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About 80 visitors, students and faculty exchanged views on personal and political Chinese-US relations with six MIT experts last Wednesday following Premier Zhu Rongji's speech. The dialogue covered numerous topics, including trade and security, local elections andlimited political competition, and environmental issues.
The two-hour session at Wong Auditorium was sponsored by the Center for International Studies (CIS) and moderated by its director, Professor Kenneth Oye of political science, who noted that the audience was about two-thirds Chinese and Asian American.
The MIT panelists were Associate Professor Thomas J. Christensen and Assistant Professor Zhiyuan Cui of political science; Chiang C. Mei, the E.K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Professor Karen Polenske of urban studies and planning; Professor Peter C. Perdue of history; and Edward S. Steinfeld, the Mitsubishi Career Development Assistant Professor at the Sloan School of Management.
"Chinese 'xenophobia' is a product of 19th-century imperialist attempts to force open Chinese markets through unequal treaties," Professor Perdue noted. Actually, he said, China was an active player in global economics from 1500 into the 1800s.
"The Chinese have long had the suspicion that foreign powers are trying to keep China down," he said. "But in the long term, China does best and the world does best when China is open, and deals on equal terms with the rest of the world. That depends on having a strong state.
"This is the sad lesson of 19th and 20th centuries. First you need to build a strong army [and] unite a nation; then you can deal with the world. That's why human rights make slow progress -- not because the government is against them in principle, but because the government believes that allowing too much political competition will weaken the state," Professor Perdue said.
"So we have an interest in making China feel secure. The best way is to have it engaged with the world economy and developing mutual beneficial relations on the basis of equality."
Professor Mei said he was speaking as a Chinese American, "a man on the street," not as an academic. He noted that the Chinese American community, "the smallest ethnic group in the US," was particularly sensitive to shifts in China-US relations. The recent allegations of espionage provide a good example, he added.
"Chinese-American engineers and scientists constitute a sizable fraction of the work force in Silicon Valley," Professor Mei said. "Many of them are now afraid that their dealings with the government will be subjected to additional layers of security and loyalty checks."
During the open discussion, one guest criticized the panel for failing to discuss human rights issues. In response, nearly all the Chinese students who spoke from the audience said the general population in China considers economic progress more urgent than the right of dissent.
Chun Yu, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, said she was a "young idealist" when she joined the democracy movement while a student at Beijing University in 1989, but after the army opened fire on the demonstrators, "hopes were destroyed," she said.
The lesson in the use of raw power forced her to reflect on strategy, attainable goals and human interplay. She recalled seeing young soldiers sending their families telegrams with the news that they were safe -- the same message she was conveying to hers. "At that moment, the sadness and confusion that I felt were indescribable," she said.
After struggling with her anger and frustration for years, Dr. Yu concluded that while the goal was admirable and correct, the timing and tactics may have been ill-chosen.
"China is a huge country with 25 percent of the world population," she said. "Stability and economic growth are far more important to the whole society than other issues. After suffering through endless wars and political movements, the only dream that has survived for the whole nation might be to have a peaceful and a better life, and, if possible, forget about the big theories for a while.
"This dream cannot be achieved if we ask for democracy overnight. It cannot be achieved when human rights issues are often used as a political card by politicians, and cannot be achieved when ordinary people are paying the price for the political clashes both within China or between the Chinese government and any other governments, as they did again and again during the past century," Dr. Yu said.
"Please try to understand and help us to make this delicate and humble dream come true."
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 27).