China in Focus: A UCS Series on Modern China

September 21, 2011 | 6:00 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

There is a Chinese saying that conveys the idea behind this series of posts: 窥一斑而见全豹 (kui yi ban er jian quan bao). The phrase literally means “Seeing the whole leopard from a focus on a single spot.”  Generally, it has the positive connotation of having an ability to discern the big picture from the observation of small details, but in the abbreviated form of 窥斑见豹 (kui ban jian bao) it can also be used critically to describe someone who mistakenly imagines they comprehend a complex whole based on skewed or incomplete information.

In this series of occasional posts, we will present and discuss some of the details about modern China that most Americans can’t see firsthand or through the lenses of the US media or US government, which tend to focus on a fairly narrow range of issues, events, and personalities. In this way we hope to broaden US perspectives, enabling readers to get a better sense of the social, economic, cultural, and political transformations that define China today—changes that will assuredly affect the quality, character, and security of our shared future. I first arrived in China as a graduate student in 1984 and spent more than half of the intervening 27 years studying, living, and working in the People’s Republic. My perspective is informed by fluency in the Chinese language, an early scholarly focus on modern Chinese politics, a decade working to facilitate academic and professional exchanges between the US and China, and nine years as a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for UCS.

My experience leads me to believe that communicating across cultures is far more difficult than many US and Chinese analysts and policy makers imagine. As a result, miscommunication and misunderstanding exacerbate many of the problems in US-China relations and stand in the way of efforts to resolve them. Often we allow what we believe we know about each other to get in the way of learning more: we become inured to the necessarily limited views we have of each other and miss the bigger picture.

The aim of this series is not to paint that picture for you, and I do not presume to see it myself. What I hope to accomplish is to bring some of the details of life in contemporary China into focus, with the hope they offer readers new opportunities to form their own image of the whole.