Feature: My "participant observation" of China over 40 years

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by Xinhua writers Yang Shilong, Hu Yousong

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (Xinhua) -- When he was a high school student in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1980s, Daniel Wright volunteered to teach English for free to Chinese graduate students who had just arrived at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

One of his new Chinese friends was Dr. Wang from Peking University who would cook Chinese food for Wright to express his gratitude.

"I didn't know how to use chopsticks or anything, so he would show me how to hold them. I would try to bring deep-fried slippery peanuts from the bowl to my mouth and half the time they would fall about halfway. That's how I learned to use chopsticks," said Wright, CEO of GreenPoint Group, a U.S.-China strategic advisory firm with offices in Beijing and Washington, D.C., in an interview with Xinhua.

"More importantly, that's how I continued to have not just a professional view of China, but also a personal feel and a feeling for China," he said. "Since then, I have used my chopstick skills across the many regions of China where I have lived, from Shanghai, to Beijing, to Nanjing, and Guizhou."

His English tutoring with Chinese graduate students inspired him to go to Shanghai for a one-month study program as an undergraduate from Vanderbilt University in the winter of 1983.

"It was my first time outside the United States,"said Wright. "It seemed like China was more black and white at that time, more like a black and white TV. Everyone seemed to be wearing dark blue or dark gray or a dark green, just these three colors."

Upon graduation, Wright decided to go to Beijing Language and Culture University in 1985 to study Chinese for one year, "to do a little bit of a test, to see if this is where I really wanted to spend more time and commit my life and my work."

During that year in Beijing (1985-86), Wright spent probably three days a week working on a farm around the Old Summer Palace. "I learned a lot more on the farm than I did in class, not only about the language, but also about people-to-people exchanges. That was a great memory."

He then decided to have a five-year plan staying in China, during which he would go to graduate school, study culture, and to continue studying the language. "Well, that turned into a 10-year plan," Wright laughed.

In 1997 to 1999, Wright spent two years in China's southwestern province of Guizhou where he wrote monthly reports from the perspective of the grassroots societies in the nation's hinterland. The research methodology he used was called "participant observation."

"I found it more interesting to listen to real people than to simply research various kinds of information," he said.

"Looking back at 1983, and being part of the China story for almost 40 years now, I would say China is very much on a journey. My observations don't come from just watching events unfold from here in Washington DC, but from all these different dimensions, and from directly experiencing life in China," Wright said.

"The typical narrative is that China was like a black-and-white TV but now it's like a high-definition color TV," he said. "I think it's more complicated than that. This is why I like to say that China is very much on a journey of continued modernization, continued development."


Wright said he would like to describe China's success with one word, openness. "It's openness to new ideas, it's openness to the world."

"This idea of openness and the energy and creativity of the people, obviously managed and governed by a unique system (in China)" is key to the energy and vibrancy and prospering of China, just like it is in the United States, albeit in a different way," said Wright.

He stressed that openness is also a key word for China and the United States to develop their relations.

"When we talk about the bilateral relationship, it's going to be very important for the United States to be more open as well," said Wright, who once served at the U.S. Treasury Department as managing director for China and at the strategic economic dialogue where he provided counsel to then Secretary of Treasury Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

"As I mentioned, if we can accept that openness is key to our domestic success, let's not worry about the world. Let's not worry about bilateral relations. If we believe that openness is fundamentally important to our success, then we need to figure out how, and what that looks like both domestically and internationally," he said.

The United States and China need to continue to "play ping-pong" with each other and invest more in the foundation of the consequential bilateral relationship, said Wright, referring to the "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" that helped break the ice between the two countries in April 1971.

Calling it "one of the powerful breakthroughs in the early 1970s," Wright said both sides have benefited from "the vision as a way to pierce through the wall to play ping-pong together."

"I have benefited from that. You have benefited from that openness and flow of ideas, flow of people, flow of sports. So we need to continue to do that, to play together more, to eat together more," Wright said.

"We understand we have significant differences in trade and in national security. Times may have changed, but I still believe there's space for the people of our two great nations to come together, to play ping-pong together, to do all the things that I've done - that we've done - over the last 40 years," he said.

Wright served from 2000 to 2004 as the executive director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Program of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a premier educational joint-venture program.

During this time of increasing global disruption and bilateral tensions, preserving, protecting and advancing education and people-to-people ties between the United States and China will become increasingly important, Wright said.

According to the 2019 Open Doors Annual Report, during the 2018-19 school year, the number of higher-education students from China in the United States was about 370,000, making up about one third of the international students in America. Over the past 40 years, nearly 330,000 American students have studied in China.

"More important than student flow are the ideas, the insights, the trust and personal growth that have resulted from these exchanges," Wright said.

In this age of information, both countries have an abundance of facts and data about each other but there is "an increasing deficit in understanding," which is nuance and insight, which assists in decision making, judgment, and effectiveness, according to Wright.

"Information without understanding can be dangerous. The most effective way to move from information towards understanding is through interaction with people and first-hand experience -- this is what happens in education and during cultural exchanges," he said.

"This exchange of students, of ideas, all of that sets the foundation. It's like planting a tree. You have to plant the tree now to build hope and progress 10, 20, 30 years from now," he said.

Wright has so far traveled to China more than 100 times. "Now, due to the COVID pandemic, I've been home for one year. But for 10 years straight, I was in China at least once a month."

Looking back, Wright is very thankful that he chose to start with the Chinese language and with Chinese culture, and then to focus on other aspects of China. "I would not change anything if I got a chance to start all over."

"Too often we're focusing on the outside, on the top-down, we're focused on politics, we're focused on economics and trade. Those things are all very important," he said

"But I think in each of our countries, we need more and more talent who have studied each other's languages, who have lived in each other's countries - not just in the big cities - but who really, and in both directions, have the ability to understand national conditions, and then build up from there. I think it's in our national interest and in our bilateral interest to do that," Wright said. Enditem

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