Liu Kang, dean at Shanghai Jiaotong University and director of the China Research Center at Duke

China view

China's influence is rising but it faces a crisis of values, expert says


1:12 p.m., May 7, 2013--Public opinion surveys show that China’s influence in the world is rising. Yet the results also reveal a country undergoing an identity crisis.

That’s according to research by Liu Kang, dean and chaired professor in the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiaotong University and director of the China Research Center at Duke University. Kang spoke at the University of Delaware on April 30, hosted by the Confucius Institute at UD.

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Kang has been working with a survey firm to develop the first global assessment of public attitudes and perceptions of China. In addition to Asia, surveys have been administered in Africa and Latin America so far.

Survey respondents in Latin America feel that China is having a positive impact, Kang said, with the Chinese model of political and economic policies ranked second (27 percent) only to the U.S. model (40 percent). 

Although survey respondents in the Philippines think the U.S. exerts more influence on Asia than China, Filipinos still see China’s influence as positive (73 percent) compared to the diminished opinion of the country by respondents in Japan (19 percent).

In China itself, when asked which country should be a model for China’s future development, 36 percent of respondents said the United States is a better political and economic model to follow, compared to only 25 percent who say the Chinese model is better. 

Key features of the “China model” include practical reasoning, strong government, prioritizing stability, emphasizing people’s livelihood, incremental reform, a mixed economy and an opening up of the world, Kang said. 

“China has really taken off in the past 30 years of Deng’s legacy,” said Kang, of the nation’s progress under Deng Xiaoping, the powerful reformist leader who served from 1978 to 1992 and put China on the path to dramatic economic growth by implementing a number of free-market reforms.

However, today, China also faces a crisis of ideological legitimation and values, according to Kang. 

“Mao Zedong’s ideology of egalitarianism and idealism is utterly at odds with China’s social reality and the policies of the post-Mao leadership,” Kang said, noting that the Chinese people are now very skeptical of the rhetoric of their current president, Xi Jinping. 

“In China, the government officials are virtually the economic entrepreneurs. It’s a cooperative corporate politburo that oversees everything in China.”

Today, Kang said, there is a “maintenance mentality” — of maintaining stability versus revolution — in China. There is fear and paranoia over the Internet among the Chinese leadership, and China is concerned about its image. 

There also is a “GDP fetish” — that the economy is everything, and that wealthy people are the real heroes, which is cultivating a “get rich” mentality, Kang said.

The Chinese are alarmed by this “excessive mindset,” said Kang, who noted that traditional Chinese values are based on such principles and virtues as love, benevolence, loyalty and trust, obeying nature, the unity of man and heaven, all for the common good, kinship and family values. 

“The whole Chinese people are an extended family,” Kang said. “Agriculture lies at the core of Chinese society — you and your relatives worked the land together. To understand China, you need to understand farming.”

He added, “It’s a painful process for the Chinese to reconcile with Western values.”

Kang noted that 1-2 percent of China’s upper echelon are migrating to the West, and many are enrolling their children in U.S. universities. The daughter of current Chinese president Xi Jinping is getting a degree at Harvard.

“They will change China in the next 20 to 30 years. They will take the leadership over,” Kang said of these Chinese students in the U.S. “That gives U.S. education a great incentive — you are fostering change in China.” 

Article by Tracey Bryant

Photos by Evan Krape

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