Global Pairings

My Remarkable Month and a Half in China

Grass-roots interactions may not lay the groundwork for a viable relationship between the U.S. and China – but they can’t hurt.

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Takeaways


  • China is my second homeland. The identity has intensified since my first visit to the Chinese Mainland in 1978 and my first residence there in 1980.
  • Relations between my native and adoptive lands have soured, resulting in strategic tensions, trade wars and an ominous premonition of worse to come.
  • Democracy, civil liberties, tolerance and rule of law have come under attack in the US as well as in China, giving rise in both countries to elements of what might well be called fascism.
  • Grass-roots interactions like mine may not lay the groundwork for a viable relationship between the US and China – but they can’t hurt.

China is my second homeland. Ever since that May Day long ago in 1959, when I lugged my bags down the gangplank of a China Merchant Steam Navigation Company freighter in Jilong, Taiwan, my Chinese identity has grown.

It intensified since my first visit to the Chinese Mainland in 1978 and my first residence there in 1980. I was the first exchange professor from the United States since 1949 to visit the province of Yunnan (“South of the Clouds”), and the fifth Westerner to establish residence in Kunming following normalization of U.S.-China relations in January 1979.

This began nearly four decades of ever-deepening attachments to Yunnan and its capital city. My individual experience provided some satisfaction that I was playing a small part in an evolving scenario of productive U.S.-Chinese interactions.

An ominous future

Alas, relations between my native and adoptive lands have soured. This has resulted in strategic tensions, trade wars and an ominous premonition that there is worse to come.

Meanwhile, it does not lack in irony that my civic values – democracy, civil liberties, tolerance and rule of law – have come under attack in the United States as well as in China, as both countries have given rise to elements of what might well be called fascism.

Hence, it was with mixed feelings when, en route to Kunming, I boarded a flight last October that took me to Shanghai. I had been invited to attend a conference marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of Xinan Lianda – Southwest Associated University – whose history had brought me to Kunming in 1980.

Since my ensuing book – Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution – was translated into Chinese in 2012, I had been privileged to participate in China’s national discussion about the significance of an institution that had maintained incredible standards of education during a war for national survival.

At the concluding session, I shared my view that faculty and students’ commitment to sacrifice in the cause of learning, patriotism, national development and political change would have been impossible without an overarching dedication to academic freedom.

It was this principle which had earlier promoted China to international preeminence while U.S. universities were firing professors for failing to support the First World War. I reminded my colleagues of our duty to preserve Lianda’s legacy, both for China and for the world.

China’s “55 Sent-Down Youth”

I then flew on to Beijing to pursue my next academic project, a book on the “55 Sent-Down Youth.” This is a group of high school volunteers who had anticipated Mao’s December 1968 edict that sent some 17 million urban students to the countryside.

Twenty years ago, I had interviewed members of the “55” as a microcosm of China’s “lost generation.” Now I wanted to know what had happened to them between their return to Beijing in the 1970s and their recent retirement.

I found them anything but “lost.” A series of interviews documented how at least some members of this generation – idealistic, politically socialized and committed to spending their lives replacing tropical forests with rubber plantations – had emerged as a productive force during Deng Xiaoping’s era of “Reform and Opening Up.”

My forthcoming work, beginning with the dashing of youthful hopes for higher education and career, will thus conclude with a story of redemption, dedication and resilience, finding a generation honed for revolution re-geared to engineer China’s economic miracle.

Americans’ contribution to China

The next chapter in my voyage of rediscovery took me to central Yunnan’s Dali basin, where an eye-catching architectural panorama intersecting a deep blue lake and majestic mountains has attracted countless travelers.

There I spent time with American friends who have made signal contributions to the development of Yunnan. Bob Detrano, a heart specialist, left a comfortable teaching career at the University of California/Irvine, to spend 13 years operating free cardiac clinics. His work has enabled the survival for children of Yunnan’s remote villages.

A decade ago, Brian and Jeanee Linden sold their home in Madison, Wisconsin, to establish the Linden Centre in the little town of Xizhou. They have won national and international fame for preserving architecture and culture, promoting art and education and maintaining an award-winning boutique hotel.

The stories of Bob, Brian and Jeanee, like my own, demonstrate how Americans have helped to realize the China Dream while fulfilling their own.

Receiving the Bethune Award

Before returning to Decatur, Georgia, I went back to Kunming to receive the “Bethune Award” for a foreigner who has made a signal contribution to Yunnan.

Named after Norman Bethune — a Canadian Communist physician who died while volunteering in China during the war against Japan — the honor should more appropriately have been gone to Bob Detrano. I was, nonetheless, honored and deeply moved.

In Kunming, I also discovered a downtown neighborhood where a bit of the old city had been lovingly reconstructed, purchased an apartment to replace the one authorities had torn down last year and spent quality time with intelligent and engaging people. Finally, I enjoyed countless meals with my mother-and-sister-in-law.

On the first leg of my air trip home, via Seoul, I reassured my Chinese seatmate that, notwithstanding the U.S. consul’s denial of his application for a visa to visit his student son in the States, the American people did not hate the Chinese.

Conclusion

I am far from certain that grass-roots interactions like mine will lay the groundwork for a viable relationship between our two nations – but they can’t hurt.

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About John Israel

John Israel is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia.

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