A Passage to China

Humen—Mouth of the Tiger—is where the Pearl River flows into the South China Sea. This is also where the Confucian commissioner of the Qing court, Lin Zexu, tried to turn back the barbarians—the private merchants importing opium from Britain—by dumping two and a half million pounds of opium into the sea. This story never ceases to animate the Chinese; the driver of the mini-van carrying our small delegation of three from the College, pointed to the sea and shouted, “aa-pin!,” Chinese for opium.

The College team was in southern China earlier this month for a “look-see” for a possible scholarly “tripod” that would connect scholars and students from the College, Peking University, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). We already have established collaborations at the level of individual scientists in Astronomy, Physics, Environmental Sciences, and Mathematics—but we wanted to explore ways to leverage those relationships to further collaborative research, share labs, and generate joint proposals to the National Science Foundation, both in the U.S. and China. We are also starting to pool our resources for Asian Humanities, where the College is long on aspiration but short on resources. Because English is the lingua franca in Hong Kong, it provides a congenial environment for our students to experience China without interrupting their studies with extensive language training. Now, as it was back in the days of the Opium War, Hong Kong is also a passage to China.

Last year, with the help of HKUST, we opened a small office on the campus of Peking University, not far from the seat of the Chinese mandarinate, old and new. This is the China the pundits have in mind when they speak of hegemonic competition and the clash of civilizations: the China with a long history of control over tributary states, the China that believes today as it has for so many centuries in the moral claim to its leadership (derived from a Confucian rather than Jeffersonian morality), the China that relies on the state to guide the compression of the entire industrial history of the West into a mere three decades in China.

But it turns out that Hong Kong serves as the passage to more than one China. The other China is in the south. It is the antithesis of the one in the north—maritime, mercantile, practical, and far more open to the world—and yet quickly folding into the tried-and-true developmental design emanating from Peking up north. Our partners, HKUST and Peking University, are establishing branch campuses and otherwise collaborating with research outfits in Shenzhen and Nansha, each about an hour from Hong Kong, with an aim to create a vibrant scientific corridor for southern China, teeming with engineers and researchers from around the world. The Pearl River Delta is not satisfied with being the factory for the world; it wants to be its scientific brain as well. So we were in Humen, at the Mouth of the Tiger, to be present at the creation, watching the future unfold in ways that seemed idiosyncratically Chinese.

Nansha, of which Humen is part, is a sleepy fishing village. Surveying it on a rainy afternoon, one would think modernity stopped at its gate. Outside the ancestral hall for the local “Mok” clan—used in recent decades as everything from the Communist Party district office to a grain warehouse, it had been desecrated during the Cultural Revolution and was recently restored as a place of remembrance for the local Moks—mangy dogs stroll the streets; two women sit in the darkness of a store that has nothing to sell, one silently pulling yarn off an old sweater and another rolling it into a ball, in perfect syncopation; and a toothless man with a leathery face sits in a doorway, repairing an old wool glove that would have ended in the trash heap elsewhere. The only signs of modernity are the flyers on the alley walls, warning migrant workers of the perils of sexually transmitted diseases, and in case they cannot read, with illustrations of how to protect themselves.

Amid this apparent timelessness, the Chinese government is staking a future for southern China. The future comes in concentric circles, with the outer circle forming the scientific corridor that is part of the Guangzhou development strategy; inside the circle, the Nansha Information Technology Park; and at its center, the centerpiece, a graduate research university that will focus on applied genomics, polymer processing, atmospheric research, composite materials technology, bioengineering and its devices, green products and processing technologies—you name it.

It was déjà vu all over again: in the 1980s Deng Xiaoping had created the so-called Special Economic Zones that are really prophylactic realms, protected from the constraints and cultures of the rest of the mainland, where a foreign investor could walk in with a suitcase, and have all his or her business needs met, from new hotels and restaurants to manufacturing and exporting the products. The Chinese are taking a page out of that successful strategy, but instead of a one-stop special economic zone, they are offering the world a one-stop science and technology zone, with a research university at its heart. The university facilities are new and shining, and they stand there empty: If you build it, the Chinese government seems to be saying, they will come. But this time “it” is not a baseball field but a high-tech university, and “they” are not old players but new players, the high-tech scientists of the future.

One hundred seventy years ago, William Gladstone, newly elected to Parliament, denounced Britain’s Opium War, asking whether there had ever been “a war more unjust in origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace.” Deeper than the disgrace to the British then is the moral indignation that still lives in the heart of the Chinese now, an indignation still capable of turning an ordinary Chinese into a strident nationalist in a heartbeat. In a letter to Queen Victoria that was a litany of grievances against Britain (not unlike our own Declaration of Independence), Commissioner Lin asked where the conscience of Britain had gone. Unlike America,  China lost the war. But they won a moral claim against the West that still motivates them, a sense that the future is now theirs, set free by a technological prowess that no longer belongs exclusively to the West.

2 Responses to “A Passage to China”

  1. Erin Henshaw says:

    Hi Meredith! I was interested in reading this article because I am currently teaching English for a year in Tangshan, China (about two hours south east of Beijing). I have been trying to get information regarding UVa’s connections with China and only found updates regarding the new Asian Center on campus, so it’s exciting to hear that you are working on creating new relationships over here. I will actually be visiting Hong Kong for 9 days at the end of the month, and am excited to eat Dim Sum and develop a better understanding of the cultural differences. I am open to helping out over here in any way possible, so please let me know!
    -Erin Henshaw (College ’07; Spanish and Sociology)

  2. Meredith Jung-En Woo says:


    Among the collaboration efforts proposed for the new tri-lateral partnership with U.Va., Peking University and the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology are a joint Chinese Studies Program at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology; an advanced Chinese Studies Program at Peking University; conferences in the humanities and sciences that are an ongoing, centrally organized series rotating among the institutions annually; faculty visits, exchanges and workshops; and annual themed summer research trips. We also are thinking about programs with Peking University and Kavli Institute of Astrophysics and Astronomy; opportunities in bioscience, biomedicine, and biotech with Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and Peking University’s Shenzhen campus; research in atmospheric science and ecosystems involving climate change/pollution/erosion/clean water issues in China; and collaboration with Peking University on fundamental neutron science.

    Most of these are in the proposal or early-development stage. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.