Predicting the Future With Jonathan Spence

I caught Jonathan Spence, the Yale historian responsible for a large stack of richly researched writing on China, at a lecture he gave last night to a Yale alumni group in Washington, D.C. (I was a plus-one.) The lecture was supposed to discuss what Chinese history can teach us about China’s future. Spence seemed less than totally comfortable talking about the future, especially in a room that he said contained many people with “higher security clearances” than his, but he seemed to embrace the task of drawing parallels if not making predictions. Here are a few of his most interesting points that I managed to jot down:

  • With so much worry among environmentalists about China’s ability to manage its environment, Spence reminded us that over centuries of Chinese history, the central authorities often “intervened,” as he put it, in situations when regional authorities could not handle flooding disasters and famine situations. Of course, the success of these interventions has been mixed, but his point seemed to be that environmental policy in China is not exactly new. I’m unsure how applicable these historical experiences may be to industrial waste and carbon emissions, but it’s a point well taken, especially in view of the United States’ utter inability to deal with a major domestic flood in a way that satisfied its public.
  • Noting the Cultural Revolution and subsequent regimes’ caution toward history, Spence said in his opinion “history is on its way back” in recent years. He seemed delighted to see the growth of great universities in China and the growing activity of Chinese archaeologists and historians.
  • He talked about legitimacy as one factor to examine when thinking about Chinese history. That is, what factors make the government’s rule legitimate. He noted that, while revolutionary credentials had been essential to legitimacy in the Mao era and perhaps even up until Hu Jintao’s generation, it’s not so clear that revolutionary thought is as highly valued any more. Indeed, as Spence noted repeatedly, most of the top leaders in Hu’s generation are engineers of some sort—as he put it, people who build things.
  • Perhaps his most earnest prediction (he offered a “nickel bet”) was that the generation that succeeds Hu’s will be more qualified in business and management, and may be more likely to have experience in the United States. These generations, of course, refer to the convention that has emerged since the end of Mao’s rule whereby generations of leadership take power from their elders every 10 years. Hu’s generation is almost uniformly 10-ish years younger than Jiang Zemin’s. And Jiang’s was younger than Deng Xiaoping. That means the next generation, which would take power in 2012, will generally be born in the 1950s.

A personal highlight of the talk for me was his description of moving to the United States from his native Britain in the ’50s on an exchange program between Cambridge and Yale. He said the academic perspectives at Cambridge at the time seemed to look at the world through the lens of which places “Britain had absent-mindedly” happened to colonize. Moving to Yale, he said, gave him a fresh and wider perspective—one that he’s been thankful for ever since.

That leaves me wondering what great embedded assumptions might dominate U.S. universities. With some luck, I’ll learn enough Chinese to some day read the products of this great burgeoning body of modern Chinese scholarship.

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