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Faculty Perspective: Professor Cheng: All Eyes on the Dragon, as China Rises

chengThis summer Professor Cheng is leading a study abroad program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Along with their coursework, students hope to visit the World Bank's Beijing office and see how staff there are working to assess China's economic development. Students also plan to meet with government officials to learn more about various reforms introduced over the past twenty years or so.

Other items on the summer agenda include visits to a state-owned enterprise or bank; to some kind of private enterprise, either Chinese-owned or a joint venture; and to a "middling" class residential complex, where residents are climbing the economic ladder toward Western-style middle-class prosperity.

The visits are intended to give students a more nuanced understanding of China and its emergence onto the world stage. "We tend to think of China as a single entity. In reality there are many Chinas," said Professor Cheng.

Measured on the PPP (Purchasing-Power-Parity) scale, China currently ranks second in the world, after the United States. Every Fortune 500 company now has some kind of presence operating in China, or has one planned.

"There is great potential in China, and there are also great problems," said Professor Cheng. The top three problems he cites are corruption, an environmental crisis, and economic disparity. "Our students are interested in poverty reduction, and in long-term structural solutions that can help populations achieve prosperity on their own."

"That's the beauty of our International Relations program. We draw on academic departments like Economics, History, and Government, whose expertise can be combined to develop these solutions. We have a superb cohort of faculty teams focused on environmental study, theories of international relations, and foreign aid, trade, and international development."

In his research and teaching, Professor Cheng compares countries' institutions and policies and examines how, over time, these structures and choices are a predominant force in producing economic and political results.

A classic comparison, for example, is the different paths taken by China and Russia in transitioning to privatized economies. Beginning in the 1970s, China followed a gradual, sequenced approach to reform that has produced a variety of private, semi-public, and state-owned enterprises in a wide ranges of sizes. Russia moved very quickly with a kind of shock therapy introduced in the 1990s. One result there was a small number of very large private enterprises.

Professor Cheng has taught about the contrast between these two approaches, and undertaken similar comparisons in his research on Singapore vs. Hong Kong, Taiwan vs. South Korea, and by extension, Mexico vs. Brazil, and Thailand vs. Malysia.

His current research suggests that China's economic success inevitably will lead to increased fermentation on the political side. In his early work on South Korea, Professor Cheng documented a correlation between increases in Gross Domestic Product and increased pressure from citizens for democratization. "I found a similar correlation in Spain, which received a lot of attention in the 1970s in its effort to join the European Union," said Professor Cheng. "Countries in Latin America also show this correlation."

An example of current political fermentation in China is its struggle to accommodate information technology. On the one hand, IT can be applied to leverage China's economic competitiveness and military modernization. On the other hand, IT holds the potential to shift power away from the state and toward citizens, which threatens authoritarian rule.

Professor Cheng discussed possible strategies for resolving this dilemma in a recent book chapter titled, "Information Technology in China: A Double-Edged Sword." He is also working on a co-authored article that characterizes the structure and process of emerging Asian international relations.

"Our international systems are challenged by the new realities of China," said Professor Cheng. "For now, other countries are hedging." He plans to integrate the results of his recent research into a new class for students, "The Rise of China," planned for the fall of 2007.

In the fall of 2004, Professor Cheng co-taught a "virtual" class with Professor Chao, at National Chengchi University, in Taiwan, involving students at both universities. "Because we wanted to teach the groups together in real time, we made some adjustments to allow for the differences in time zones and academic calendars," Professor Cheng said.

Students had a joint class in August, then resumed meeting in late September. In Williamsburg, classes were scheduled from 8 to 11 p.m. Each group was able to view the other on a large video screen and interact as if they were in the same classroom. According to Professor Cheng, "We paired the students across universities and asked them to pursue a joint research project. They were very inventive in working together, and often used Instant Messaging and email to pursue their work together."

After the holidays, Professor Cheng led the class to Taipei, and the student pairs presented their joint research over the course of two days. The host university provided tours and introductions for the William and Mary students during the remainder of the trip.

"They treated us very well, and showed our students around. We visited with prominent scholars and government officials. Our students posed some tough and reasonable questions, always rising to the occasion. They were great, just great," Professor Cheng said.