Richard Suttmeir, professor of political science at the University of Oregon and an expert in Chinese science and technology policies, provided commentary on Premier Zhu Rongji's speech for participants in the Laboratory of Computer Science's 35th anniversary event.
Professor Suttmeir, speaking on stage in the Johnson Athletic Center, concentrated on Premier Zhu's deftness in communicating China's economic concerns and on the various pressures, including differences across generations, on (and within) the current leadership in China.
"It was very interesting that Premier Zhu started with the trade deficit and turned it around into a discussion of China's development strategy," said Professor Suttmeir, who acknowledged the Chinese leader's adroit focus on both countries' confusion over the deficit's actual size. "The main problem in calculating the trade deficit at all is whether to count transshipment through Hong Kong," he noted.
"Premier Zhu is aware of US domestic politics and the role they have played in keeping China out of the World Trade Organization," said Professor Suttmeir.
Extensive media coverage of the Premier's visit included references by the Chinese leader both to US labor leaders' concerns about Chinese wage levels and also to Chinese concerns about being shut out of the global post-industrial economy.
"The last thing China wants for itself in the 21st century is to be an exporter of low-value-added products," Professor Suttmeir said. "More than their predecessors, Premier Zhu and his leadership team have been keenly aware of the nature of the new industrial revolution. They missed the first industrial revolution; they don't want to miss the second one -- the one based on a knowledge economy."
Premier Zhu is not alone in his awareness of China's need for educational and technological development, Professor Suttmeir noted.
"There's a very competent core of national leaders now. Many of them have engineering degrees. China has become a technocratic culture; its elite [are] a technocratic elite. When Premier Zhu remarked in English that he would 'pay as much as you get here' for a dean of a management school, he was addressing the severe scarcity of high-level managerial manpower.
"Currently, China has very large numbers of people with advanced degrees, but if you look at their age, their experience and the quality of their training, you'll see why the scarcity problem persists. There are more schools of management but the demand for managers is very large, given the goals of this new generation of leaders."
Leaders in any sphere of Chinese life are divided along generational lines, Professor Suttmeir said. For example, there are huge differences among those with advanced degrees, depending on their age.
Some, like Premier Zhu, were educated before 1949, before the Communists. Others, educated in the 1950s, attended highly technical, Soviet-influenced universities. In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution closed down all the universities for six or seven years, and in the 1970s, these were reestablished, but again along Soviet lines.
"With Nixon's trip to China in 1971, China gained awareness of life in the capitalist world and of how differently our research institutions ran, compared to the Soviet model. Academic and political life began to change then, and both are still changing. The Chinese are aggressively pursuing initiatives in spending on education for science and technology. Since 1996, expenditures have gone up," Professor Suttmeir said.
"Human rights have followed suit. Consider the rights of university graduates under the old Soviet-style system: they had none. Graduates were sucked up into central planning, assigned to this or that remote ministry. They had no freedom to choose a career or housing. That's what has changed dramatically. China is infinitely more liberal than it was," he said.
"The question remains, can China become a dynamic, innovative society and still maintain political control as it has? We judge not."
Asked about the nature of future US-China relations, Professor Suttmeir was optimistic, if not for the near future, then for a more distant one.
"The domestic politics of China and the United States will determine the direction of how and to what extent there is cooperation," he said. "China has become a political football in US domestic politics, and this may change only with a new administration. Espionage and human rights issues go quite deep in Congress. On the other hand, there is some fear that China will look to Europe for goods they got here.
"As for the WTO, Premier Zhu may yet get something. If he doesn't, he faces a tough challenge when he gets back. As in the US, there are lots of people who are not as enthusiastic about China's joining the WTO as he is. For example, concessions he may make to join the WTO will have an impact on China's state-owned enterprises. These make up 70 percent of the economy and all those jobs... Premier Zhu's concessions will bring pressure on those huge employers. If China does join the WTO, there will undoubtedly be a period of conflict as concessions and changes are implemented," Professor Suttmeir said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 27).