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The People’s Republic of China at 60: Some Chinese American Perspectives and Podcasts

Writer and Producer: George Johnston

As far as auspicious occasions and the People’s Republic of China are concerned, 2009 is a year that should get an exclamation point. Not only is it the anniversary of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Square crackdown, the 30th anniversary of normalization of relations with the United States, the 50th anniversary of the Tibet uprising and, on Oct. 1, China’s National Day, its 60th anniversary. With all eyes again on China during its biggest holiday, the timing seemed right to get some perspectives on the PRC and its relationship to the United States from some Americans of Chinese heritage regarding its place in the world in the past, present and future.

A select group of Chinese Americans were interviewed for this article and five accompanying podcasts. In alphabetical order, they are Stanford University professor of American History Gordon H. Chang, graduate student Philip Guo, journalist William Wong, Howard University law professor Frank Wu and film producer Janet Yang.

Although they vary in age, gender and upbringing, they are all accomplished individuals, having each obtained advanced college degrees, written at least one book or, in the case of Yang, produced major motion pictures. While each is American through and through, they all have spent some time in China and keep up with events there, especially as they pertain to themselves as Americans of Chinese ancestry.

For these reasons, getting the perspectives of these individuals with both American and Chinese backgrounds might give some nuance, perspective and sense of direction about the future of relations between a pair of nations whose destinies will be linked for decades to come.

Philip Guo: Student

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With parents who are both in academia, it’s no wonder that Philip Guo is at present a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at Stanford University. Although he spent the latter days of his youth growing up in Southern California, Guo, 25, was born in China before his parents left for Switzerland, then Louisiana, New York City and California. Now a Ph.D. student in computer science, Guo wrote a book in 2007 — “On the Move: An Immigrant Child’s Global Journey” — about his life moving around and living in different places. Growing up in so many diverse locations, Guo says his Chinese identity was something he became aware of around age 7 while in Louisiana.

“I began to realize this was my identity because I was so different than everybody else,” Guo says. “We moved to the suburbs of Baton Rouge, so the neighborhood school that I went to was mostly Caucasian kids … whose parents had roots in the American South. There were few Asian kids. So, I definitely stood out.”

For Guo, the model minority stereotype that Asian Americans have worked in his favor, since he actually was studious and academically inclined. “I think the advantage of being Asian, especially being small and Chinese, is that people are never scared of you,” he says. But he conceded that the model minority stereotype was a “double-edged sword” for some of his Asian American peers who weren’t as academic as he was. “It was a disadvantage for them,” he says, noting that people expected them to be good in school.

Regarding history’s highs and lows in the People’s Republic of China and its effect on him personally, Guo is somewhat ambivalent, since he grew up here, yet he says he that for him China’s modernization is a high point. “When the media came in during the Olympics, they saw that it was a really modern site and everything was really well kept … I think that was a high point,” he says.

Guo cited government censorship and cover-ups as low points for the PRC. “We grew up with freedom of the press. That kind of free press and free speech is very important to American values,” he says. “In China, ever since the PRC was founded, the government has had very tight control of the media and all those things.”

Citing the PRC’s attempt to censor the Internet, Guo feels this is an example of a major difference between the two countries. “Tiananmen Square is a great example,” he says. “Related to Internet searches, if you go search in Google in China … and you search for Tiananmen Square and you look for images, if you look for news articles, the China site is very censored and you don’t get any of the controversy.”

As for the effect events in China have on Guo’s quotidian life, because he grew up mostly in the U.S., he feels that it is minimal. “I still can identify with Chinese things a bit, but it definitely has a weaker effect than on my parents’ generation,” he says. But as far as how China is perceived by other nations, Guo says China does a good job projecting its image via its modernization, big cities and international conferences. Citing a newspaper article he recently read, he said, “There’s more and more Americans graduating from college and they’re actually looking for jobs in China because, for these international corporations, they have a lot of interesting openings, and there are a lot of Americans who are learning Chinese who are going there both for tourism and to start jobs there. That’s a very positive thing in terms of PR.”

William Wong: Journalist

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At 68, William Wong is the elder among those interviewed for this article, but as a boy, he actually “thought the world was Chinese” because he grew up in Oakland, Calif.’s Chinatown. But since his parents operated a Chinese restaurant and had customers from all walks of life, he soon realized that he was not in China. (Editor’s note: Wong presently blogs for the San Francisco Chronicle. His article on the 60th anniversary of the PRC can be read at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/wwong/index).

Since Wong was born before the formation of the PRC, he said he remembers his parents, who came from the Pearl River Delta region of China, having a very anti-communist attitude, something that was also reflected in his Chinatown environs. But by the time he began attending the University of California Berkeley, Wong says he was not heavily influenced by either the more liberal attitudes at school or the pro-Nationalist feelings he encountered growing up. “Bottom line, I was a little distant from both extremes of the PRC versus the Kuomintang,” he says.

Thinking back to the 1970s when ties between the PRC and the U.S. were warming and were finally normalized in 1979, Wong recalls that he understood what Mao Zedong tried to do. Noting that one of the things Mao tried to do was instill some national pride after China was exploited and humiliated by Western powers a century earlier, he says, “From a Chinese American perspective, I continue to be open to looking at what Mao was trying to do — not that he necessarily did it — but what he was trying to do after he and his people won the civil war in 1949.”

From his perspective, Wong says China hit low points during the 1989 Tiananmen incident and the Cultural Revolution, as well in as his mother’s recollections of communist brutality in the early 1950s. But for him, the pragmatic economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping following renewal of ties between the U.S. and China was one of the PRC’s greatest moments. He also cited the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which helped raise China’s international standing the way the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics helped Japan and the 1988 Seoul Olympics helped South Korea.

In daily life, Wong says that what happens in China has little effect on his day-to-day life. “I’m a Chinese American. I’m very proud of my ethnic heritage but I don’t have a lot of deep emotional identity to things that are China today, in part because I’ve lived almost all of my life in the United States and California. I have visited China several times,” says Wong. “Most of the times that I’ve visited … I have felt like a foreigner there, in large part because I don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. My very bad village dialect is useless in most parts of China. Therefore, there was a communications gap and a cultural gap because I am an American Chinese. What can I say, right?”

Wong added, however, that what does affect him is an almost inarticulate emotional tie to China as an entity, through his parents’ births and struggles there before they came to settle in the U.S. There is also, he says, an academic and cerebral connection for the potential for some kind of negative impact on Chinese Americans when China’s power and influence grows.

Wong said it might be paranoia on his part but should China become a dominant power in the years to come, he worries whether non-Chinese Americans might look upon Chinese Americans in a terrible way, similar to what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII. “I may not be around … but for our children and grandchildren it could be a very interesting time 20 or 30 years from now — or maybe not even that long from now.”

Regarding whether China could become a world leader in the 21st century the way America was in the 20th century, Wong noted that, at least in theory, America’s leadership was based on a political culture that allows freedoms that China’s set of operating principles does not. “It’s going to be a real challenge for China to become a political/cultural leader along with being an economic leader,” Wong says.

Frank Wu: Law Professor

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For Frank Wu, 42, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s as a rare Chinese American in suburban Detroit, Mich., made him aware of the differences between himself and his white neighbors. “You realize from the curious looks of kids and their parents alike, that they don’t expect to see someone like you living on Sunnydale Lane. They expect to see you on the other side of the world,” Wu says. “If you lived in the Midwest in the 1970s and you were of Asian descent, there was no question that made you abnormal, no matter how hard you tried.”

Still, Wu tried his best to be like everyone else. “I assimilated so thoroughly that I can barely talk with my grandparents. I can’t write my name in Chinese characters. I’m clumsy with chopsticks. I’m a fan of Western literature. I’m a Shakespeare buff and enjoy going to the theater,” he says.

But, as a young man, 1982’s racially motivated murder of another Chinese American and Detroit resident named Vincent Chin at the hands of a pair of unemployed autoworkers had a powerful effect upon him. It may even explain why he became a law professor, teaching today at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, a traditionally black college. As an undergraduate Wu recalls doing research on a paper at his university’s library and discovering that in all the books he found, civil rights was always couched in terms of black and white. If you were neither of these, Wu found you didn’t exist. There were no civil rights books that included Asian Americans. So, years later in 2003, he wrote one, titled “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.”

Now as a Chinese American looking at the People’s Republic of China celebrating its 60th anniversary, Wu’s take on the event is different than the notions he had growing up. “The China of myth and legend, the China that my parents left when they were just children is no more. China is dynamic, China is growing and whenever I visit China, I realize my mother was right. I should have paid attention in Chinese school, because the world around us has changed,” says Wu. “China is no longer weak and backward. China is powerful and advanced. It’s developing rapidly. There are tremendous opportunities there.

“I have friends who are not of Chinese ancestry. I have friends who are white, who are black, who are Hispanic, who have studied Chinese diligently in college or graduate school, and they’re entrepreneurs, they’re making a fortune in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen and so on. So, China has changed tremendously and the perception of Chinese Americans has changed. Chinese Americans have an ambiguous relationship with China. They have many different relationships. There isn’t a single Chinese American viewpoint.”

For Wu, what happens in China is less important than what happens in the United States. “As a Chinese American, there is no doubt in my mind that although I am Chinese by ancestry, I’m proud of what I am and I couldn’t have done any of the things I’ve done without the example my parents set,” says Wu. “But nonetheless, I am thoroughly American. When China has achievements and successes, I applaud the Chinese. But I applaud them from afar, I applaud them as any American would.”

For his part, Wu says he identifies more with former Washington State Gov. Gary Locke becoming the secretary of Commerce under President Obama than, say, China’s Yao Ming joining the Houston Rockets. With Locke, Wu feels like he at least has some things in common. “Yao Ming, on the other hand, well, I look at him and I think, ‘Boy, he sure is tall and he’s not anything like me.’”

In the summer of 2009, Wu taught law at Peking University, and came away with some interesting thoughts about the PRC and the future of its legal system. “Everyone wants China to adopt rule of law,” he said. “But, of course, that means more than just rule of law. Everyone wants China to adopt the American legal system.”

But, quoting Oscar Wilde, Wu warned that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want — and getting it. “People might not be prepared for a China that is democratic, that embraces rule of law,” he said. “China will soon be the largest English speaking nation in the world, and so, the progress of China, something that has been wished for and hoped for in West as much as it has been in the East, will change radically our relations between these two nations and the position of Chinese Americans.”

Still, as the power and influence of the People’s Republic of China grows in the coming years, Wu believes that the United States, because of its “powerful and enduring values,” will continue to be the world’s leader among nations. Because of this and the observation that “people vote with their feet,” Wu believes this fundamental difference between the two nations bodes well for the U.S.

“More people, by far, want to go from China to the United States than the other way around,” Wu says. “Why is that? Because the Chinese, no differently than Americans, Chinese Americans or any American, the Chinese see that there is something unique about the United States, about its democracy, about its diversity, about its ideals that have been a beacon of hope for generations, even as Chinese immigrants faced discrimination, they still came.

“They came because there was something alluring, something powerful about these abstractions declared in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and as imperfect as this nation has been, it continually improves upon its ideals and makes good on the promise it has made, the promise we have made to one another, that this is a place where you can come and be an equal, you will be accepted, eventually and with struggle, but you will be accepted. And here, you can invent yourself in a way you can do nowhere else, unbounded by ancestry, clan or caste. Here, we are who we want to become. Here, we are who we are capable of becoming. That’s why I’m proud to be a Chinese American. That’s why I’m proud to be an American.”

Gordon Chang: History Professor

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As a professor of American History and a fourth-generation Chinese American who happened to be born in China, Gordon Chang draws from many different threads to weave his perspective on the PRC at 60.

Chang, 62, grew up at a time before the term Asian American came into use, but says his identity as a “hyphenated American” began early. Although he wasn’t raised in the Chinatowns of Oakland or San Francisco, his parents still emphasized traditional Chinese culture, arts and history at an early age. “As I think back on it, I certainly appreciate the upbringing my parents gave me,” he says. Although his artist father died when Chang was young, he is grateful for the nurture and care his parents gave him and his brother.

Chang recalls that his interest in China began early, when for a classroom assignment he wanted to argue that the PRC should get a seat at United Nations instead of the Republic of China — but his teacher turned the tables on him and had him take Taiwan’s Nationalist government’s side opposing the PRC in the U.N.

“I remember my family being quite interested in the mainland, and I think most Chinese were,” Chang says, despite the anti-communist politics of the Chinese American establishment. “At least they had a quiet curiosity about this big country, of land of ancestry that was so vilified in the American press and about which there was very little discussed openly or objectively.”

By the time he reached college, Chang says he held a romanticized vision of revolutionary China and took pride in the transformation and achievements of China — becoming strong, independent, egalitarian, self-reliant and so on. But he says a sobering realization about China grew in him after the death of Mao and the political machinations and power struggles that arose, realities that didn’t fit his idealized vision of the PRC.

Professionally and personally, Chang says he does keep up with events in China today, and he sees how China’s rise has affected Chinese Americans. “I’ve seen extraordinary changes in the position of myself as a Chinese American in society over the last 30 years or so, with the large increase of the Chinese American population due to immigration, the changing class nature of the Chinese American community with a much more diverse and particularly professional and wealthier sections of the population growing quite significantly,” he says. “These have all changed the perception and the position of Chinese Americans in American society very much, in addition very much to China’s growth since the Deng Xiaoping reforms.”

On balance, Chang feels China is doing some things right — and could do better in other areas, especially in light of the feelings he had for that nation in his earlier years. “I think China is making a good-faith effort to present a more enlightened foreign policy … it tries to uphold the idea of equality and respect of other nations, it’s been giving large amounts of aid to some countries,” Chang says. “And yet, at the same time, it has real problems with its domestic governance, which manifests itself in these human rights abuses and the health problems and the environmental degradation. I think that these issues of inequality, which are rampant in China today, play out on the world stage and I think there’s this sense by many people that the drive of the market economy is so robust and so frantic that the values and ethics and morals of society have really taken a back seat.

“I think this is seen not just by those who at one time had a belief in the romanticism on the Chinese revolution but even just everyday people are very concerned about the amorality, the veniality of much of Chinese life today. And that’s difficult to see, given what seemed to be the real achievements of China in the past, that is dealing with issues of equality, with women’s exploitation, with social abuse and all this. It seems many of the ills of the old society are back in various ways.”

As the 21st century progresses, Chang says he thinks China will doubtless have a larger role in the world due to its economic might. Politically, however, he thinks China will have difficulty taking a leading global role, especially compared with the United States, due to its enormous domestic problems and its tradition of leadership, which is not one that thinks about global affairs the way European nations or the United States has. “I think that they just don’t have the interest, the confidence or the ability to play the kind of role anything comparable to where England the United States or Germany did in previous decades. The United States, I think by default, is going to continue to play that. It’s going to want to play that as long as it can. It’s going to use its military power and economic power to do so,” he says.

“Do I want to see China play a greater role? Well, perhaps. But I don’t have a strong sense that the Chinese leadership … even wants that responsibility,” says Chang. “I think it would rather, in some ways, have the United States continue to be responsible on many things and differ from the United States on other things. I don’t think it has any ambition to take over the U.S. position.”

Still, Chang says it is difficult for most of us to fully appreciate how far the PRC has come in the past 60 years and the past 30 years. As for the future, he thinks that even the Chinese aren’t sure where they are going and that theories of communism, socialism and capitalism are all up in the air. “I think a lot of our social theory is going to very much have to be challenged by the unusual economic and political development of China today,” he says. The People’s Republic of China is developing, he believes, a hybrid system that includes aspects of communism and capitalism — and where it all goes remains to be seen.

Janet Yang: Film Producer

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For film producer Janet Yang, the moment the importance of the People’s Republic of China was to have in her life happened to take place around the time of President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit. Until then, the New York native was the only Chinese kid in her school and hers was the only Chinese family was in their predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Then, as a teenager, a visit to the PRC “forever changed” her life. “That’s when I took stock of this whole, huge other country/nation/civilization that was also part of my flesh and blood,” she says. “I became very curious. I decided to study Chinese Studies in college, and then I went back to live in Beijing in the early ’80s to really get to know the country. I think from there on in it was something that got under my skin … I have not been able to be content just living in one place anymore.”

She traveled back and forth between China and the U.S. in the 1980s, doing mostly film distribution and film production work. One of her early projects was Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” in Shanghai. Then, she worked for Oliver Stone and decided to learn how to produce movies. Within a few years, such movies as “The Joy Luck Club” and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” were part of her résumé as a producer. Presently, she is working on a new movie project in China for Disney.

Yang says her notions about China have evolved as that nation has changed since her first visit. “It’s been constant, dramatic shifts going on in China. It’s been fascinating to watch. For me, being in China today is, I think, very different from those who are just discovering it now. I’ve seen how far they’ve come,” she says. “I’m astounded, always. Not only is the skyline changing dramatically, but I think people’s consciousnesses are changing. There is a whole generation of Chinese that really know practically nothing about the Cultural Revolution, which was such a defining period of time for a lot of people. So, it has been just, huge shifts.”

For Yang, visiting and living in China confers a different perspective than what might be in news reports, even when the news is accurate. With much of China “thriving and working,” she says, the news of a particular scandal doesn’t necessarily provide the bigger picture of what is right in China. “The reality is that China is such a huge place, they have such a hard time controlling it so they have to make a bigger deal of trying to control it, when in fact so much is uncontrollable,” she says. “It’s actually very loose.”

Because there was a dearth of role models who were Asian American, Chinese American or Chinese nationals when she was growing up, she found herself very attracted to Chinese films with three-dimensional characters and very excited by seeing larger-than-life characters onscreen that looked like her. “I think that has probably been the single most enticing part of what I doing what I do, which is the possibility of bringing more Asians onto the screen and trying to deepen the understanding and create more dimensionality to the character,” she says. “I think that will effect how people perceive Chinese and Asians in general overall. I think that’s definitely a lot of what keeps me going.”

Viewing herself as an international and bicultural person, Yang already sees the PRC as a leader in the contemporary world. “I don’t think that one country should dominate the world,” she says. “I think definitely is an unwise way to view the world. I think it creates a lot of misunderstanding. I see on a very specific, practical level on a daily basis how much people want and need to respect China now, because of its economic power, maybe because of its military power. That’s become very apparent. I see it on a smaller scale with companies that work with China. It’s clearly had an impact on every sense of the word on our daily lives.”

Reflecting on the PRC’s 60th National Day, Yang says that, along with the Beijing Olympics last year, it is now a continuous coming out party for China. “I do have to pinch myself every now and then just to remind myself what things were like ‘back then,’ meaning before China opened up and how distant this country seemed from the rest of world and the fact that my parents didn’t believe that they’d ever be able to visit the country again and see their relatives,” she says.

“I definitely join in the celebrations in that sense. On a spiritual level I definitely feel very, very connected to this idea of celebrating China’s march forward and I’m happy to be able to contribute in my own small way.”