Susan Shirk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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What did you focus on as you did your first major research project, your dissertation?
I focused on the political behavior of Chinese high school students. I went to Hong Kong, because I couldn't go to China, and I interviewed people who had gone to middle school and high school in China to try to see if this Maoist approach of trying to use schools to give everyone a collectivist consciousness to eliminate all individualism and competition was really working. Of course, I found that it wasn't. I found that, in fact, what you got was a particularly ugly form of political competition in which people used Maoist categories in order to fight their private battles. There were political selection criteria for university admission, so the stakes were very high, because if you didn't get to the university, you were going to be sent to the countryside. So it was a pretty intense and socially divisive effect that I found. Lucian [Pye] was doing cultural explanations, and my approach was institutional, that the policies and the structure of the schools, and the promotion and selection criteria, were what shaped the behavior.
Tell us a little about your first chance to go to China, because that must have been an amazing experience, having done all this preparation, not being able to go to the country, but then suddenly it opened up.
That was a really one of the most interesting experiences in my life, because I was in Hong Kong doing the interviewing for my dissertation research, and suddenly China opened up. The ping-pong team went, if you remember, in the spring of '71. So other graduate students and I, who were in Hong Kong -- we were members of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which was the younger, anti-war group split off from the Association of Asian Studies -- we immediately, of course, applied to go, too. Actually, we had applied to go before the ping-pong team, thinking, "Well, they'll have it on file, and five or ten years later it will be good, when things open up." Well, much to our surprise, they did open up and the Chinese government came to us because we were there in Hong Kong, we spoke Chinese, and we were anti-war -- this was the perfect group to invite next.
So before I knew it, I was on the train going to China. There were fifteen of us, and we spent a month in China. We were taken all over, visited Yunan, visited Da Zhai, that was the model commune then, had four-hour interview with Zhou Enlai.
We had a truly amazing experience. And, of course, it was just news that we were there. Actually, when we were there was when Kissinger came on that secret trip from Pakistan, so there was tremendous press attention to our visit, Kissinger's visit, and what had changed in U.S. - China relations.
What was this exchange like with Zhou Enlai?
He told us to bring our tape recorders, and he used the meeting to give his interpretation of the opening to the United States. My personal experience was really pretty exciting, because I happened to spend that afternoon with his interpreter, Nancy Tong, who had grown up in New York. Her father had been based in New York. So we were comparing notes, and we had some personal discussion. And then she must have gone to have dinner with Zhou Enlai and she talked about that. So at the meeting, he spent a lot of time talking to me, including ... Okay, here's the high point of my life right here.
Zhou Enlai was asked a question, "What has happened to make it possible to have this change in policy, inviting President Nixon to come?" He said, "Well, look, the Chinese people want to be friends with the American people. And to do that, our governments have to talk to each other. And to do that, our presidents have to talk to each other, so that is why we invited President Nixon to China." And then he said, "Now, I wish Susan Shirk were President of the United States. But as it happens, it's Richard Nixon, so we will invite him." So for years, my friends teased me that I was Zhou Enlai's choice for president.
China could have remained closed throughout your lifetime, and to be at the right place at the right time, with all your training, must have been really quite something. And to actually meet these major actors in history!
It was amazing, you know, I was, what, twenty-six years old, and I was floating around. I was pretty euphoric. But on the other hand, let's remember it was also seeing China in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. I had some preparation for this, because I'd been interviewing people. Many others in our group only did archival research, and they really didn't have as much understanding of what was actually happening on the ground in China. But it was a pretty crazy time in China, but so it was very interesting.
Can you briefly tell us what the consequences were of the Cultural Revolution for China? How much did it set China back?
Nick Loridy, my pal the economist, would say the economic cost wasn't huge. The Chinese economy, under central planning, was already not working terribly well. China, in that whole period from '49 until the reforms were finally initiated at the end of the seventies, only managed just to keep up with population growth, so that, per capita, grain consumption was pretty stagnate during the entire period. It's not clear to me that Cultural Revolution was that much worse than the pre-Cultural Revolution period.
The real damage was to society, because it mobilized individuals to be Red Guards to prove their loyalty. They fought with one another. They went after anyone with any contact with the West, any learning. They smashed traditional temples, traditional culture. It was Mao's last gasp to achieve this utopian vision, and the damage to society was terrible, a lot of people died from armed conflict. Many children grew up with their parents not there, because the parents had been sent out to the countryside or were in camps of some sort. It was a holocaust-type experience for Chinese urban society, primarily. The result of that, I think, was a tremendous disillusionment. So people came out of the Cultural Revolution decade affected by this.
The other loss, of course, was training people. The schools were closed for years, and when they reopened, they didn't teach much. They sent people for military training and to do manual labor, because that's what really would transform your consciousness. And so there was a loss of educated people from that entire period. And then the disillusionment set in.
So I think that's the context in which, after Mao died, Deng Xiaoping came back and initiated the market reforms.
Give our audience a sense of what those reforms meant for China at that time, the effect they had broadly on China.
The reforms changed China's economic system from a centrally planned, state-owned and -operated economy, from sort of "China Incorporated," to a more privatized economy with market competition. It's been dramatically successful, because China's resources, including its human capital, are being used a lot more efficiently now, so people's living standards have improved dramatically. Of course, the gap between the rich and poor has also widened, but everyone is better off than they had been before.
It's meant a big change in society too. Obviously, it's opened China. China used to be hived-off from the world, you know, a wall around it. Self-reliance, very little foreign investment or trade, or tourism, or anything like that. Now China is much more open. Deng Xiaoping's great insight was to understand that increasing the competitive pressure, not just domestically, but by opening up to foreign business, was really going to accelerate the rate of growth, making China more competitive.
So China's opened up to foreign ideas, foreign people. The increase in personal freedom is incredibly dramatic. It used to be that you couldn't choose your own job, everything was done through administrative assignment. If you were born in a poor village, you died in the poor village: birth was destiny. Nowadays, people can make their own fate. They can choose their job, they can choose where to live -- although there are some limitations on that. But, basically, people are migrating all over China. You can go abroad. You can read what you want, listen to the music you want, dress the way you want. You know, you can pretty much do anything except stand up and criticize the government or join an organization that isn't approved by the government.
Talk a little about the political reforms. Obviously, the economic ones have been very successful, but what has been that interplay of reforming the Party as these other major changes were around?
Political reforms have been minimal. The Chinese approach has been to try to maintain Communist Party authoritarian governance, while opening up the economy to market competition. Although there are some problems with that, it actually has been remarkably successful, because it kept a certain structure in place. The Chinese will point to the Soviet Union as an example of trying to change the political system before the economic system; in their view, it led to chaos. People are really better off in China as a result of the way they've gone about it. But there are real political bottlenecks now. Corruption's a big one, because new powers for licensing and approval and access to the market [were given] to local officials. Local officials also load farmers with all sorts of oppressive fees and taxes, and there have been rural protests. Part of the problem is that they do have elections at the village level, but they don't actually get to decide much at the village level. There are no elections at the township or the county level. So I'd say there are real tensions between a basically unreformed, traditional Communist political system, and a market economy, and a very dynamic society.
Now, as you've built this network of connections once you've gone there, you must know people whose lives have been changed by what they can do. Can you give us an example of that? Something that strikes you about the change you've seen in people that you know who are your peers and maybe the benefits that their children now have?
Yes. The gratifying thing about studying a country over such a long period is you have very good friends. Of course, it was impossible in the early days to make friends. I want to be clear about that. I would meet people, but you were more on these structured tours, and it was dangerous for people in China to make friends with the foreigners. So it's really since the eighties, since reform, that it's possible to make those kinds of friendships.
I've seen friends go in and out of government, in and out of the private sector. Quite a number of my friends, of course, are academics or intellectuals, or policy people. They get very frustrated, because they work in these organizations where political controls still exist. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a lot of these think tanks, are still, even today, [under] a lot of political control. Recently, a lot of those people are leaving think tanks and moving to universities, where things are freer. Other friends of mine have gone into business, set up consulting firms or investment advisory firms, moved to Hong Kong, moved overseas. A lot of people have left China. Many of the people who were outside of China in 1989 [during] the Tiananmen democracy protest and the crackdown never went back because they were given permanent residency by the U.S. Congress.
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