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Interdisciplinary panel discusses China’s ‘Past, Present and Future’

Four University professors present research on space, environment, displacement, politics

On Monday night, University professors came together to examine China through four distinct lenses: space exploration, environmental science, politics and history.

The panel, titled “The Rise of China: Past, Present and Future,” featured James Head, professor of geological sciences, Rebecca Nedostup, associate professor of history, Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and dean’s professor of China studies and Tongzhang Zheng, professor of epidemiology.

While moderating the panel, Provost Richard Locke P’18 spoke about the event’s inclusion in the University’s “Building on Distinction” lecture series, which allows faculty members to discuss their research and highlights the University’s work.

“Building on Distinction” underscores the University’s distinctive teaching approach, which “combines intellectual rigor with interdisciplinary inquiry,” Locke said, adding that the panel was also “emblematic” of this approach by featuring four professors from different fields.

To begin the conversation, Head, who joined the conference via video, spoke about China’s progress in space exploration. Space projects are a way of demonstrating national power, boosting pride and prestige, enhancing national security and asserting international leadership as well as national legitimacy, Head said. With the support of a multitude of other institutes, the Chinese National Space Agency oversees the country’s space program, he added. “One of the keystones (of China’s space exploration) is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program,” which recently landed a significant project on the far-side of the moon, Head added. In the end, Head summarized the importance of China’s space endeavors by quoting President Xi Jinping, who said “there is no end to space exploration.”

Steinfeld then presented on the sociopolitical change China has experienced since the Chinese Communist Party took over. He started his talk by reflecting on his personal experiences in China; when living in the country 30 years ago, Steinfeld said it was unimaginable to predict the emergence of advanced social media apps, the extensive use of smartphones and online payment platforms.

Steinfeld also highlighted the recent rise of strong-man politics following Xi’s abolishment of term limits and the incarceration of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. But, despite the enormous transformation, Steinfeld remarked that “authoritarianism is not definitional of China.”

Since the student protests that took place during the May Fourth movement of 1919, China has undergone “unbelievable experimentations” and a self-aware process of change, Steinfeld said. After going through periods of Maoist spiritual utopia and radical market revolution, China has entered a period of showcasing its national identity. At the same time, China now experiences heavy-handed state suppression of civil society.

Following Steinfeld’s remarks, Nedostup spoke about the displacement of Chinese people during the Second Japanese War and Chinese Civil War period. During these times, roughly a quarter of the entire Chinese population was displaced, Nedostup said. However, “this is something we don’t usually hear about in the global history of refugees,” she added.

Nedostup attributed this “lost history” to “two silences” — the silence found within historical writings on refugees as well as the personal silence of displaced families. She pointed to photographs of wooden boats as evidence confirming China’s refugee history; the photos showed wooden boats carrying the coffins of displaced individuals, returning their bodies from the wartime capital of Chongqing to their homes in other cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Among the few historical records were newspaper ads for these boat trips, showing the significance of reburial in Chinese culture.

Zheng concluded the panel by talking about the environmental repercussions of China’s rapid economic development. China’s GDP increased significantly from 1979 to 2009, but during this period, the government paid little attention to public health and damage to the environment, Zheng said. During this period, heavy metals and other chemicals polluted more than 60 million acres of farmland to the point where they could not be used for farming anymore, he added. Besides causing environmental degradation, China’s unchecked industrial development also greatly damaged public health — every year, there are 400 million cardiovascular disease or stroke patients in the country, he added. But, since 2009, the Chinese government has sought to improve the environmental conditions in the country. Investments in renewable energy and electric cars have grown significantly in the past decade, and the government is also trying to restore forests, Zheng said.

After their presentations, the four professors answered questions from Provost Locke, as well as from the audience. Andrew Steinberg ’22 thought the panel “explored a lot of interesting ideas of China’s past and future.” Steinberg was especially intrigued by the panel’s mention of scientific collaboration between U.S. and Chinese researchers despite the prevalence of rhetoric labelling “China as an adversary.” Xinyue (Jennifer) Xu ’20 praised the panel but commented that it could benefit from including some experts not affiliated with the University.


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