A reflection on working and studying in China

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Clute is curator at the Besser Museum. A former faculty member at Alpena Community College, he continues as an adjunct teacher at ACC and takes a leave of absence from the museum during the winter and spring months to teach, learn and travel in China and Asia.

My purpose in writing this article is twofold. First, I wish to express my concern about a misleading and to me a troubling news report in the U.S. press that lends to further misunderstanding of China, and I wish to share this concern with friends at home. I also wish to share a little of my pleasure in my experiences in Wuhan, China.

A couple of weeks ago I was live streaming University of Michigan National Public Radio on my computer, and there was a long piece describing Wuhan’s huge fiscal debt. Several U.S. news reports in the past year talked about financial and social planning problems in China.

CBS television did a piece on an entire newly constructed city in China that is without any residents. The point of the NPR piece was to assert that Wuhan was in debt as Detroit is in debt. The implication was clear: Wuhan is headed for bankruptcy or will be in need of Beijing government bailout, which Detroit did not get.

This is an example of the media’s common and frequent reporting of the idea that a disaster is on the horizon for the Chinese economy. That seems to be the impression held by my friends back home.

While there are challenges facing the Chinese economy, I think much U.S. news on the subject is over the top. On three different occasions in the weeks since that NPR story I have had Skype communications with friends in the U.S. who brought the NPR piece to my attention and posed the question of how long before Wuhan declares bankruptcy?

The Chinese economy is slowing. The Chinese government has been purposefully slowing it, although parts of the economy are recently getting stimulus efforts. In the past few years the government has been restricting the money supply. They are requiring that purchase of second homes and third homes have down payments of at least 50 per cent.

They are trying to forestall a possible housing boom and bubble burst. Last year the government plan was for 7.5 percent GNP growth but they could get it only down to 7.8 percent. They are aiming again this year for 7.5 percent. In my Chinese home city, Wuhan, growth will be well above 7.5 percent GNP, perhaps more in the neighborhood of 12 percent as the central government strives to push more economic activity into central and western China and away from the burgeoning coast cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

There is a big difference between the Detroit and Wuhan situations. Not long ago the population of Detroit was 1.6 million. At the last census it was about 700,000. Those who remain in the city are carrying an old and growing financial burden, and the population continues to decline. Detroit must pay for present legacy costs such as city employee retirements and old infrastructure that needs repair if it is to remain a viable city.

Wuhan debt is huge but circumstances are very different than Detroit’s debt. Wuhan must pay the bill for newly built infrastructure and other major constructions that are needed and will be needed for decades to come. Detroit’s population continues to decline while Wuhan will grow from the current 11 million to 14 to 16 million residents in the next 10 years.

Wuhan will have more people in the future than it does today and today it has many. It is now stressed to move people from place to place, supply water, utilities, parks, schools, hospitals and commercial outlets. Current residents need transportation in the form of a Metro system that is currently being constructed phase by phase with new routes opening each year. Wuhan will need roads, bridges, tunnels, fire stations and all the utilities that are necessary to accommodate the expanding population. It is estimated that currently there are 10,000 construction projects active in the the city.

I’d also like to share a little about my fun activities. Many mornings I go to a park and practice tai chi with other elderly folks. It is hard work play. Tai chi is a social activity with music and perspiration.

My companions and I laugh a great deal, they more than me because I do not understand the jokes that are being told. The ladies are especially helpful to me as I learn details of each movement now that I have mastered basic form. They say I have a good feel for tai chi.

Last Friday morning I joined the group as part of a planned demonstration of our skills. They put me in the middle of 10 ladies in order to try to hide me from critical eyes. On Sunday mornings after tai chi practice we sometimes join the younger, and other old folks in ballroom style dancing in another part of the park.

Younger couples who have jobs and must be at work early mornings during the week come out to dance on Sunday mornings. Some of the dancing couples are simply beautiful to watch and many of the bystanders just watch and enjoy. I am a better at tai chi than I am at tango or salsa dancing.

Since 2010 I have served on the faculty of the School of International Education at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), in Wuhan, a major city in central China. I have been in residence at HUST each of the last five spring semesters. The semester is 18 weeks so I am in China about 19 or 20 weeks each year.

My primary role at the Chinese university is to help very bright young Chinese engineering students prepare for study at a Western university, either in the United Kingdom, Canada or the United States. I lecture and lead discussions about Western Culture and university student life, and demonstrate a Western university style of classroom practice.

In our classes we review Western dining etiquette and formal protocol (in case Queen Elizabeth or Michelle Obama invite them to dinner). Most of the students have the idea that one starts a Western style dinner by tucking their napkin into their shirt at the collar. I assure them such behavior will get them a laugh.

We discuss civil rights in an historical context and relate the Western as well as the Chinese religious and philosophical foundations of the issues, and we discuss some of the legal issues they will or might encounter in the U.S. and the U.K.

We discuss one of their favorite topics, food. They teach me about Chinese dining etiquette, which is every bit as complex as the Western style. I also conduct a program I have initiated for translation and interpretation students. I accompany students and their teachers to several wonderful museums in the city where students are introduced to museum exhibit design and exhibit labeling. Translation of labels from original Chinese to English can be a challenge.

After teaching anthropology at ACC I now teach the anthropology of America and the U.K. to Chinese kids who typically have a view of America from cinema, NBA basketball and TV programs. I often ask myself, how can a fellow from Alpena find living in a city of 11,000,000 people, jammed into city buses and subway cars with only standing room, have so much fun in my retirement years.

Perhaps it is because the people around me are smiling and laughing. They notice what the U.S. press is saying about China and the Chinese, and they are concerned about the misconceptions. They can only smile and they keep on working and studying. And dancing.