff '01

Chinese civilization was at the forefront of development for thousands of years. Its last century was the anomaly. Now, the world watches again, wondering if China's economy will grow to be as massive as its population or if the fragile hybrid state will return to relative isolationism. While most of us can only guess, a handful of Vassar alums are there to see for themselves.

"China is a very large, complex country — even more so than ours. It's a tremendous country with many influences and all different groups entrenched," said Carol Joseph Thomas '45-4. Residents of Shanghai silhouetted against the cityscape.

According to the college's records, 1,196 alumnae/i live outside of the United States. Most (698) live in Europe, and although 172 live in Asia, only eight (that Vassar knows of) live in mainland China. This is, perhaps, no surprise, as China just opened up to foreign businesses two decades ago, and the challenges of living there are still great, exemplified by last winter's outbreak of SARS. Nevertheless, the alumnae/i interviewed by the VQ are not bothered by most challenges as much as they are embracing them, along with the advantages of living in today's "awakened" China.

Daniel Spitzer '78 has had a long relationship with Asia, which culminated in his founding a company in China in 1993. Tiffany Yajima '01 studied abroad in China and was eager to return, diploma in hand. After graduating from Vassar in 1994, Jim Leu studied Chinese in Taiwan and recently moved to Shanghai to found a company and work on a networking Website for expatriates. Roberta Pei '78 has moved between Beijing and Hong Kong for many years and will soon settle in Shanghai. An Asian studies major focusing on Chinese, Nat Ahrens '97 didn't have to think hard about where to go from Poughkeepsie.

As cliche as it sounds, many of these alums agree that you really must see China to believe it. "People tend to come here expecting either the China of misty mountains, tea, and scroll paintings, or that resembling a harsh Communist atmosphere," Ahrens said. "In reality, it is an extremely dynamic Capitalist environment that tends to be very eye-opening for new arrivals."

Yu Zhou, an associate professor of geology and geography and chair of Vassar's program in Asian studies, said that most people have no idea how magnificent China is, culturally and naturally. "You need to go to China to see its dynamism - its energy is quite striking, especially to those accustomed to American life," she said. "Here, you notice one new building going up; there, a hundred new buildings go up every time you turn around. Things are changing very fast."

In their remarkable 1995 book, China Wakes, New York Times foreign correspondents Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn illuminate the tenuous nature of China's unprecedented transformation. "If China can hold its course, it will produce the greatest economic miracle in recorded history. Never before has such a large proportion of humanity risen from poverty so rapidly. Studies that measure the size of an economy in terms of purchasing power indicate that China's economy is already the third largest in the world, after those of the United States and Japan. At present rates the Chinese economy may surpass America's within a few decades to become the biggest in the world. Just as the West failed to appreciate the strength of the Japanese economic challenge until the 1980s, we have not yet awoken to the potential strength of the Chinese economic challenge." And as the authors point out, Napoleon once predicted, "When China wakes, it will shake the world."

China's "awakening" has certainly led to myriad opportunities for foreigners hoping to experience this complicated country. Since Ahrens moved to China in 1997, he has run cruises on the Yangtze River (through the now-flooded, controversial Three Gorges Dam area); developed real estate in Shanghai; worked for a start-up company that has become China's leading wireless data software provider; taken a position with a Hong Kong-based consultancy that wanted to expand into China, which ended abruptly because of SARS; and is now starting an underwater technology company based in Shanghai. "China has a great work environment for young people," he said. "You tend to get judged less on age and more on actual on-the-ground experience and ability to get things done here. For entrepreneurs, it is a tremendous place."

Leu can attest to that. He is one of the founders of Digit One Creations Ltd., a Shanghai media company that produces a popular English-language education radio show called "Talk da Talk." Leu, who is ethnically Chinese, said that it can be difficult to succeed in work in China. "You need to find a reliable 'local' partner," he said. "You're always running into different challenges because you're really breaking new ground."

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, Deng Xiaping took over and quickly recognized the failures of China's Socialist economic system (he believed that there was no point to it, if everyone was poor), and instead favored a system that would keep the Communist Party-as-government in control, while fostering economic growth. This "Socialist market economy" came into fruition when Deng placed foreign investment high on his agenda. By 1980 the Special Economic Zones in the coastal Guangdong and Fujian Provinces (strategically placed near Hong Kong and Taiwan) were open for foreign businesses, which clamored for the chance to tap into the world's largest undeveloped market.

Though most of China remained closed to foreigners and foreign influence throughout the 1980s, some companies did manage to infiltrate the Chinese market early. When Pei, who is Chinese-American, wanted to take a year off from her job at Owens Corning to "find her roots" in 1981, the company asked her to relocate to Beijing to explore China's new business possibilities instead. "The assignment was to last two years, but there were indeed a lot of business opportunities, so two years turned into 22 years," she said.

Over those two decades, Pei witnessed China's transformation. "When I first arrived in Beijing, it felt like the 'Twilight Zone,' or being in a time machine," she said. "The cars were so old-fashioned, and the brightest light bulb was 25 watts…. There were no paper clips - pages were held together with pins.... If you wanted chicken, you had to go to the fresh market, buy a live one and kill, pluck, and clean it at home. For the most part, I was in culture shock for about six weeks. Once the door opened to the world, it was difficult to stop the influx. Foreign manufacturers began to set up operations that introduced Western goods to curious Chinese desperate for new choices, an improved living standard, and to learn about other cultures."

In 1980, Carol Joseph Thomas '45-4 - then president of the American Institute of Certified Planners - made her first of many trips to China as one of only two women on the first delegation of urban planners invited to enter China as it was opening. Though she has never lived there long-term, Thomas returned in 1985 and has been back on average twice a year. Working on master plans and smaller projects for many Chinese cities, including Nanjing, Shanghai, and Ghangzhou, Thomas has seen incredible change. "At first, average urban citizens were most concerned with getting a sewing machine, wristwatch, or a bicycle. Now, they want a house and a car," she said. "There were hardly any phones in 1980, now they all want the newest cell phones. And the physical changes are amazing. In 1980 everything was gray - no trees, no music, matching gray Mao jackets - it was bland and dismal. Now, China is full of color and flowers."

A pagoda on the banks of Lake Tai in the Sichuan Province
A pagoda on the banks of Lake Tai in the Sichuan Province
Vassar is launching a summer program in China in 2004. A pagoda on the banks of Lake Tai in the Sichuan Province

Although foreign influence has gradually changed parts of China since 1980, according to Professor Zhou, it wasn't until the early to mid-'90s that foreign companies established a noticeable presence in China. These companies brought with them their expat employees. At the same time that they were importing Capitalist ideals and models, a wave of Chinese students who had studied abroad were returning to their more open home with newfound Western lifestyles in tow. These forces, along with the growing popularity of and accessibility to the Internet, truly internationalized China's cities, Zhou believes. But is that what the Chinese wanted?

At first most people in Beijing were somewhat suspicious of foreigners, Pei said. "Even though I [am] Chinese, most locals could tell by my attire that I was different.... For the most part, however, I was greeted with curiosity and was the object of many stares - probably more than those received by Caucasians, since I looked like 'one of them' but did not dress or speak like them," she said. "All foreigners lived in one of a few compounds or hotels. Few locals dared to contact foreigners for fear of being reported.... Even my [Chinese] relatives were wary about spending too much time with me, but they were extremely curious about life outside China."

Leu explained that Chinese attitudes toward foreigners vary a lot with age. "The younger generation...really embraces Chinese globalization and everything Western. You see teenagers shopping for the latest name-brand clothing, wanting what's in," he said. "But the older generation, who went through the Communist Revolution and didn't have the opportunities that the youth of today have, really don't understand it...."

"Most Chinese were, and are, very positive about an increased international presence," added Zhou. The foreign community "is a relatively privileged community, bringing obvious consumption patterns, such as bars, coffee shops like Starbucks, and Western-style shopping malls," she said. "Although the expat lifestyle is still rather different from that of the common citizen, many Chinese - especially younger Chinese - like the new international flavor. The international community has played a huge role in introducing major changes to the Chinese urban fabric."

Perhaps more than any other Chinese city, Shanghai illustrates these developments. The city has a definite reputation - it is fast-paced, exciting, young, open to change, and decidedly different from the rest of China. Yajima, now a legal assistant for an international law firm in Shanghai, chose the city to experience a new perspective on China after studying abroad twice in Beijing. She appreciates the many job prospects for young professionals as well as the city's thriving expatriate scene, a crucial comfort for many like her.

Yajima also loves the fact that every day in Shanghai she encounters something new: she'll walk down a street and return two hours later to find a newly planted line of trees, or she'll notice a traditional Chinese house one day, see it torn down the next, and within a week, a new house has taken the old one's place. Though exciting, this rapid change can also be a source of frustration, said Yajima.

While she no longer considers herself a foreigner (since she is a permanent resident of China and Hong Kong), Pei recognizes personal challenges to "living in a society that is changing and modernizing as quickly as China," she said. "Rules and laws are developing everyday to accommodate new thinking and ways of doing things. Keeping up with modernization is tough."

For most alumnae/i interviewed by the VQ, learning Mandarin was, and is, among their larger obstacles. Although there are numerous dialects spoken across China, Mandarin (called putonghua in China) is the most widely spoken, and is used in most schools and media outlets. But knowing basic Mandarin is not always enough, said Thomas. "I would be in Ghangzhou, and go just 20 miles away and not be able to understand anything. The dialects are that different," she said. Mandarin is widely believed to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. Even Spitzer, a linguist who learned four Asian languages before moving to China, found Mandarin to be extremely difficult. He made sure his children began studying it at the age of three.

Even with strong language skills, however, living in China is not an easy adjustment. Said Ahrens, "China is not somewhere a Westerner can ever truly fit in, no matter what level of language skills and cultural awareness - and you are never really allowed to forget this in Chinese society. This tends to take away a certain sense of community that I miss from home."

Pei said that her bicultural heritage is difficult at times. "I can't share the same childhood and young adult experiences with my Chinese friends, relatives, and colleagues. Tastes in music, movies, books, etc. are different," she said. "By the same token, I've lived half my life in Asia, so I'm no longer as 'connected' with U.S. trends as my American friends are. More often than not, I lead two separate lives, depending on where I am."

But for Ahrens (who grew up on an island in Maine), the most difficult aspect of living in China is its environment. "Pollution, which is getting less acute in some areas, is still very serious," he said. "It is also difficult to access forests, ocean, or nature areas from Shanghai." Spitzer, though, is working to alleviate this problem. In 1993 he founded Plantation Timber Products Group, which is now the leading forest products company in China. The company employs 700,000 small farmers in interior China, where there is very limited forest cover and the environment has been desecrated, according to Spitzer. PTP Group helps rural farmers to plant sustainable tree plantations that can be harvested to provide wood for China's booming building industry. Since all the wood raw materials come from PTP plantations, China's natural forests are spared, keeping with the company's goals of environmental protection and ecological balance.

A true student of the '70s, Spitzer took a road to China that was long and windy. He traveled in the Himalayas with Tibetan refugees, where he spent three years helping to build a school and clinic while learning about Tibetan culture and meditation. Eventually, he came back to the U.S. to finish his undergraduate and graduate degrees. In 1983 Spitzer returned to Asia - first to Taiwan then on to Hong Kong. He knew that he wanted to start his own company, one that combined a deep ethical commitment with a strong business focus. As he embarked on a career as an industrialist, Spitzer wanted a mentor. He discovered one in Laurence Moh, a distinguished Chinese businessman with whom he founded PTP. "It's profound to be able to create and shape the culture of a company," said Spitzer, who is committed to empowering Chinese managers and employees. (Spitzer is chairman, but the company is now run by a Chinese management team that he trained.) "I went to Asia intuitively, and discovered new realms of possibilities," he said.

So, as China's market continues to boom, what will be the fate of its Communist legacy? All of those interviewed for this story said that the country's Communism does not affect their day-to-day activities in Chinese cities. According to Vassar Professor Zhou, that's to be expected these days, especially for foreigners working in the business sector. "There is still a slight undercurrent of mistrust by the government toward foreigners, because they wonder if these foreigners are at all loyal to China," she explained. "Very few foreigners now are being accused of being spies, but you never know. Ultimately, Communism should not be a big problem for foreigners to overcome, but maybe something to keep in mind."

Spitzer doesn't see Communism lasting for long in China. "The Chinese are ultimately pragmatic, and Communism is not pragmatic," he said. "However, it was an important unifying force for a long time, and its gradual absence is leaving a spiritual void that needs to be filled."

Zhou believes that China's market economy will continue to grow rapidly - "it's way beyond the tipping point" - but she doesn't see China doing away with its Communist structure. "The Communist Party itself is changing because no one believes in its ideologies anymore, but as a social and political institution, it's still strong, it's a power that has penetrated for 50 years," she said. "There are many problems, but no alternatives. People don't want to overthrow it for chaos. So the party will stay as a political apparatus, but it needs major reforms at all levels."

"Economic growth needs to be supported with social growth, and there are still many issues in the social system that should be developed to tackle the by-products of rapid economic and industrial growth," said Pei.

One such social issue is China's comparative lack of human rights policies, which is an issue that has garnered considerable attention in the U.S. "Human rights violation is an issue in many countries, but we pay special attention to China's because it's a Communist regime," said Zhou. "But that's not to say that China doesn't have problems... 'human rights' has not even existed as a term in China until recently, but it has been increasingly gaining attention in China, both in the government and the public. Some battles are being fought, and some progress made [specifically in cases regarding the rights of migrant workers]." When asked, most of the alumnae/i interviewed felt that they are not exposed to the day-to-day issues that Chinese citizens encounter.

Zhou also said that, though public pressure is sometimes successfully pushing policy toward change, most political rights are still far off. "The government still has too much power in the political expression of people. The newspapers are not free... and China still does not have independent workers unions," she said. "China is not fundamentally changed; overall though, society is increasingly aware and there is pressure from the public to address human rights issues. The government wants to keep the Party powerful, but they have also pledged to reform the system."

While recognizing that major problems remain in China and that, most likely, the country will continue "moving in the direction of becoming a global superpower," Pei does not believe that any American brand of Democracy will completely take hold in China, given the history of the country's civilization, heritage, and cultural roots. "For example, throughout history, Chinese have been taught to respect hierarchy differently from the way we view hierarchy in the U.S.," she said. "Confucianism has ingrained a different set of values, morals, and behavior in the Chinese, so self-rule could result in chaos and confusion. My guess is that the Chinese social system will evolve into a mix of socialism and democracy to suit the nuances of Chinese culture and to adapt to the economic realities of change."

According to Zhou, China's system hasn't really been Communist for over 20 years, though it is officially called so. "What China will look like in the future, no one knows."

We'll have to check back.

Former VQ Assistant Editor Ruff '01 just returned from a year working in Japan. She is now a freelance writer living and working in New York City.

Hong Kong

At least 20 Vassar grads are living on the tiny island of Hong Kong. This major global trade port off the coast of China's Guangdong Province was under British rule from 1842 to 1997, when Britain returned it to China. It now operates much like it did before, under a "one-country, two-systems" policy with Beijing.

Amar Reganti '99 ended up in Hong Kong in 2002, when his New York investment bank asked if he would like to transfer there. Life as an expatriate in Hong Kong is fairly easy, he said. "Because of things like the Basic Law in Hong Kong, the city is a pretty open place." (The Basic Law, passed in 1990, theoretically protects Hong Kong's existing political and economic freedoms from China's Party-government until 2047, but these issues have been under scrutiny in recent months.) "You can freely express political opinions and the civic environment is lively," Reganti said. "China is still opening up, and Hong Kong is probably the most cosmopolitan of all its cities. It's used to business travelers and tourists, and the city accommodates them." Nevertheless, there are challenges there as well. "Let's not even talk about SARS," commented Reganti.

Stephen Cheng '81 - who was born in Hong Kong and works there and in mainland China as an information technology consultant - sees differences between living in the two places. "The gap is getting narrower as the days go by," he said, depending on where you are. "China's overall living standard is still quite low compared with Hong Kong. However, the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are catching up and have become quite modern." Cheng added that despite this progress in mainland China, many foreign companies still prefer to set up offices in Hong Kong because of its more advanced legal, financial, and transportation systems.

Although born and raised in Hong Kong, Leslie Shih '90 considers herself a foreigner - since she was schooled and brought up in a "Western mode." But because Hong Kong is so cosmopolitan, she said, she never feels "out of place." Trained as an architect, Shih works with a number of companies in the consumer electronics manufacturing sector in the southern part of China. Since she spends a lot of time "across the border," she can attest to it being very different from Hong Kong - even in Shanghai, "despite all the 'media hurrah,' it is the fundamental mentality of the local people and not the glitzy cityscapes that makes you aware that you are treading in unfamiliar territories," she said.

In January, Vassar President Frances Fergusson will visit Hong Kong, as well as Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hanoi, for programs to reconnect with alumnae/i, parents, and friends. The first Vassar president to visit Asia since Sarah Blanding more than 40 years ago, Fergusson hopes to meet with the Vassar community in this region. Contact the Office of Regional Programs at 845.437.5294 or email jomihaly@vassar.edu for more information. - V.R.