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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Normalize U.S.-China Trade Relations




The long-awaited decision of the U.S. Congress, expected this week, on permanent normal trade status for China will affect many people in both countries. In the United States, it will indicate whether farmers will soon have a huge new market, or whether U.S. telecommunication companies will be able to work with China in the global marriage of computers and mobile communication networks. In China, Congress' vote will have significant consequences. Approval would put new wind in the sails of those who have been trying to reach out to the United States; a negative decision would be taken as a signal that those in China who believe that America is fair-minded have been fools.


One of the people watching this historic vote, a representative of the new face of China, is Wang Shenghong. He is the president of Fudan University, one of China's best. Fudan is one of barely 100 comprehensive universities. Despite the government's announced commitment to higher education for all, barely 10 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds go to college in this nation of 1.3 billion. For Wang, the current situation of higher education looks too much like the familiar face of the left-behind China.


For Wang, there is no hope for China if it reverts to the traditional and turns inward, away from the West. In most areas concerned with educational issues, he said, speaking in his Shanghai office last month: "Interaction and globalization is in our best interests, for both parties. Globalization covers all issues of concern for all human beings, such as deterioration of the environment, population growth and scarce resources. All this will require world cooperation. All have to tackle these issues." Wang believes in a world improved by education, ruled by reason: "Cooperation on the part of educational communities worldwide is essential. Global interaction in all areas is something that's inevitable. We do understand that there are serious political differences between China and America, but the cooperation of universities must remain above politics."


World politics, after all, can be unreasonable. If the U.S. House rejects the bill, Wang doesn't want to face the political consequences at home. And if Beijing itself were to opt for some kind of new-age Maoism, where would that leave Wang's larger, cosmopolitan vision of higher education in China? Would China be able to accept the risky openness of the free exchange of ideas in the Internet age?


Wang would probably accept that no Chinese system, in his lifetime at least, is likely to meet American standards for openness. This engineer and physicist, however, is one of those who understands the relentless, expansionist logic of the new technology and accepts that trying to curb the Internet is ultimately futile. "And I do think in a lot of areas we need openness and transparency,'' Wang said, adding proudly that at Fudan "there isn't a single faculty member here who has adopted a negative attitude toward the Internet."


Wang is building alliances with educators wherever he can find them. His university is a member of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. Says Steve Sample, president of USC, where APRU has its administrative headquarters: "I have no doubt that outstanding educators like Wang are exactly what China needs - and the world needs, too."


Suppose that the United States turns its back on China, rejecting the bill out of suspicion and misunderstanding or election-year politics. What chance do people like Wang have? In what direction may China turn? Every day on the way to work, Fudan's president walks past a hulking statue of Mao on campus that serves to remind everyone of where China came from and where it could return.


Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.