Monday, April 16, 2012

Stanford University: FACES Conference 2012

 The below post was written on Thursday, April 12th and completed after returning from Stanford University on Monday, April 16th. Also, I happened to run into Senator McCain on my way back from California.
We are currently in day four of the FACES on Common Ground Conference at Stanford University. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, each year FACES (Forum for American-Chinese Exchange at Stanford) selects 20 American and 20 Chinese delegates to meet both at Stanford and at a University in China to discuss U.S.-China relations. It has been an interesting week so far, filled with different discussions and lectures highlighting the significance of our increasingly close relationship.

However, many of the speakers (mostly Stanford professors) have made points about the Chinese government that you almost never hear on the news: that the Chinese government is doing a good job relative to population size and history. It is refreshing to hear such a positive take on a constantly criticized government. I absolutely agree with their sentiment. Imagine trying to govern a country with over 20% of the world's population, 56 different minority groups, and geographically the third largest country in the world? China is vast, diverse, and facing unprecedented social and economic changes. One professor said, "President Obama has a tough job, but I doubt he would want to switch places with Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao."

Day one we met the founder of FACES and Yale Professor, Jessica Chen Weiss, who discussed current politics in China. Although she self-identified as someone who "drank the political scientist kool-aid" and has become quite cynical about China’s future, she still believes that steps toward liberalization can take place. Professor Chen Weiss's research is focused on the importance of nationalism and legitimacy of public opinion. In order to understand U.S.-China relations, she believes that discussing motives and intentions of power is key, coupled with the acceptance of elite as "shapers" of public opinion and policy direction. She highlighted the significance of communication and how communication breakdown can impact foreign relations.

As my thesis will assess the effects of social media on the political process in both the U.S. and China, I asked about the rise social media and the Great Firewall. She responded that "social media and press freedom is a continual arms race as the pace of information has drastically increased." She believes that it's a race between citizens and government, but government still has ability to bluntly react and penalize individuals. However, what is said online is not necessarily a window to what Chinese people believe. To her, believing that social media is legitimate public opinion is flawed due to government censorship and individual censorship. She concluded that “until real political changes occur in China, one must take social media claims with a grain of salt.” Although public opinion is an important diplomatic tool and indicator of public sentiment, even in a democratic country, it should not be considered a completely legitimate source of information.

Along with many other speakers, Professor Chen Weiss stated that open and unregulated discourse is the first necessary step towards liberalization. "Incrementally protecting and improving discourse and allowing the whole Chinese political spectrum to be represented on the national scale is the best way to move towards liberalization and include the whole national sentiment." Although, in her eyes, the right to know is critically important but still unreachable at this point.

The next talk, by Stanford Professor Andrew Walder, highlighted the challenges of running such a large and diverse country. He was very positive about the Chinese government and commended its leaders. As a sociologist who studied China since the 1970s (long before it was popular), he acknowledged the many difficulties Chinese leadership faces and instead of encouraging democratization, he provided three possible changes to improve the political system. First, a free and unregulated press as a government check; Second a much stronger executive who can “own” his policies; and Third, smaller changes within the existing system. To him, Deng Xiaoping was successful because he had ownership of his power, but successive leadership has been increasingly diffused. His lecture was likely my favorite of the conference.

Day two included a comparative analysis of Health Care reform in both China and the U.S. and a presentation about currency issues and monetary policy. Later, we had a unique opportunity to discuss important issues facing U.S.-China relations. We also met with Professor Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a very famous Professor on Stanford’s campus. In a paper we read prior to the conference, he asserted that China would become a democracy in the next 10 years. The majority of delegates refuted his assertion and many of us held the view that if China will democratize, it should be slow and avoid conflict. However, as the author of
The Spirit of Democracy and producer of the documentary film A Whisper to a ROAR, he maintained his “damned if you do, damned if you don’t view,” citing that with economic prosperity citizens will demand rights and the same will happen in the face of economic demise.

Day three we traveled around San Francisco and then had dinner with Alumni. It was a nice break considering all day lectures from 9AM-9PM each day. The following day (Day four, when I originally started this article) we attended a presentation about entrepreneurship in China. The Professor made a few conclusions about the unsustainable nature of current business practices in China: 1) Right now, people get there first and sell in a hurry; 2) Business is all about who you know (guanxi), but modernization will make that business style increasingly difficult and less profitable; 3) China is still only providing “value added,” while America leads with innovation. Although these facts are relatively obvious, he questioned what will happen when China becomes completely advanced and the nature of opportunities differ. At the end he stated: “My hat is off to the Chinese government for quickly realizing that an innovative infrastructure must be implemented now.”
Later, we met with U.S. Army Lieutenant General and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. As I sat right across the table from him and his wife, he discussed the different styles of warfare by comparing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War. It was fascinating to think about the ways Eastern and Western cultures view warfare and how similar mentalities can be seen in current cultural conflicts between the U.S. and China. That evening the Chinese delegates had an opportunity to eat their first In ‘N Out Burgers and we then viewed Professor Diamond's film about recent political uprisings (Arab Spring, Orange Revolution, etc).
On Friday, we concluded the week with a crisis simulation which was the absolute highlight of the conference. A group of Chinese and American delegates were put in a room and given a crisis to address. However, the American delegates represented the Chinese government and vice-versa. It was challenging to act as a foreign government against your own country, but really pushed each delegate to think critically about their government and how it might address a crisis. For our group, we had to address a cyber security issue and the back and forth negotiations were heightened when our moderator had two Chinese delegates and two American delegates switch over to their home country. This allowed our team to ask the Chinese delegates, “is this the way think China might address this issue?” Through our simulation, I not only learned a lot about the Chinese thought process, but also gained an understanding of how other countries view the U.S. Feel free to ask me about it, but the Chinese representation of America was essentially “we are going to tell you what to do and you are doing to do it because we are a democracy and better than you.”

Our key note address was given by Henry Rowen, former Assistant Secretary of Defense. He was a realist with straightforward ideas and insights about China. To conclude the week, FACES held a banquet with traditional Chinese music and then a traditional American frat party to follow.

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