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Flashbacks of an American’s 40-year shuttle across Pacific

"I think it's one of the most impressive things that I've witnessed in the world as part of my career and also my personal life as well."

6 mins read
Aerial photo taken on Aug. 17, 2020 shows the container dock of Yangshan Port in Shanghai, east China. This year marks the 30th anniversary of China's announcement that it would develop and open up Shanghai's Pudong, which epitomizes China's continuous efforts to deepen reforms and open its doors to the world. (Xinhua/Ding Ting)

(Xinhua) — “Maybe after reading this book, you will understand why your father keeps running off to China. Because it’s such a fascinating place.”

That’s the dedication Dr. Denis Simon wrote in 1991 to his children in his first book — “Technological Innovation in China: The Case of Shanghai’s Electronics Industry.”

As a U.S. expert who has made outstanding contributions to China’s modernization drive, Simon won the Chinese Government Friendship Award in 2006.

Simon has spent the last four decades working on issues related to China’s talent development and utilization, the internationalization of higher education, and the development of the Chinese national innovation system. Recalling the days of flying across the Pacific between China and the United States, Simon’s memories about China are still vivid.

IMPRESSIVE CHANGES

Simon made his first trip to China in 1981, a year after he received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, he has been traveling between China and the United States.

“My two children, they saw me many times getting up very early in the morning to catch a plane to fly out to China. And I would be away for two or three weeks at a time. They would wonder what I was doing there,” said Simon in a recent interview with Xinhua.

During his first three-week trip in 1981, Simon traveled to about eight or nine different cities in China. He remembered taking about 52 rolls of film for 36 photos each. “And I still have those today. And they were really memorable pictures of a society so different from the United States,” he said.

Simon still admires the great changes that have happened in China over the last 40 years. He remembered specifically standing on the Huangpu River in Shanghai and looking out at the river’s east side, Pudong, and was told that it was going to become a big economic zone.

“One could have never imagined in those days what was going to happen some 20 plus years later with the transformation of Pudong,” Simon said.

He also went down to Shenzhen and was shown a model of the future of the city as the special economic zone; “I looked out the window and all I saw were big fields filled with mud and there were no buildings and almost no people. And it was very hard to imagine what was going to happen as well. And of course, it happened,” he said.

Communication was not easy at that time. “We didn’t have Zoom or FaceTime; nor did we even have cell phones in the early 1980s. We had to communicate by fax and telex,” he said.

He remembered that when he wanted to call home, he had to book a call at a hotel some three or four hours in advance, going through a Chinese operator, an international operator and then an American operator before getting connected to the United States. “Usually, you would be in your hotel room and they would ring you up and say, ‘Dr. Simon, your call is being put through,'” he said.

“Now, we just pick up a cell phone and we make a call for a few cents, not so much money. And we call like it’s nothing special and add to that, all the other things like WeChat and Twitter and whatever. You can see that we’ve gone through a revolution that has facilitated this kind of rapid communication between the two societies,” Simon said.

Noting that he has witnessed the very beginning of Chinese modernization, Simon said it was a perfect opportunity to understand how China became an “economically advanced, increasingly prosperous economy” since the launch of the reform and opening-up. “I think it’s one of the most impressive things that I’ve witnessed in the world as part of my career and also my personal life as well.”

Simon recalled when even Beijing and Shanghai were relatively dark at night in those days as China’s power sector was still not well developed. There weren’t those kinds of boulevards that were filled with bright lights and signs and everything. There weren’t many big commercial streets other than Nanjing Road in Shanghai and Wangfujing in Beijing.

“All of a sudden during the 1980s, and then into the nineties, we began to see the development of a national market and a national infrastructure in China that connected different parts of the country,” said Simon.

“FAMILY, HARD WORK, EDUCATION”

Talking about the prime reasons behind China’s record economic and social transformation, Simon said there are “three critical ingredients that we can’t simply ignore — family, hard work, education.”

“The … desire of parents wanting to see children do well and wanting to make sure that there’s food security and housing, etc. for their families is a very, very important value across the culture and social system,” he said.

The second is “a belief in education.” “Education is indeed a critical variable in helping to create upward mobility in society,” he said.

Then hard work. “I think the changes created during this reform era have allowed people to improve the quality of their lives through hard work. Chinese people have shown a great degree of resilience during some difficult times. I often say they really are like bamboo, they bend, but they don’t crack, they don’t break. The work ethic in China is very, very strong,” said Simon.

However, behind China’s unprecedented development, the foreign expert observed, “the first and most important thing is the level of government commitment” regarding reform of the national economy to improve the living standard of the Chinese people and the country’s status in the world.

“This level of commitment by the government, even though there have been moments of disagreement about the pace and the direction of the reform, the commitment to the reform has not diminished at all,” he said.

Secondly, the opening-up policy and the connection to the outside world have been “very, very important for China,” said Simon. “In cultural terms, it gave Chinese people a sense of how other societies around the world have decided to pursue their growth and development.”

The Chinese have been very good at learning from the success of many other countries as they faced many new challenges during the course of modernization, he said. “That learning mentality has proven to be another second critical success factor.”

Then out of that came the third factor, which is that China decided to have an export-oriented economy where it allowed foreign investment to come in. It put forth a joint venture law and a series of policies to continually improve the business environment for both domestic and foreign enterprises, said Simon. “And that attracted a great deal of foreign interest in setting up factories and more recently even setting up research institutes.”

“The last thing that I would say is that we cannot forget China’s own indigenous efforts, particularly in education and science and technology; the government’s increasing investment in education has paid off very well,” he said.

“The commitment to invest in science and technology, I think, has been very critical. Particularly over the last 10-15 years, the payoff has been substantial,” he said. “Now that China itself is generating innovation, it is becoming an innovator rather than just a recipient of technology.”

FRANK, HONEST EXCHANGE

Simon returned to the United States in June 2020 after his five-year tenure as executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China. “If you would’ve asked me 30 years ago, will we see a joint venture university and can China attract a famous university like Duke, I would have told you ‘bu ke neng’ (which means impossible). But happily, I was wrong!”

“During my five-year tenure at DKU we did everything we could to build those kinds of high-quality bridges between the Chinese side and the Duke side, and more broadly between the Chinese people and American people,” he said.

The people-to-people exchanges between the West, including the United States, and China need to be further expanded, said Simon.

“I tell people all the time if you just visit Beijing and Shanghai and tell me you saw China, then I believe you really haven’t seen China. You really need to see rural China, urban China, Western China, Southern China, etc. to appreciate the diversity and complexity,” he said.

“You need to get a sense of all that’s present in China. Visitors need to get a sense of the full range of differences and the vastness of China as a society to appreciate the challenges faced by the government — past, present and future. China may seem to be a very homogeneous society, but it’s not so homogeneous when you consider the diversity that comes from the regional differences that remain ever present,” Simon said.

Despite the ups and downs in bilateral ties, the relationship between the Chinese people and American people is “an A-Plus or a Win-Win, however you describe it,” Simon noted, expressing “cautious optimism” about the future of U.S.-China relations, which have been strained for the last few years.

He suggested Washington and Beijing adopt a “formula of patience, persistence and perseverance” when dealing with their bilateral ties, which should be a two-way relationship based on mutual respect and trust.

“The potential for mutual benefit and for positive win-win outcomes is so substantial that we would be foolish to cast aside these huge upside opportunities. Sure, we must deal with our differences, but that does not require us to blow up everything into large intractable problems that will keep us divided for many years,” said Simon.

No global problem or issue can be solved in a meaningful way without significant contributions from both the U.S. and the Chinese side, the expert said. “I think that’s what we have to work for to ensure a better tomorrow,” said Simon. “It will not be easy and there is a need for some frank, honest exchanges between the two societies at all levels. The time to start is now.”

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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