April 2010

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• Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, presented the 70th George E. Morrison Lecture in Ethnology at the Australian National University last week, speaking on the topic of “Australia and China in the World.” Audio of Rudd’s lecture is available online here; those who would prefer to read a transcript of the talk can find one here.

For Geremie Barmé’s thoughts on an earlier China-focused speech by Rudd, given in April 2008 at Peking University, turn to pages 212-214 of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and read “Facing Up to Friendship,” or see a shorter version of Barmé’s piece in an op-ed at the Sydney Morning Herald.

•Ken Pomeranz is traveling to Princeton University this week to deliver the Stone Lectures, a series of three talks on a broad historical theme designed for a general audience. Event details can be found here; an overview of the schedule is:

Tuesday, April 27: “Almost All Under Heaven: Making and Remaking a “Civilized” Empire”
Wednesday, April 28: “Land, Water, Marriage, and Migration: Regional Economies and Imperial/National Politics”
Thursday, April 29: “One Nation Under Gods: Religion, Culture, and the Containment of Local Loyalties”

• Jonathan Spence has been named the 39th Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and will give a public address on May 20 in Washington, D.C. The title of Spence’s talk is “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century”; tickets, though free, must be reserved in advance, and requests should be submitted by May 3 using this online form.

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On Friday, April 23, China Beat and the UCI Humanities Collective hosted a dialogue between journalist Mara Hvistendahl and UCI Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom on “Writing About a Fast-Changing China: Notes from the Borderland Between Scholarship and Journalism.” The lively discussion covered Hvistendahl’s experiences in China, the differences in writing for a popular audience as an academic versus as a journalist, and Hvistendahl’s current book project (due out in 2011) on prenatal sex selection and gender imbalance.

While on campus, Hvistendahl was able to meet with several local scholars of China’s birth policies, Susan Greenhalgh and Wang Feng. Wang Feng was quoted this weekend in an Associated Press article on the one-child policy, “China May Ease Long-hated One-child Rule“:

China’s population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2026 and then start shrinking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By the end of this century, China’s population would be cut almost in half to 750 million, according to a model developed by Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine. That would still be two and a half times bigger than the U.S. today.

Wang says the government’s focus on slowing population growth has dangerous side effects.

In just 10 years, the age 20-24 population is expected to be half of today’s 124 million, a shift that could hurt China’s economic competitiveness by driving up wages. Over the same period, the proportion of the population over 60 is expected to climb from 12 percent — or 167 million people — to 17 percent.

“We feel like we’re seismologists, you know,” said Wang, who has helped lead a data-driven campaign to persuade the government to drop the one-child policy. “This earthquake is happening and most people don’t see it. We feel we have the knowledge to detect this and we should tell the public.”

A podcast of the conversation between Hvistendahl and Wasserstrom will be available in the coming weeks.

April 24 008

April 24 004

In exactly one week, the countdown clocks in Shanghai will all finally hit zero. This is because this year May Day will also be Opening Day for the 2010 World Expo, an event that has been largely ignored in the United States (at least until very recently), but has been the subject of an enormous amount of advance publicity (and hype) within China, in part because it will be that country’s first World Fair and the first large-scale spectacle held there since the giant National Day parades of last year and the Beijing Games of 2008. It is an event worth paying attention to, even if one feels, as many Americans do, that the era of great World’s Fairs has come and gone, since this one will be the largest in history, at least in terms of the size of the grounds and the number of countries represented by pavilions, and perhaps also it terms of total number of attendees.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the event’s meaning and significance lately, as I travel around giving talks linked to my new book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, in part because it seems curious to many Americans that the PRC moved right from holding the costly 2008 Olympics to preparing for this new extravaganza. Luckily, I have answers ready, because the new book is all in the Q & A format and there are several questions I address that relate to the Olympics, the Expo, or both of these mega-events.

So I thought I’d share with readers of this blog the explanation I give in the book for why this World’s Fair is taking place in the wake of the Games. The excerpt will provide readers with a sense of the book’s style (something that they can also get from a short pieces on different subjects that ran recently in Foreign Policy and Forbes) and perhaps encourage some of them to order the publication or drop in on one of the upcoming book launch events I’ll be doing next week in Washington, D.C. on April 27, New Jersey on April 28, and New York City on April 29 and April 30:

Photo by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

Photo by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

Why hold an Expo so soon after the Olympics?

Given the expense of the 2008 Beijing Games, the Chinese government’s efforts to move straight into gearing up for a World Expo has baffled many foreigners. Also perplexing has been its efforts to cast the Expo as an Olympic-like event.

Part of this befuddlement comes from the fact that in Europe and North America now, World Expos, which are sponsored by an IOC-like organization known as the BIE, tend to be seen as relatively minor affairs that do not necessarily take place in top-tier cities. In 2000 the German city of Hanover played host to one; in 2005 the Japanese city of Aichi did the honors; and among American cities, Knoxville, which would not be considered to even have a shot at hosting the Olympics, is among the urban centers that has held a recent World Expo (in 1984). This makes it seem odd that local and national authorities in China have been promoting the Expo as an “Economic Olympics,” and generally working hard to establish a connection between the Olympics and the Expo, in the hope that they will be perceived as a pair of linked mega-events, not a major one followed by a second-rate one.

The lead-up to Shanghai 2010 has followed closely some parts of the Beijing 2008 blueprint: the Expo, too, has a slogan (“Better City, Better Life” to match “One World, One Dream”), a theme song, and an educational campaign oriented in part around familiarizing people with the history of World’s Fairs (especially the ones in which China participated and the best- known ones of the past, such as the 1889 Parisian Universal Exposition for which Eiffel built his famous tower). The cutesy “Fuwa” Olympic mascots have their counterpart in the Expo’s “Haibao” (a blue Gumby-like figure). In addition, in Shanghai during the lead-up to 2010, as in Beijing during the lead-up to 2008, the city has been undergoing a dramatic facelift, thanks to large infrastructure developments (including the building of new subway lines) and building projects (at the Expo site and in nearby areas).

3 American tourists pose by Haibao, photo courtesy of Vanessa Schwartz

3 American tourists pose by Haibao, photo courtesy of Vanessa Schwartz

As was the case in Beijing, the new development is being carried out on a staggeringly large scale and on land made available through relocations of longtime residents of neighborhoods. Shanghai’s Expo promises to be the most expensive World’s Fair in history, the one that has the biggest urban foot- print, and the one at which the largest number of countries are represented by official national pavilions—display areas that, as in previous World’s Fairs and World Expos are designed to showcase the cultures, histories, products, and in some cases also the latest technologies of specific lands.

One way to think of the 2008 Games and 2010 Expo is as a combination of events that China hopes will signal how far it has come in the course of a century or so, and how far behind it has left its former reputation as the “sick man of Asia.” Its intention is to leave no doubt that it is now a place with not just one but two cities where great global events can be held. It is not even certain, moreover, that the country will be content to have just a pair of urban centers, Beijing and Shanghai, in the special category of locales worthy of mega-events—for in late 2010, just after the World Expo is over, Guangzhou will host the “Asian Games,” an Olympic-like spectacle, albeit one on a somewhat reduced scale as it brings together teams from across a continent only, as opposed to participants from around the globe.

Excerpted from China in the 21st Century: What everyone Needs to Know, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom.

A reminder for our readers in Southern California that China Beat is co-sponsoring an event at UC Irvine on Friday afternoon. Jeff Wasserstrom will be in dialogue with journalist Mara Hvistendahl, discussing “The Challenge of Writing about a Fast-Changing China: Notes from the Borderland Between Scholarship and Journalism.” The talk will also serve as a book launch for China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, Wasserstrom’s new release from Oxford University Press.

The event will be held in Humanities Gateway, room 1030, from 1:00-2:30 p.m.

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By Shellen Xiao Wu

Once upon a time, world’s fairs displayed the glory, wealth, and reach of European empires and those who wished to emulate them. Countries from Asia, Africa, and South America set up booths presenting  ”native” products, alongside the latest steam engines, repeating rifles and other technological wonders of the “advanced” nations. The first World’s Fair in London in 1851 brought the translucent Crystal Palace; the Eiffel Tower served as the entrance arch to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889; in 1893 the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago symbolized America’s entry into the ranks of powers.

In ten days, the Shanghai Expo is about to be unveiled, after the city spent billions building an extra air terminal, new subway lines, and sprucing up buildings and streets in the old colonial concession areas of the city. Like so many aspects of China’s breakneck development in recent years, the Shanghai Expo is an intriguing blend of old and new and what one might describe as surreal. The expo  heralds the arrival of what many in Asia believe to be the Asian 21st century, at the same time using a format that is a curious throwback to the 19th century. As a historian I am thrilled to have the opportunity to attend the Expo in June, but I am also fully prepared to feel overwhelmed by a sense of dislocation.

I grew up in Shanghai in the 1980s. As it turned out, those were the twilight years of the city’s shabby, and drab, old-style communist era. My grandparents had lived in a gracious, art-deco era apartment building in the former international concession since the 1950s. Three families crowded into what had been a spaciously appointed two-bedroom apartment. Bicycles filled the tiled lobby area, and the former garage had long been converted into living space. Neon signs still lined the main shopping street, Nanjing Lu, but in the daylight, one could clearly see the signs of their age and decrepitude.

Two years ago, I noticed that the municipal government of Shanghai had already launched into a beautification campaign of the old concessions areas. Excessive crowding issues were resolved – by moving people out to the outskirts of the city. Building facades were renovated, repainted, and restored. The gate to my grandparent’s building, a solid, rusty piece of iron with a door cut-out, was replaced by  shiny black wrought-iron. For the first time, I saw the Shanghai of its 1920s and 1930s colonial heyday. One effect of the Expo was to slow the demolition of old colonial architecture. The Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial treaty ports was suddenly chic again.

But back to my sense of dislocation. The restored colonial city, and the people who no longer lived there, felt curiously out of place, as though in a whirl of paint and plaster sixty years of Shanghai history disappeared. The future, it turns out, looks a lot like the past.

Shellen Xiao Wu is a graduate student at Princeton University, and a contributor to the blog History Compass Exchanges, where this post first appeared on April 21, 2010. It is reposted here with permission.


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