What Am I Doing in China?

First off, an apology is in order. I set this blog up in a hurry before my Yale email address expired, so I could send out the URL along with the “Change of Email Address” email that recent graduates flood each other with several months after leaving school. This strategy, though, didn’t take into account the fact that I was just starting up an intensive Mandarin program, planning a trip to Qingdao and Shanghai, etc, etc, etc. Basically, I’ve been negligent in my duties. From here on out, I promise (at least) one post per week.

“But Danny,” I hear you ask, “why are you enrolled in a Mandarin program? Aren’t you supposed to be doing research or something? What are you even doing for the next year?”

Well, imaginary interlocutor, I’m glad you asked. My trip to China consists of two parts – language study and research. For the language study component, from September – December 2010 I’m enrolled at the Associated Colleges China program in Beijing. It’s an American program run by Hamilton College, and it’s hosted at Minzu Daxue (The Central Nationalities University). After completing a semester of Mandarin study here, I move to Nanjing to conduct a research project on Chinese political thought. Because “Chinese political thought” is such a broad area, I’m focusing on political questions related to the Chinese demographic shift. There will be many, many more posts on these issues in the future, but here’s a two-sentence intro: the elderly ratio of the Chinese population is growing rapidly, placing an increasing burden of care on a decreasing proportion of able-bodied workers. While this is often talked about as a problem for developed countries like Japan or Spain, China’s one-child policy (which turns thirty this year) has brought the problem along before the nation has had a chance to create the wealth or healthcare infrastructure that some countries may be able to fall back on. (For a much more detailed overview, and a good read, check out Ted Fishman’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine)

My plan is to look at the elder care problem in order to learn about broader Chinese views regarding the government, social problems, and China’s modernization. As with many of the problems China faces with modernization – from protecting the environment to developing a sphere of public discourse – the demographic problem has a clear link to government policies (the one-child policy being the most infamous). Whether these policies deserve praise or blame, though, depends very much on who you ask and what kinds of justifications you think are legitimate. In my (so far very limited) experience, the portrayals of Chinese social problems in Western media often explore only a narrow subset of the relevant issues, detailing debates in various shades of “repressed and censored people vs. undemocratic and unrepresentative government.”  Sometimes, that’s a breakdown that makes a lot of sense. Just a few weeks in China, though, makes it easy to see that in a rapidly changing country with over a billion people, there are many problems that are hard to collapse into such a neat and tidy narrative. I hope to cast a wide net in order to learn more about the many kinds of political ideas that are professed in China, who holds them, and where they find support.

I’ll be affiliated with the comparative political philosophy and law programs at Nanjing University, and will divide my time between classes, reading, and field research. Exactly what that division of time will be remains to be seen – my personal goal is to emphasize field research and other kinds of learning that I can’t accomplish in the States. Past Fulbright fellows have frequently said, though, that field research in China can be difficult and unpredictable – only time will tell what my experience will be.

One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that I’ll at least have enough content to post here more than once a month.

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