China on the academic agenda

2014-04-05

Ekantipur

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It is now confirmed that the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will be visiting Nepal from December 20. During the visit, as is the tradition during high level visits whether to and from China, the Nepali side will ask for increased Chinese assistance in developing infrastructure, among other things. Of course, it is important for us to get all the help we can to develop and upgrade our infrastructures, however, it is also about time we sought Chinese help in offering academic programmes in Chinese Studies in our institutions of higher learning.

Academic programmes in Chinese Studies are offered in many universities around the world, including many universities in South Asia. However, despite sharing our borders and having good relations with it from historical times, we have given little or no effort to understand the giant next door. As such our understanding of China is severely limited, outdated, often times biased and mistaken as a result of our excessive reliance on Western and other sources. Going by newspaper reports, articles and academic papers presented by our leading social scientists on China during seminars and conferences, one can safely conclude that many of us are stuck in a time-warp when it comes to China. This has resulted in many of us becoming suspicious, if not  paranoid, of Chinese activities, even when there is no need to be so. Consequently, we have not been able to adjust our China policy according to the changing situations in both Nepal and China.

As a neighboring country, it is all the more urgent for us to offer programmes in Chinese Studies at both undergraduate and graduate levels so that the next generation of our leaders, diplomats and policy makers have the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with China, further strengthen our good neighborly ties and benefit from its economic growth.

A degree programme in Chinese Studies should include at least two years of language classes as it is impossible to understand the Chinese way of thinking without learning the language. Besides the language component, the course should also include classes on history, politics, economics, culture, arts, literature, folklores contemporary social and political issues and international relations so that the students can develop a holistic perspective on the events unfolding there and how they will (or will not) affect us.

Learning about China will teach us valuable lessons in development from China’s successes and failures as both countries face similar problems of uneven development and unequal distribution of wealth. Moreover, having China scholars will help us avoid foreign policy blunders. The importance of area studies in devising a sound foreign policy is highlighted by the former US Secretary of State Robert McNamara in his memoir of the Vietnam War era, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Among other things, he blames the lack of free and frank conversations with the Southeast and East Asia experts for the American fiasco in Vietnam. The objective of the programme, therefore, is not to promote pro-China feelings as some may think it to be, but to promote our own national interests by learning to deal with China more effectively and avoid the mistakes it made in its development process. Most importantly, offering a course like it will make us understand China the way it is, ie, without being swayed by either pro or anti-China propaganda.

Since we do not have any experience whatsoever in offering area studies courses covering a wide array of topics, we should not feel hesitant to seek Chinese assistance. The assistance should include manpower to train our professors and first few batches of students and funding to bring in renowned professors from elsewhere so that the students benefit from both the Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives on various issues pertaining to China.

Put simply, we cannot hope to strengthen our ties with China in the 21st century by just relying on the contributions made by Bhrikuti (a 7th century princess who married a Tibetan king and is credited for promoting Buddhism in Tibet) and Arniko (an architect who went to China in the 13th century and built among other structures, the White Dagoba Temple in Beijing) any longer. It is not to say that their contributions do not hold any significance now, they do. Their examples serve to highlight our historical ties. But for all practical purposes we need to move beyond these historical examples and try our best to understand the country that is all set to replace the US as a superpower. Not only it is time to find out the similarities and differences between the two countries, but also how we are being viewed by the Chinese leaders and public and our place in their strategic thinking. We need to find these out if we are to really benefit from China’s impressive economic growth and its increasing clout in international politics.

So far, we have taken our northern neighbor for granted, but we cannot afford to do so any longer. The time has come to learn more about it and the first important step would be to request the assistance we need in setting up a Chinese Studies department during the upcoming visit by Chinese PM. Given the high emphasis on learning placed in Chinese culture, the Chinese side, I believe, will be more than happy to fulfill this particular request. All we have to do is ask.

Aryal writer holds a BA in Chinese studies from a US college

(Source: The Kathmandu Post: December 9,2011)