China expert Jonathan Spence highlights symposium

Panelists at the symposium
Panelists speak at the symposium “A Resurgent China in the 21st Century."

April 19, 2013 - Jonathan Spence, one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese civilization and Sterling professor emeritus in the history department at Yale University, drew a capacity crowd to the Mancheski Executive Seminar Room on April 18. The keynote address was part of a special day-long symposium titled, “A Resurgent China in the 21st Century.”
Diane Ariza, associate vice president of academic affairs and chief diversity officer, said the China symposium, held the same day as a visit from a team of visiting Nicaraguan microbiologists, is an indicator of the University’s growing global reach.
In addition to Quinnipiac professors Xiaohong He, Tse-shyang Chen and Ben Liu, the symposium also featured speakers from the Beijing Technology and Business University and from Tianjin Foreign Studies University. Panels tackled such subjects as “How Traditional and Social Media are Reshaping the New China” and “Success and Failures of U.S. Business in China.”
In his lecture that focused on China’s past, present and anticipated future, Spence highlighted three emerging trends. Watching China is a fascinating process, Spence said, but “guessing which aspect will be dominant there can be very risky.” But despite that caveat, he offered three areas worthy of scrutiny. The first, he said, is Chinese pursuit of sea power in recent years. He cited China’s purchase of a Soviet-era aircraft carrier in 2012 and development of an indigenous submarine-building industry.
Spence also cited China’s growing strategic interest in the Arctic Ocean, its rapid expansion of trade at the Greek port of Piraeus, half of which was leased by Chinese giant Cosco in 2010, and its recent acquisition of the Gwadar port in Pakistan.
A second Chinese interest is a growing investment in Africa, and a third is in developing technological and computing skills so that China can be a cutting-edge international competitor in those areas, Spence said.
Spence said that to understand where China is going it helps to know where it has been. He pointed out that the country’s modern history can be traced to the period around the 1630s, when the Ming Dynasty collapsed and civil war ensued.
Trade between the United States and China began as early as 1784, soon after the American Revolution, he said.
“The first boat, the appropriately named ‘Empress of China,’ achieved a 25 percent profit on its investment,” Spence said. “It was a successful trip based on East Coast commercial know-how, and the China trade was born for entrepreneurs who could invest in 500-600 ton vessels. By the 1850s, the U.S. was a major trading partner with China.”
A major problem was to find goods that the Chinese wanted in trade for their exports, which at the time was mostly tea, silk and spices. Spence said that American ginseng, carried by the Empress of China, proved a popular commodity, as did sea otter pelts — the trade that nearly wiped out the species. Opium also became a lucrative cargo for British and American traders, but this led to conflict with the Chinese and, eventually, war.
Spence is the author of more than a dozen books on China, and is a past president of the American Historical Association.