Issue: 2022: Vol. 21, No. 2

Deja Vu: China’s Relations with the West

Article Author(s)

Penelope Prime

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Dr. Penelope Prime was most recently clinical professor of International Business in the Institute of International Business at the J. Mack College of Business, Georgia State University from 2012 until 2020. She is the founding director of the China Research Center and managing editor of China Currents
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The early 1980s saw the first glimpses of China’s domestic reforms and interactions with people and economies outside China. This loosening was dangerous territory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had ruled with state control and minimal outside influence for several decades. But the top leadership, led by Deng Xiaoping, had decided that if China did not learn from, and interact with, the rest of the world, it would never develop. The economy had tanked, food was scarce, and the country was far behind in technologies and institutional development. Deng traveled to New York City in 1974 to attend a special session of the United Nations, where the backwardness of China was brought home to him. It was another turning point in Chinese history where policy shifted from ti — substance or essence (体) – to yong – function or usefulness (用).1

Based on my experiences in China over the years, I saw a growing shift toward practicality, but today we see another reversal — to the reestablishment of 体 as primary. Along with that reversal, foreigners’ role in China’s development is also changing. 

Living in Nanjing in the Early 1980s

Nanjing Skyline 1982
Nanjing Skyline 1982

In 1982, I was one of the early international students to go to China to do research. Graduate students from several countries had already been allowed to study there, and the U.S. followed a few years after normalizing relations in 1979. I was the second or third cohort from the U.S. to be sponsored by the Committee on Scholarly Communications with the PRC.2 My project was to analyze Jiangsu Province as a case study of the effect of central policies on local development. Since reforms were so new, I first researched the Mao decades and later extended my analysis to the reform period. 

Data was essential to my project, but it was also problematic. The government classified economic data as a state secret. Some scholars had been detained for having data. A conundrum, indeed. At least I had the U.S. government behind me in this endeavor. My strategy was to create tables with the headings of the information I wanted to collect and have the respective offices fill in the blanks. In hindsight, it was perhaps wishful thinking that this approach would succeed. As it turns out, there was a major effort across China, at all levels of administration, to put together data yearbooks. Because of this, officials did, in fact, fill in (at least some) of my data tables.

Since my focus was Jiangsu Province, I applied to do my research at Nanjing University (Nanda) in Nanjing, the provincial capital. I lived in the university’s foreign compound with about 150 other students and faculty from around the world, some of whom had Chinese roommates. We had heat and hot water several hours a day, and food that was substantially better than the regular university canteens, but life was quite harsh relative to what we were used to.

The Economics Department was technically my host, but they did not invite me to meet with them or any students studying economics at any time throughout the two years I was there. However, I could audit courses, which I did. In the last semester of my stay, I finally met one of the professors. Professor Zhu was responsible for helping me make contact with the officials I wanted to interview in Nanjing and several other cities in the province. Professor Zhu spoke English, as he had worked in international trade, while most other professors did not. I was learning Chinese but needed help with translation during the interview process.

In 1982, western foreigners studying or doing business in China was a new development, allowed to support the leadership’s economic reform efforts. We were treated hospitably and with respect. But there was an underlying tension, perhaps suspicion, that foreigners could contribute to China’s reforms and development, but may also be dangerous. The university administrators were responsible for our well-being and so were careful to keep a close eye on us. Anyone who wanted to visit us had to register and show ID. Our mail was read. Our boxes were opened. If we wanted to travel outside the city limits, we needed to apply to the university and the local police station for permission. Just riding our bikes within Nanjing, we would find signs at the boundaries of the city that said foreigners could not go further.

Daily life was challenging, and our environment was restricted and monitored, but we felt there was a good chance that society would move toward more openness. Unfortunately, the opposite is true today. While daily life in China is quite comfortable for most by now, the signs are that the society is closing again. For example, the universities are under pressure to use textbooks by Chinese scholars, and not those written by foreigners. Authorities monitor classrooms with video cameras, and professors can quickly get into trouble for saying something that questions or counters the Party’s line.

Change and Backlash3

Two incidents occurred while I was in Nanjing that reflected the tensions and disagreements about the changes afoot in those early days: first, the “Spiritual Pollution” campaign and second, a demonstration at Nanda. People desired change, but not surprisingly, they also wanted to choose the reforms that benefited them the most. And China’s age-old dance between importing foreign ideas (用) and finding a Chinese solution (体) was also at work.

The Spiritual Pollution Campaign

The Spiritual Pollution campaign in the early 1980s was a backlash against the dangers of China opening too fast and of adopting ideas that went against the strategy of maintaining stability by the political elites. Today, the pressures on professors, students, and citizens to conform to the leadership’s view of China’s path is reminiscent of these early years. The difference is a new looking back rather than looking forward.

The Spiritual Pollution campaign’s main message was that socialism could not be criticized. Intellectuals were discussing the existence of alienation under a socialist system. Markets may be possible under socialism, but alienation is not. Thus “dangerous” ideas, such as those of Sartre, were to be criticized if discussed at all. People who had written pieces favorable to Sartre, or discussed alienation, were asked to write their ideas anew. Specifically, at Nanda, one professor was criticized for an article he had written on Hu Shih, a well-known Chinese academic who had studied and promoted pragmatism.4

While targeted primarily at harmful ideas in intellectual circles, the campaign also touched on areas of laxity and unethical behavior. For example, Party spokespeople and written editorials criticized books and magazines for printing stories about love affairs and other situations deemed “indecent.” Also suspect was long hair, facial hair, and revealing attire. One rumor was that all city workers in Beijing were subject to hair and dress regulations.

It was understood, of course, that a main source of these bad influences was foreigners and their decadent societies. Reforms had meant China had much more contact with the international community, and some of this contact was deemed harmful. Being a foreigner in China, then, raised interesting contradictions. Our dress and culture were indecent (even if desired), but our technology and markets were necessary to modernize China. Ironically, this situation is back in spades in China today.

The most immediate problem for us at that moment was judging whether this campaign was severe enough to cause trouble for the Chinese with whom we associated. Our experience was that the Chinese were not worried—aside from the few targeted intellectuals—and that the campaign did not involve us in their minds. People said that indecency was not desirable in books, magazines, and films, but nonetheless, everyone was informed of the details of the latest “indecent” story. But Chinese friends did not stop seeing us, and on the surface, at least, only the amount of gossip changed.

At the university, however, there were required meetings for students, faculty, and administrators to discuss the message of the campaign. These meetings were reminiscent of the numerous campaigns before. In October 1983, the Foreign Affairs Office asked us if we would like to discuss “spiritual pollution.” We agreed, thinking we could ask what this meant for us and if the restrictions on our contact with Chinese people would increase. Instead, the meeting consisted of a two-hour speech on the question of alienation delivered by a university official in perfect line with recent People’s Daily editorials. By December, after going through the motions, we all — Chinese and foreigners – had forgotten that “pollution” had been a problem.

The Nanda Incident

Another reaction to China’s reforms occurred during three days in May 1984. This event began on campus but eventually involved the provincial government, a central investigation, and the international news media. The catalyst for this incident was the status of Nanjing University, but the key issues were the students’ right to demonstrate and factionalism on campus. Earlier in May, the Ministry of Education chose 10 institutions to receive more autonomy and an extra 100 million yuan each to help them quickly implement their educational reform and improve programs. To the dismay of the university community, Nanda was not among this privileged group.5

On May 28, posters appeared on campus criticizing the university leadership for lack of concern for intellectuals and the overall quality of the university. The former university president, Guang Yaming, had been transferred and not replaced, leaving Zhang De, the Party Secretary, in charge. The Party Committee was powerful within Nanda’s administration, and removing Guang gave the dominant party group free rein. One of the confrontations between Guang and the Party Committee had been over the status of intellectuals. To improve the situation of professors in line with current reform policy and compensate them for poor treatment during the Cultural Revolution, Guang wanted to add their years spent in school to their work time to increase the years counted in seniority. Since seniority determined access to housing and other perks, this change would mean professors would benefit at the expense of other university employees. This change was not in the interests of the Party Committee, and they succeeded in getting Guang transferred.

After Guang left, three separate elections failed to fill the position. The students accused Zhang of being instrumental in preventing the election of a permanent, reform-oriented president, and they demanded the return of Guang. According to one account in the Hong Kong paper, Pai Hsing, the Party Committee tried to appease the students by agreeing to meet with them to discuss their proposals, but the students rejected this.6 The paper also implied that the students decided overtly to demonstrate their displeasure when the Party Committee asked the Nanjing Armed Police to patrol the campus.

From the beginning, in addition to the university’s status, a key issue was the rights of students to disagree with, and try to influence, the university administration. This aspect of the conflict was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, i.e., when the bureaucracy blocks established methods of change, then challenged the bureaucracy. The students drew on China’s Constitution to support their right to demonstrate. The university also drew on the Constitution to argue that the demands for reform were correct but that the students’ method of dissent was disruptive and illegal. The students were to meet formally with university officials and not write posters or demonstrate. This position was repeatedly read over the loudspeaker in the evenings when people would gather. Besides this action, however, the university did nothing directly to stop the activities. The students ignored the instructions and put up many large and small-character posters. The lights on the outdoor bulletin board were left on all night so people could read and discuss them.

By the second day, the criticisms in the posters had moved from generalizations about poor leadership to criticizing Zhang by name, pointing to the influences of “leftism.” The activity and excitement on campus then built quickly. Students wrote more posters and discussed the issues late into the night, and people crowded the streets in the evenings. During these events, international students mingled freely among the crowds.

On the third day, a rumor spread that there was to be a demonstration involving a march from campus to the provincial government buildings about two miles away. The students felt they had met a dead end in dealing with the university and decided to take their complaints to provincial leaders. That evening the number of people on the campus streets swelled to make quite an event. Peddlers were selling spiced eggs and ice cream; people brought their children; and the loudspeaker was repeating its message, apparently to non-listening ears.

Eventually, we heard that people had gathered just outside the gate and began to walk, picking up people as they went. I and a few others rode our bicycles to catch them, but not knowing their route, we went straight to the provincial government buildings and waited. The atmosphere was tense, but no one said anything to us. Minutes later, the marchers arrived. The group was orderly and quiet but was large by then, with well over a thousand people. For a few moments, it seemed there would be a confrontation. Public security was blocking the major intersection, but the group did not slow its pace. Then, just before the group reached the blockade, the police moved aside.

For the next hour, little happened. I was standing in the back on a cement wall overlooking the square. The gates to the government complex opened and closed several times. I heard later that the provincial officials asked the students to send representatives inside, but people were reluctant to volunteer. Eventually, several people volunteered to negotiate, and a meeting between the students and the government was set for the next day. After some time, the crowd thinned out and the demonstration ended.

We never knew whether that meeting took place or not. However, the next day the university abruptly ended all activities relating to dissent on campus. The bulletin boards were now kept unlighted, posters were forbidden, security checked IDs at the university gate, and university officials questioned the student leaders. The incident was over.

Two other things of importance related to the Nanda incident happened. First, during the first two days of activity on campus, the situation was reported by Voice of America; and second, Beijing sent an investigation committee shortly after the demonstration, which further curtailed discussion and increased rule enforcement on campus. Perhaps if the international press had not reported news of the event, Beijing would not have become so directly involved in provincial and university affairs.

On the one hand, foreigners’ knowledge of what is going on may increase the impact of a protest by adding pressure to resolve the issues. On the other hand, officials may fear how foreigners will interpret and report the incident and, therefore, may react by quickly ending the dissent and punishing the Chinese people involved. Another aspect of the position of foreigners in China is that we are all under suspicion of being spies. During this incident, a rumor that Voice of America had reported it during the first two days did not allay these suspicions. Even the foreign community was surprised at how quickly this incident became known beyond the university. As this experience suggests, our presence alone may cause problems of which we are unaware.

We had no way of knowing at the time that student protests would put such monumental pressure on the Communist Party and Chinese government. Early protests like this were precursors to events that led to the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Such protests are difficult to imagine in Xi Jinping’s China today.

A New Day

Over the period I lived in Nanjing, the restrictions eased slowly, and people were more relaxed about talking with us. More cities were opened to foreign investors and travel, although only certain hotels could host foreign visitors. Over time, China continued to relax restrictions across society. In contrast to the lack of contact with peers at Nanda in the early 1980s, I developed deep friendships over the years and fruitful academic exchanges and collaboration. I traveled alone, with my husband, with friends, and with student groups, visiting every province and region in China. We were free to explore and learn by talking with whom we wanted.

Now, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China’s trend toward opening is reversing – abandoning 用 for a new type of 体. Covid-19 is the most apparent reason for restricting society, but it also provides a convenient excuse. Behind the currently closed borders is a growing narrative that China no longer needs foreign ideas, skills, or capital. Western values are critiqued and rejected, replaced by a mix of Confucian and modern Chinese thought. The term “spiritual pollution” has returned to conversation. The leadership harshly critiques any expression of alienation, such as the “lying flat” trend of young people who talk about doing as little as possible to get by since success, as customarily defined, is so elusive.7 Even English is being downplayed after a spectacularly successful push to teach it across the Chinese education system. Moreover, authorities expect Chinese academics to conduct research in support of China’s policies and do it with decreasing collaboration with western scholars.

While economic development continues apace, the range of allowed debate is narrowing, along with individual freedoms as the CCP returns to its Marxist, socialist roots. President Xi talks of pushing China into the next stage of socialism with “common prosperity.” In the past, we heard Chinese people sometimes say the CCP stood for the Chinese Community Party – a reference to a gentler party leading social progress. Today, the Party is returning to sticks over carrots and is increasingly feared. One can only guess that President Xi sees taking the socialist mantel as his way of maintaining his and the CCP’s power for years to come.

  1. Essence-Function – Wikipedia
  2. Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC) | GW Libraries (
  3. The description of these events at Nanjing University is based on my essay, “Reform and Reaction in Nanjing: A foreigner’s observations, 1982-1984,” Asian Review, Southern Connecticut State University, Spring 1986:12-15.
  4. Hu Shi (1891–1962) |
  5. Six of the 10 institutions were listed in an article in the Hong Kong paper, Pai Hsing, as Beijing University, Fudan University, Jiaotong University, Qinghua University, Nankai University and Beijing Medical Institute. Pai Hsing, September 1, 1984, pp.20,21; translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (China Daily Report), September 7, 1984, pp. W3-W4.
  6. ibid.
  7. What is ‘lying flat’, and why are Chinese officials standing up to it? | South China Morning Post (