At the center of China’s rapid economic growth are the nearly 300 million migrants who have come from rural areas to work in urban factories. Despite their vital role in China’s rise, government policies have created many social, economic, and legal problems for this population. In response, a small but growing number of Chinese have started NGO programs to improve migrants’ access to legal aid, education, and sense of community. In a country with such a state-dominated society, this type of non-governmental activity takes on particular significance. Based on 70-weeks of ethnographic fieldwork, and a review of relevant literature, this dissertation analyzes the decision-making of the founders/directors of migrant-focused nongovernmental organizations in order to: (1) understand the political, economic, and sociocultural factors that influence their programs; (2) explore how these factors fit within the broader context of China’s economic development; (3) broaden literature on the role of the state in nongovernmental activity, and (4) provide insights into changing state-society relations in the transition to capitalism.
For students of Chinese, one of the first rights-of-passage is being given a Chinese name. Usually a teacher or other person versed in the the subtle art of naming has this honor. The process occurs by: (1) Selecting a one-character family name from the surprisingly short list of most common names, one that typically begins with the same sound as the english last name; and (2) Selecting a one- or two-character given name, one that typically begins with the same sound as the english first name, and may or may not sound like the whole first name. The given name generally comes from an obscure literary or mythical reference, or coveys a grandiose sentiment, such as heroism for men and elegance for women (perhaps not so different from our own naming practices).
After much consideration, my first Chinese teacher gave me the name 杜照石 (dùzhàoshí). The surname is relatively common, and has the “d” from my last name. Mimicking the sounds of my first name within the confines of Chinese phonetics, the given name comes from consecutive lines of a poem by the 8th century tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Together the characters mean “illuminated rock” – and fortuitously the first character 照 is used in the word for taking pictures (photography is a lifelong hobby of mine, though my teacher did not know that).
It’s a good name, very intellectual sounding, and many Chinese friends and colleagues have complimented me on it. But, honestly I don’t really like the name, and one thing in particular bothers me: though the surname is common, not a single Chinese person that I’ve ever met or heard of shares my given name. Though some Chinese choose unique names, they are generally discouraged by the government, and thus rare. When Chinese come to the US, they either go by their Chinese names (which is only confusing because the surname comes first and pinyin are somewhat hard to pronounce for English speakers), or they adopt a common English name and keep their Chinese surname (many of which English speakers have become familiar with). Why, then, do we not do the same?
My parents named me after my great-grandfather, a man who was greatly admired as the family’s patriarch. It’s a name I use proudly. Although my Chinese name is functional (people in China can easily pronounce it, and I have gotten pretty good at explaining its origins as a conversation starter), it really has very little personal meaning to me. It’s simply a part of the way I present myself in everyday Chinese life (see Goffman 1959).
I understand that Chinese phonetics cannot easily accommodate my english name. But, why can’t I just use a common Chinese name? Why do non-Chinese go to such lengths to create pseudo-Chinese names? This seems to further accentuate our foreigness. In the end, I’d rather keep the name I was born with and remain who I am: An American trying to speak Chinese – not an American trying to be Chinese.
What remains unclear is whether taking a Chinese name is simply a gimmick, or whether it serves a function for non-Chinese trying to engage with China. There’s certainly a precedent for phoneticizing foreign words with Chinese characters, notably foods and place names. But, these are generally commonly used words, with which the Chinese have become familiar. The same is true for a handful of foreign names, for example 大卫 (dàwèi) for “David”. But, how do the Chinese view foreigners’ names not common in China, either with their native pronunciation and spelling or using Chinese characters?
I’ve spent the weekend devouring and digesting The War for China’s Wallet. Shaun Rein takes a deep dive into China’s economic strategy, stability, and appeal to developing nations, as well as a timely critique of America’s weakness on all of these accounts.
In my notes, I began using the shorthand WCW I, as this is likely the first of many iterations of China wielding its economic weapons.
Shaun wisely advises governments and corporations alike to be strong over conciliatory, in order to earn the respect of the Chinese. Yet, this reveals a sobering reality: we must now earn the respect of the Chinese.
With trillions of consumer dollars at stake, WCW I is being waged squarely in the Chinese arena. Shaun generously refers to the authors of current US policy as “intellectuals”. Yet, these ideologues remain entangled in the outdated narrative of China’s economy being exclusively export-oriented.
Shaun provides a clear roadmap for waging WCW I. Yet, the rules of engagement are largely out of our hands. We have become reactionaries, much like the paper tigers described by Mao.
It appears WCW I is largely about profit and influence. Yet, if the US does not begin to develop economic strategies independent of the Chinese, the stakes of WCW II may be far greater.
One thing that strikes me about us serious China observers is that we are frequently and completely wrong about the direction China is headed. In the 1980s many top analysts predicted that without democracy China would be unable to grow its economy. Later, many asserted that only with a free and open Internet could China maintain its growth.
Wrong on both accounts.
The Chinese development model has now become the first serious competitor to the Washington Consensus since the Cold War. More and more developing countries model their growth strategies on the Chinese state-managed market economy.
We must continue to be vigilant with both our investigations and critiques of the Chinese system. However, it seems unwise to view it as an immature or inherently flawed system that will inevitably evolve to look more and more like the US model. And its success is emboldened by its growing popularity.
As it has in the past, failing to accept this will continue to produce misguided policies toward China.