Tofu Relations

Chinese Prof. Junhau Zhang on Asian-Western relations

Junhua Zhang

Political scientist Prof. Junhua Zhang of Zhejian University | Photo: Matthias Wurz

For the contemporary Chinese, so Prof. Junhua Zhang, a political scientist of Zhejian University of Hangzhou City, the production of cheap consumer goods – colloquially referred to as ‘the China Price’ – is like “stinky tofu.”

As he paused, he glanced as his puzzled audience at the Danube University Krems on Mar. 23 with a disarming charming smile, before he continued, “it smells bad, but it tastes delicious.”

The calm and affable Chinese professor pointedly addressed the question of Chinese-Western relations with a lively picture; that of one of China’s small delights, fried tofu with its unmistakable smell, which is on sale at many a street corner back home; only one of many aspects of modern China that needs explaining to Europeans.

Professor Zhang followed an invitation by the Danube University’s Department for Intercultural Studies to provide an introduction into Mainland China’s political and economic system in a two-day seminar.

Following his interest in the Frankfurt School of thinkers such as Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas and Max Horkheimer, Prof. Zhang – who speaks an eloquent German as well as English – taught in Germany and also acted as an advisor to the German Government as well as the European Union. His love of Western classical music makes him appreciate his stay in and around Vienna at “the world’s capital of music.”

While Western consumers enjoy low prices for plastic toys, cheap cotton apparel or consumer electronics – evidently the ‘delicious tofu bite’ – they are either not aware of the associated costs of appalling labor standards and pay as well as of the environmental degradation, or simply ignore the ‘bad tofu smell.’

But the ‘bad smell’ also had serious repercussions for Western industries. As a famous Business Week article once put it: “The China Price. They are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. Cut your price at least 30% or lose your customers,” as they indicated nothing less than a serious shift of industrial power towards China.

However, “it took the Western countries 300 years for that kind of industrialization,” Prof. Zhang added, admitting that such a development for China in a few decades as unrealistic.

Zhang also contended the view of the Chinese leadership of sustaining economic growth for 2009 at 8% in the current economic climate as overly optimistic. Indeed, the World Bank in its recent quarterly update, published on Mar. 18, revised its forecast downwards to 6.5%, particularly due to a sharp fall in export activity.

“China’s economy cannot escape the impact of the global weakness,” the report said, though the overall outlook for China remains much brighter in 2009 than for the U.S. and European economies.

In Zhang’s view, neither the current economic crisis nor the sensitive political issues – most notably the anniversaries of the first Tibetan uprising 50 years ago or the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in June 1989 – will lead to a change in the current political system.

“The (economic) reforms (over the last three decades) have strengthened the regime,” rather than weakening it, he stressed firmly and retains that the Communist rule in Beijing will hold on to its power for some time.

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