Chinese people have familiar priorities

I have recently been ruminating on the ever-present communication chasm which exists between China and the United States.

Here are two examples.

If you peruse the newspapers, your sense of what people in China think about everyday might include global economic policy, foreign direct investment, intellectual property issues, the RMB/Dollar exchange rate, international resource agreements and nuclear proliferation.
It might be worth it to pause just a moment and think about what your impression is of Chinese priorities, based on reading the news. List four or five of them mentally and then compare them with the list below.
This list was created by Xinhua, based on an online vote conducted shortly before the February 2010 National Party Congress. It identifies the hottest 20 issues that Chinese people wanted addressed by their legislators (based on the response of 5.2 million people):
  • Income growth and the growing disparity between rich and poor (7.51%)
  • Housing prices (7.27%)
  • Educational reform, more practical teaching curriculums (6.06%)
  • Portable nation-wide medical insurance coverage (6.01%)
  • One child, two parents, financially supporting four grandparents (5.93%)
  • Expanded rural medical insurance (5.32%)
  • Pension programs for people without formal jobs (5.31%)
  • More dignity for those who struggle (5.26%)
  • Better educational opportunities for the rural poor (5.21%)
  • The growing unemployment issues of new college graduates (5.10%)
  • Migrant children with educational opportunities (4.67%)
  • Free kindergarten (4.60%)
  • One-child policy (4.51%)
  • Train ticket purchasing during the holiday seasons (4.29%)
  • The waste and/or misuse of lands (4.12%)
  • Children with leukemia (4.04%)
  • Having Lantern Day listed as a national holiday (3.94%)
  • Public demolition of houses and compensation issues (3.84%)
  • The needs of Hepatitis B patients (3.69%)
  • Proliferation of pyramid sales (3.32%)
Are you surprised?
Compare it with a list ranking the top 15 concerns of U.S. citizens as described by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. Jan. 22-24, 2010 (based on a response by 1,009 adults nationwide) which asked:
How important is it to you that the President and Congress deal with each of the following issues in the next year? Will it be extremely important, very important, moderately important, or not that important?
Interestingly, apart from a few country-specific issues, the lists are remarkably similar. The economy, employment, education and health care figure high on both lists. It is worth noting that foreign policy and terrorism do not make China’s list, while they make up 20 percent of the issues for the United States.
On a different but similar note, I recently attended a University of Wisconsin-Madison Alumni event in Beijing. The highlight of the evening was the announcement that the UW was inviting a number of former Chinese Olympic Athletes for a three-month study program in Madison. It was a nice publicity strategy which probably paid for itself in goodwill and PR coverage.

Given the number of Chinese students flocking to the United States, it is a market well worth developing. The former Olympians were ecstatic at this opportunity to visit America, learn some English and look for an agent or job. Who can blame them? The United States is the sports capital of the world, supporting more athletes at the multimillion dollar level than anywhere else, and a lucrative sponsorship deal or well paid coaching position would be the opportunity of a lifetime. One thing was clear, based on the amount of fun they were having, these folks were going to fit right into Madison. Hopefully, the university will continue to take advantage of these low hanging fruit opportunities and make sure they continue to get coverage of these events in the Chinese media. Keep in mind that foreign students pay twice as much in tuition as in-state students and in essence help subsidize the university, as well as providing a valuable bridge to a new market.
Less impressive were the announcements that the university had made three hires over the last year with some sort of relation to China: a non-Chinese historian who specializes in Chinese history, and two Chinese professors who had studied law in the past. It was hard to figure out what it all meant in terms of advertising a commitment to China. It was made even more puzzling by the co-chair of the school’s 3-year-old China Initiative standing up and saying how much he was enjoying and learning on his second trip to China.
I am always slightly baffled by the idea that it’s a good idea to appoint someone who knows nothing about an important subject to be its leader. Perhaps it explains why three years and many memorandums of understanding latter things are only just beginning to take shape. It might also explain why the event cost 200 RMB per person (a fairly sizable tab in China) and why, despite the fact that a good third of the people in the room did not speak English, no interpreter was provided.
The event was well attended, thanks to the local alumni chapter and Asia coordinator. There is also something about Wisconsin alumni get-togethers where a few beers and a few cheers that will get you a long way. It is a pity that the university is not relying more on its extensive Chinese faculty and their contacts to create more concrete opportunities rather than relying on interested happy armatures.
At the end of the day, trips to China need to be investments, not sightseeing tours. I should add in fairness that this was Chancellor Biddy Martin’s first trip to China as part of UW-Madison, and it will be interesting what she does in the future.

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