Nation & World

‘Enormous changes’ in thirty years

4 min read

Scholars at Harvard conference assess the People’s Republic on its 60th anniversary

In Chinese culture, the 60th birthday is an auspicious event. At that age, it is said that a person is at ease.

As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary in October 2009, scholars gathered at Harvard University to ask: At 60, is the People’s Republic of China finally at ease?

“There have been changes in Chinese society that would have seemed inconceivable 30 years ago,” said William C. Kirby, who organized the conference. Kirby is the T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “There have been enormous changes to society, to the economy, to the standard of living, and to personal mobility. Yet at the same time, there are still certain levels of continuity in the political structure; after all, it’s still a one-party state under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.”

More than 30 scholars from across the University and around the world gave presentations on “Polities,” “Culture, Belief and Practice,” “Social Transformation,” and “Wealth and Well-Being” at the Center for Government and International Studies May 1-3. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard sponsored the conference.

In his opening remarks, Kirby, also the director of the Fairbank Center, explained that the conference was concerned with assessing the health and longevity of the People’s Republic of China as a living system.

According to Kirby, China’s recent history can be divided into the first 30 years, under the rule of Mao Zedong, and the second 30 years, during which Chinese diplomatic relations opened to the West and the country experienced sustained economic growth. The differences between these two chronological periods and China’s recent transformation were addressed in many of the presentations.

“You have enormous discontinuities between a first 30 years of Maoist revolution, a Stalinist political system, and comparative international isolation,” said Kirby. “This was followed by something that could not have been easily predicted — economic growth in such a large population, such a large country, the likes of which the world has never seen and could not have anticipated.”

With scholars from the United States and China, as well as Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Europe, the conference offered a broad international perspective on where China has been and where it might be going.

At the conference, Elizabeth Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, spoke of the numerous predictions of the Chinese government’s imminent demise in the past 20 years, and the reasons the government has persisted. She explained that the government has grown increasingly adept at dealing with leadership changes and public protests.

“The regime has not only weathered potentially destabilizing leadership changes, but it has also, at the same time, presided over the fastest sustained economic transition in world history,” said Perry.

In a session titled “Health, Environment and Social Change in China,” Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, presented on possibilities for wind-generated electricity. In 2006, China pulled ahead of the United States to become the largest national emitter of harmful gases into the atmosphere. China’s growth, McElroy explained, demands energy, and China is facing international pressure to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. “China and the U.S. face a common problem, with potentially common solutions,” McElroy said.

Addressing “Communities of Faith and Ethnicity,” Henrietta Harrison, professor of history, spoke about globalization and shifting attitudes toward religion in China. Harrison explained that 1960s Chinese anti-Catholic propaganda cast religion as a tool of “slave society” that impedes progress.

“Global religions are by definition transnational,” said Harrison. “And that’s always been a problem for nation-states, because nations wish to make the nation the primary focus of loyalty.”

Harrison went on to explain that the growth of transnational religions, such as Catholicism or Christianity, is part of China’s increasing globalization.

“Global religions are part of the making of the modern world,” she said. “Their transnational nature is part of their appeal. Membership in a transnational religion is both an aspect of modernity and an aspect of globalization.”

On Sunday, the final day of the conference, a panel of historians discussed possible future directions for the People’s Republic in comparison to successful dynasties throughout China’s history.

“This is the history, not just of a country, it’s the history of a fifth of mankind, a fifth of the world’s population,” said Kirby. “It’s the history of the longest continuous civilization on earth, one that was without question the greatest and wealthiest civilization on earth in the 18th century, and may be poised to resume that position in the 21st.”