By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: China rising redux

I have just arrived in Taiwan for a week — as some readers may remember, I am faculty chairman for a fantastic executive education program for about 40 up-and-coming Taiwanese civil servants, and I come to Taipei to teach them for a week in August. Then they come to Cambridge in September to be taught by an all-star cast of Kennedy School faculty. However, in this post I am writing, based on some experiences on my airplane trip over here, about mainland China, not Taiwan. (To be sure, a Chinese Facebook friend, having seen my "status update" about leaving for Taiwan, did write me back that it was good that I was going to be "in China.")

I traveled to Taiwan via Toronto, which gave me the opportunity to read the weekend Canadian newspapers. There was a fascinating article in Sunday's Globe and Mail called "Chinese-Canadian Diaspora Fostering New Bond with Homeland." The basic theme of the story was that Chinese Canadians have become much more pro-China thanks to the emotion around the Olympics in Beijing in particular and China's economic and political rise in general. The story talks about an anti-Chinese government activist who for years has spoken out against government policies while living in Canada. For a decade, whenever he spoke out, he had been "showered with praise" by other Chinese Canadians.

However, when he spoke in a similar way against the actions of the Chinese government in Tibet this spring, the praise turned to fervent criticisms that "his attacks on the Chinese system had become tantamount to slighting the Chinese people themselves." Indeed, in the spring, thousands of Chinese Canadians protested in front of parliament (with similar demonstrations in Toronto and Montreal) to support China's activities in Tibet. "When China becomes a super nation," one observer is quoted in the article as saying, "[Chinese Canadians] feel proud. They feel that their status in society is tied directly to how China is being thought of on the world stage."

The same issue of The Globe and Mail had another story titled "China Knocking the World Off Its Feet" about China's Olympic successes. It quoted a Chinese blogger as saying, "Look how strong our homeland is now. Look at how much progress has been made in 20 years by the country that was once called the sick man of Asia. I deeply feel the pride of being a Chinese." The article pointed out that China had in a sense made this the first Olympic team in the age of globalization by bringing in many coaches from outside China to train its athletes. (There was another news story recently showing that the Chinese people were far more optimistic about their future than the people of any other country surveyed.)

On my long flight from Toronto to Asia and a week earlier on my flight from Abu Dhabi to Washington, I watched recent entertainment movies from mainland China that were available among the many choices on the business-class TV screens. It is an interesting in itself that Chinese films were being shown. One was a romantic comedy called "Contract Lover," about a guy who hires a woman to make believe she is his girlfriend to bring home to his parents, hoping that her disrespectful, overly Westernized behavior will get his parents so angry that they will accept his real girlfriend, a quite Westernized investment banker. The other was a light drama, "Slam," about a team of three smaller high school kids (including one who is a Chinese American living in China, or what the Chinese call an ABC for American-born Chinese), who dub themselves the Hummingbirds and take on a bigger and more well-established team in a basketball contest.

Both movies struck me as bearing an amazing resemblance to mainstream Hollywood entertainment. You would never in a million years believe they came from the one-time kingdom of Chairman Mao. "Slam" included scenes of Chinese-language rappers!

This is a new world that Americans need to understand.

(By the way, there was also an interesting article on the front page of the Canadian daily The National Post called "Do We Care Enough To Win?," wondering whether Canada's dearth of Olympic medals reflected a culture that prides itself, compared with the United States, on de-emphasizing the importance of competition and "winner takes all."

Steve Kelman

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 19, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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