Cover images from Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s new book explore the China of rock ‘n’ roll loving youth and Communist Party leaders. Here, young men wearing T-shirts portraying revolutionary icons gather at a 2001 music festival. In contrast (below left), Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top leaders gather for a 2009 New Year tea party in Beijing. Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Demystifying China

Jeff Wasserstrom, history professor, discusses the myths, realities of China’s growing global influence.

China’s growing influence affects Wal-Mart shoppers and Wall Street bankers alike. In just a generation, the country has evolved from a poor, insular state to a global economic power. Millions marveled at the beauty and spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while others scratched their heads at the country’s strict Internet policing and resistance to free speech.

If a country ever needed an interpreter, it’s China. UCI history professor and longtime China scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom has written what may be the definitive guide to the Asian superpower, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The book, released this week by Oxford University Press, provides insights into everything from Imperial China to government censorship of the Web in a reader-friendly, question-and-answer format.

“It mixes straightforward answers with unconventional approaches to certain topics and responds to the kinds of questions people ask me when I give public talks,” says Wasserstrom, a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.

Here, Wasserstrom talks about U.S.-China relations, similarities between Americans and the Chinese and the popular China Beat blog, created by Wasserstrom and UCI faculty and students.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: My main reason for writing China in the 21st Century was to correct some prevailing misconceptions about the country I teach and write about for a living. The biggest general problem is that debates on China so often veer toward oversimplification. This makes it all too easy to fall into the trap of either romanticizing or demonizing China, assuming that the only ways to think about it are as a nation that will convert to our ways or is destined to be a menace to us. My goal is to use simple prose and clear examples to show that there are other ways to think about China’s rise. People need to understand that China is retracing some of the steps that other countries took when leapfrogging their way up the global economic hierarchy, as the U.S. did in the late 1800s and Japan did in the late 1900s.

Q: Why is understanding China important?
A: Understanding China is necessary because of its economic significance and its geopolitical centrality. No matter what topic is in the news, there’s nearly always a tie to China. The American and Chinese economies are increasingly intertwined – we buy many products made in China, they buy a lot of our treasury bills, etc. – and it’s simply becoming impossible to know how some problems can be solved unless China and the U.S. work together. Climate change is a perfect example; China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, while U.S. individuals and households use considerably more energy on average than do their Chinese counterparts.

Q: Can the U.S. and China coexist as global superpowers?
A: The U.S.-China relationship is too big to fail. I’m cautiously hopeful that we will figure out a way to get along despite our substantial disagreements over issues such as the importance of a free press and national elections. One thing that makes the relationship between the two countries so tricky, though, is the two-sided, love-hate relationship between them. Americans too often swing from unrealistic hopes to exaggerated fears of China, while Chinese views of the U.S. also have alternated between admiration and anger.

Q: How are the U.S. and China similar?
A: China and the U.S. are continent-sized countries seen by many as wanting to do things their own way, symbolized by such issues as the death penalty. China’s current transformations, while unique in certain regards, parallel those that the United States is experiencing now – or experienced in the past. China is gearing up to host its first World’s Fair, and it has new trains and train routes that make headlines as marvels of engineering. Both of those things could have been said about the U.S. in the 1870s, when we hosted our first World’s Fair and completed the transcontinental railway.

Q: How did the China Beat blog come about and how has it evolved?
A: A group of us, many based at UCI, felt that there was a need for more writing on China that was informed by deep knowledge of the country, yet was accessible and lively in a way that academic publications often are not. What evolved has been different from what we expected in exciting ways. For example, the majority of our posts now are from people who were not part of that original group, and we have had contributors send in articles from around the globe. The commitment to lively writing, to providing a space in-between that filled by newspapers and magazines, on the one hand, and by academic journals on the other, and a desire to show that China is more multifaceted than outsiders often imagine it to be – none of those things have changed.

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