Taking Stock: Georgia Academics Discuss 20 Years of Building Relations with China

By Doug Barry

Like many entrepreneurs, Dr. Penelope Prime saw a need and filled it. She observed in the 1980s that Atlanta didn’t have a place that focused on the study of China, even within the universities. A few years later she founded the China Research Center (CRC) with seven other specialists in economics, political science, geography, and history. After 16 years as director, Dr. Prime stepped down and the center elected a new director, Dr. Hanchao Lu, whose story we’ll get to shortly. Dr. Prime continues to work with the center as a board member.  

Today, the center has 34 associates, publishes a journal, collaborates across the country and world on research, and organizes events, including some for the Georgia business community. “We try to make our research accessible to the largest possible audience,” said Dr. Prime. “Our journal, China Currents, is our global footprint. We keep the jargon out of it so that it’s accessible, even to high school students.” 

Growing up in New York state, Dr. Prime was initially not interested in China. She wanted to go to a big college in a big city, both of which converged at the University of Denver. She began as a biology major but didn’t like the lab. Intrigued with an interdisciplinary curriculum for a semester, she had a choice of Elizabethan England or Song dynasty China. She picked China and, yes, the rest was history—and included stops at Middlebury College to study Chinese language and the University of Michigan where she experienced the Center for Chinese Studies while she worked on a Ph.D. in economics. The Michigan center was the inspiration for her center in Georgia. 

“In 1976 I got to travel to China for a month with ten other people,” she recalled. “While working on my Ph.D., I applied to do my dissertation research in China on the implications of development policy using Jiangsu Province as a case study. I later came to Georgia with my husband when he started teaching at Georgia Tech.” 


Serving business from the beginning 

Dr. Prime had business sponsors for CRC from the beginning, making it possible to organize events for the business community. Audiences include government affairs representatives and Atlanta government people as well as the public, and of course, students. “In 2004, State Senator Sam Zamarippa wanted to pull together businesses related to China and created the Georgia China Alliance. With the senator and other original organizers no longer involved, it’s now defunct.” Other organizations fill the gaps, including World Trade Center Atlanta and the China Program at The Carter Center, named after former President Jimmy Carter.  

The demise of the Georgia China Alliance and cratering of Americans’ image of China has not affected business community interest in the center’s work. “One of our sponsors is pulling back from China because they do project management and feel strongly about meeting China clients in person. Face-to-face meetings are not happening now because of COVID.” Another sponsor has been working hard to diversify supply chains away from China because their clients want to move. She said the sponsor has no concerns about doing work in China. 

“In terms of academic work, it is a disaster,” she said. “We can’t see anyone in person because of travel restrictions. We’re hesitant to have real debates on WeChat because our Chinese interlocutors will get in trouble.” She has also heard that scholars feel pressured to research only the positive aspects of Chinese government initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, a project to build infrastructure in developing countries. 


Companies and criticism 

Academics aren’t the only ones working between a rock and a hard place. US companies are also criticized in Georgia and other states for being complicit by working in and with an autocracy.  

Prime: “Our relationship with China is crucial. It is dangerous to cut off these connections. It started with Trump when government connections with China and many of the Confucius Institutes—Chinese government funded language and culture programs at US higher education institutes—were shut down. It’s always a bad idea to shut down communications.” 

Not everything can be resolved by talking. For example, she believes in self-reliance in semiconductor production. “We don’t know what [President] Xi’s intentions are and we need to pay attention to that. China is sophisticated in stealing our technology, and we should do what we can to prevent that. It doesn’t mean we should shut off normal people-to-people, government-to-government communications. That is dangerous.” 

There are a lot of challenges, she says, but she doesn’t see the relationship crashing any time soon. These days that’s an optimistic statement. 

She believes it’s important to emphasize the difference between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. “Americans sometimes don’t like our government, so does that mean ‘Chinese people shouldn’t like me?’”  

The tumult in the current bilateral relationship is deeply concerning to Dr. Prime because of her presence in China when it appeared that society was changing in a positive way. While some people may muse privately, others, such as academics, write about it. She is writing a piece now revisiting her experiences in China in the 1970s and 80s, as compared to China today.  

She was two years in China in early 1980s and wrote an essay about being a foreigner as the country was opening. She had many Chinese friends but was troubled by “the spiritual pollution campaign” and the power struggle at her university. But the situation within China and the relationships with foreigners improved from there. Until recently. “The role of the foreigner is not useful anymore. It’s shocking how closed China is right now. It is much more than COVID. COVID is an excuse.”  


Pessimism and the Party 

She is pessimistic about the power that China’s leadership commands and the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in every facet of life. “This is not good for China,” she said. “And it’s definitely not good for us.” Over the years in talking to Chinese students and faculty, sometimes people would say the CCP represented a Chinese Community Party, because it was more socially inclusive at that time. “President Xi saw that and was worried because it was moving toward democracy, and he felt that it would undermine the CCP. He’s not going to let that happen at all. In a harsh way, the CCP has come roaring back in its Leninist version.” 

Is there a hope that a generational change will arrive? “In terms of the academic world, they have no power. In terms of the young people, they might, but many of them are really nationalistic. They came to the United States and didn't like what they saw, so there isn’t a strong anti-establishment movement now in China after the return of millions of students. Change is at the margins. Most people like Xi, and they aren’t directly affected by his actions. The human rights lawyers and others on the fringes are who feel it.”  

She argues that within the party itself, there must be people who think China is on the wrong path and might criticize Xi for “losing the United States.” She guesses there are people at high levels that think Xi has too much power. “They can’t speak up now or they would be out; though they are our best hope.” 

There are a lot of challenges, she says, but she doesn’t see the relationship crashing any time soon. These days that’s an optimistic statement. Then she reminded herself that for decades people have had strong opinions about the future of the relationship. When she was in high school, she had a social science professor that taught about “Red China.”  

“Later I told him I was studying China, and he turned around and walked away.” 


A place for China scholars 

Dr. Hanchao Lu has been with CRC from the very beginning in 2001. As the new director, Dr. Lu doesn’t plan radical changes. Rather, his vision is to keep the lights on, the scholarly and community meetings going, and the research coming. CRC’s sweet spot will continue to be its association with 13 universities and the Carter Center in the Atlanta area and the platform it provides China scholars from different disciplines to discuss their work. 

The mission will continue to be providing a platform for China scholars to get together, organize lectures, and invite outside scholars to speak. Funding continues to come from the Luce Foundation and from Georgia Tech. “I don’t have time to fundraise, so we get help from my home university, Georgia Tech, the Luce Foundation, and a few companies in the state.” 

CRC has also worked a lot with The Carter Center, starting with a project to observe China village elections in the 1990’s. Computers were donated to help election workers. The program became sensitive for local authorities, so The Carter Center folks shifted resources from rural elections to studying China’s investments in Africa. What was known as the China Peace Project is now closed, a victim of budget cuts. CRC now helps The Carter Center with a project on US-China public opinion trends where good news is hard to find. “We in the United States used to have a fantasy that strong growth of the Chinese middle class would lead to the increase of people’s demand in political decision-making that is more like democracy. But that didn’t happen. The top-down party control remains strong and Communist rhetoric is still dominating.” 


United States of decline? 

The CRC’s political scientists, on the other hand, are having a field day trying to figure out what’s going on within China’s leadership cadres. According to Lu: “2008 was a turning point. The West had the financial crisis. China hosted the Beijing Olympics and later the World Expo in Shanghai and got through the financial crisis okay. China became more confident in their socialist system, culture, and legacy. From that point on, many Chinese saw America as in a state of decline.” 

Dr. Lu says in a way it’s hard to blame Chinese public opinion. “When ordinary Chinese people go to the United States and arrive in New York’s LaGuardia Airport, they ask: ‘is this the airport for the largest city of the American superpower?’ In China you can go anywhere by trains that are on schedule to the minute. In the United States, Amtrack is almost never on time and stops for no reason. It might be superficial to take infrastructure as evidence to make a political judgement, but the Chinese start to think their system is more efficient and hence better.”  

“I’m hopeful that we can have more people with a pragmatic, less ideological approach, although that is easy to say, harder to do.”

He continued: “The Chinese government uses nationalism to stimulate support for its causes and opinions. The general mentality in China, largely propagated by the CCP in the past decade, is that the United States is on the downside and China is on the upside, and that is why the United States is trying to hold China back by invoking Taiwan, human rights, trade budget surpluses, and more.” Lu admits that some US scholars contributed to the America-in-decline narrative by talking as early as 2000 about the 21st century being the Chinese century.  

Whether it will be or not, the competition spurred by such views directly affects Dr. Lu, a native of China, and the center. From the 1990s to the early 2010s, there was a period of relatively free speech, and communication with the West (particularly the United States) was encouraged. Lu used to go to China every summer. Now a lot of research projects and conferences have been cancelled or subjected to government surveillance.  


Red DNA 

Where do we go from here, Dr. Lu asks? “A strong United States will make a difference, but ideology will be hard to overcome. “Putin and Xi are of the same generation, educated in nearly identical Communist ideology. Xi was a red prince, and he sees himself as the legitimate inheritor of the Communist course, largely because, in his words, he and his supporters inherited the “Red DNA.” There are, of course, factions within the party, but so far the Red DNA rhetoric seems to have a grip on the leadership.  

Can US business stop the Red DNA rhetoric? Businesses, he says, are mostly down to earth and pragmatic, as well as self-serving in looking to make a profit and benefit for their own community, but they certainly can help. “I’m hopeful that we can have more people with a pragmatic, less ideological approach, although that is easy to say, harder to do.”  

He sees the painful irony of the pragmatist getting hit over the head for not supporting American values. “I can only provide some wishful thinking. From the US point of view, we should probably take some middle way. We should encourage communication at the people’s level. We should encourage Chinese students to come.”  

“A few years ago, former president Trump visited China on an official state visit. He was treated with tours of the Forbidden City, sumptuous banquets, pledges of friendship, and so on. Now, it is a different world.”