Sleeping Giant No More
ODU Researchers Turn Their Eyes Toward China

By Michelle Falck

From the political to the economic to the environmental, the influence China exerts on the world is readily apparent from the daily news headlines. Even in Norfolk, which lies 7,000 miles from Beijing, evidence of China’s long shadow can be detected in the body of academic research ongoing at Old Dominion University.

The Complexities of Democracy

Capitalism equals democracy, or so the story goes. Yet political scientists and economists alike are grappling with the growing evidence that the equation might not be that simple. One researcher on the cutting edge of the debate is Jie Chen, ODU’s Louis I. Jaffe Professor and chair of the political science and geography department.

Chen, who received a National Science Foundation grant to fund his research, has conducted surveys in five provinces of coastal China on the political attitudes of China’s private entrepreneurs and the middle class.

“In the West we assume that capitalists would support a democracy and consider them an important agent for change,” Chen commented. The findings of his research, however, indicate otherwise. According to Chen, the private entrepreneur is a social class created and nurtured by the current political regime. Shifting their loyalties to a more democratic political process would potentially alter the socioeconomic status they currently enjoy.

Social traditions and religious history also play a role in the evolution of political change in China. Chen contends that a better understanding of these factors would facilitate improved China-U.S. relations.

In September 2009, Chen will present a lecture on his findings and research at the Brookings Institution’s “China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation” conference.

History, Culture, Politics and Products at the Dollar Store!

Whether they are majoring or minoring in Asian studies, ODU students immerse themselves in a multidisciplinary pool of subjects: art, history, language, religion, political science and more. Guiding them through the program and offering direction to their journey is Qiu Jin, director of ODU’s Institute of Asian Studies and associate professor of history.

A native of China, Jin began teaching at ODU in 1996 and was the recipient of ODU’s Most Inspiring Faculty Award in 1999. She is an expert on the period known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and in 2006 she edited the memoir of her father, who was commander-in-chief of the Air Force under Mao Zedong. Jin also teaches courses on modern China and closely monitors current affairs in her home country.

“China has indisputably emerged as a global power, inserting its impact everywhere, even on the Hampton Roads region,” Jin said during a 2008 local radio interview. “With the trade volume between United States and China reaching 340 billion in 2006, and U.S. imports from China increasing on average over 20 percent annually since 2002, some ask whether ‘made-in-China’ is avoidable or not. Many find the impact to be negative because of losing jobs, but others find new opportunities to invest in China or find new jobs because of imports from/exports to China.”

Those new opportunities represent another mandate of the Institute for Asian Studies: to make available resources to enable better understanding and more effective interactions between organizations and individuals in the Hampton Roads area and those in Asia.

“The seaports in Hampton Roads are expanding to contain more cargos to and from Asia, and more distribution centers are established to handle the cargos for big retailers such as Dollar Tree, Wal-Mart and Dollar General. So whether your life is affected negatively or positively because of the rise of Chinese economy, we need to be aware of what is going on in China in order to prepare our students for the future challenges as well as opportunities.”

Trust + Corruption = Economic Growth?

Doing business in China is a common topic in Shaomin Li’s international business classes. Having served as a director at AT&T in charge of developing the East Asian market, as founding CEO of an Internet firm in Hong Kong with two subsidiaries in China, and as an adviser to a number of multinational firms, Li is able to bring his real-world expertise into the classroom and his research.

“It is a pleasant surprise to be able to share my research with the students and discover that they understand,” Li noted.

Li’s research examines how “rule-based” and “relation-based” societies function on an economic and political level. In the former, citizens rely on rule of law and the legal system to settle disputes. In a relation-based society, such as China, personal relationships between individuals govern business transactions, often leading to corruption.

“It is commonly believed that corruption distorts the allocation of resources by diverting much-needed capital from economic development into corrupt officials’ pockets. Thus high-level corruption in a country is considered detrimental to its economic growth. However, some countries such as China have achieved rapid economic growth in spite of rampant corruption,” noted Li in a paper published in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

In Li’s opinion, a better understanding of the culture and practices of societies like China will lead to safer investment opportunities and more productive business relationships. “Relation-based societies are very secretive. They never really tell you what is going on,” Li observed. “The only thing certain about China is uncertainty.”

Li made headlines around the world in 2001 when he was arrested while visiting China and expelled for being a spy for Taiwan. His treatment drew protests from governments in the U.S. and elsewhere. He joined the ODU faculty in 2002.

A professor of management and international business at Old Dominion University, Li was recently named a Haislip-Rorrer Faculty Research Fellow by the College of Business and Public Administration. In 2008, Li was named one of 12 winners of the Outstanding Faculty Award sponsored by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Speaking the Same Language

The CIA World Factbook estimates China’s population will surpass 1.3 billion in July 2009. So where does one begin when trying to communicate with that many people? Try speaking their language. That’s the approach at ODU, anyway, where a Department of Education grant is helping to expand its Chinese language program.

Of course, the people of China speak many different languages and dialects, but Mandarin is considered to be the standard and is the language used by media broadcasters, according to Yang Li, ODU lecturer of Chinese.

Li, who is from Beijing, is working on a second master’s degree in international studies at ODU. She and two other instructors offer courses at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, including studies in Chinese traditional culture.

Although the courses act as a feeder class for the Asian Studies program, Li notes that there is a wide array of students who enroll in the classes: students majoring in international business or international studies, military personnel and even non-traditional students from outside corporations. About 50 students were enrolled in the Chinese language program in Spring 2009, and that number has been steadily increasing.

Li also assists each summer with the summer study abroad programs. ODU currently offers programs to four different cities in China, each one focusing on a different thematic area and offering students a unique opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of the country.

From the Field to the Courtroom

Amazon rainforests are not the only treasure trove for biological wonders. Plants that grow in southwest China near Tibet, a region sometimes cited as the inspiration for the fictitious Shangri-La, traditionally have been used for a wide range of pharmacological applications.

Timothy Motley, the J. Robert Stiffler Distinguished Professor of Botany and Horticulture at Old Dominion University, traveled to China in 2008 with a team of scientists to investigate the plants and their traditional uses. The team is looking into the sickness prevention, diagnostic, curative and cosmetic potential of botanicals from herbs to food crops.

Under a “111 Program” grant of about $1.3 million from the Chinese government, Motley and nine other researchers from the United States will collaborate on the five-year project with an equal number from the Central University for Nationalities (CUN) in Beijing. The program gets its name from the government’s goal to introduce 1,000 foreign academic scholars from the top 100 academic institutions in the world to work short-term in Chinese universities on 100 different projects.

During visits through 2013, Motley will train Chinese scientists in the growing field of ethnobiology and a subfield known as “ethnobotany,” which stresses the right of an indigenous population to protect its indigenous plants, and to be compensated for any new food crops or medicines that come from these plants. These rights – in the intellectual property realm – might also extend to the wisdom behind the traditional uses of the plants.

The Chinese government believes some of the uses of the plants under study may qualify for protection under Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property agreements. One goal of the project: to develop a series of databases on Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property that could be used as guides by the Chinese government in rights-compensation agreements and disputes.

Migration, Gender and AIDS

Why do the sexual behaviors of a rural migrant female in China matter to anyone halfway around the world? Because it should, says Xiushi Yang, professor of sociology. “In a world that is increasingly globalized, what happens in one part of the world directly affects the rest. The world is no longer isolated,” Yang added.

The professor’s current research focuses on health behavior, migration and urbanization. Findings from his recent studies indicate that females migrating from rural areas of China to urban areas are especially vulnerable, highlighting gender inequalities with regard to education and social status.

“In migrating from rural areas to urban, the women realize more independence and decision-making, which is good, but unfortunately freedom appears to come with health consequences,” explains Yang. “Those with few skills or little education end up in the entertainment industry, which often leads them to the sex trade, and places them at significantly higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases.”

Recommendations from the study, published in the August 2008 edition of the journal Social Problems, include policies to improve the economic well-being and social integration of female temporary migrants in cities and to enforce gender equality in the workplace.

In December 2008, marking the midpoint in the timeframe for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, Yang organized an International Symposium on Health, Equality and Development, co-sponsored by Old Dominion University and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Center for Human Health and Social Development Studies. The symposium, held in Shaghai, China, facilitated multidisciplinary dialogues about existing health inequalities and ways to promote the healthy, equitable and sustainable development of human societies.


Quest Summer 2009 • Volume 12 Issue 1