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From Behind the Great Wall of China: Part 1

My impressions, after working and living in China, contradict those initial assumptions and reflections from a year ago, when I visited China the first time.

It has been 10 months since my last blog. I spent this time in China, invited as a professor and KoGuan Chair of Digital Arts & Design @ Peking University, known as China’s best. This has proven to be one of the most surprisingly edifying experiences, and I have seen quite a bit already.

What may make this blog odd is that I began writing it a year ago, yet did not complete it back then. Now, a year later and smarter, I am returning to do so. And as I am reading what I penned back then, I realize that my impressions, after working and living in China, contradict those initial assumptions and reflections from a year ago, when I visited China the first time. But instead of deleting them, or beginning all over, I am going to keep both versions, while by doing so likely contradicting myself.

A year ago I wrote: “I would say that out of all the places I have been to, China experience was the most trying and frustrating. It is partially due to the mentality of this particular school within which, for some insane reason my department was injected into. But, more likely, it may be the outcome of an upbringing under their political, economic, social and family models, deeply rooted customs, expectations, or the top down hierarchy. Some told me that it is due to the Confucianism trailed by Communism. It maybe all of these, all concurrently? Moreover, it might be all of these deeply rooted factors coming to conflict with an hurried speed with which China is now trying to modernize, to catch up with the world and to evolve at all cost. No matter which amalgam it is, seeing and experiencing it first hand is undeniably worth while.

Most recently, when asked about reasoning for my proposed curriculum redesign of Digital Arts & Design department, I use the following metaphor to describe China: “Its an awakening giant, still drowsy, seeing things out of focus, a bit confused and blurred in vision and mind, thus somewhat off balance and not too clear of its identity, much of it wrecked by the Cultural Revolution. But as soon as it finds its equilibrium, identity and objectives for hence forth, it will become ferociously ravenous and truthfully unstoppable.”

When that happens, given the China’s vastest population on the planet, plus one of the fastest evolving, progressively affluent economies of all, this giant will feel famished for all forms of input, may it be new technologies, New Media, inventive economy, or astonishing tourism. It might also be ignited by their young generations, now embarking on massive study abroad programs, but likely to thereafter return to the motherland, where new opportunities will spring up faster than anywhere else. With newly acquired wealth, China will desire all forms of amusement, known throughout human history as one of the most effective means of diversion or satisfying hunger for enjoyment or, likely, pacifying a society at large.

Considering China enormous population, one likely to double as soon as the “one child law” is eradicated, I foresee that Theme Park Entertainment will represent the most alluring and apropos opportunity of all, both to the users and the providers. Currently the latter are derived from the Western world. This is why I proposed a program devoted to theme park entertainment’s creative and technological facets. Else, with a swing of a magic wand, the little mouse with a pointed hat, will make the enduring cultural character, heritage, , tradition, legends, stories or beliefs dissipate before China takes steps to preserve them.

Moreover, given that theme park genre encompasses all other mediums of entertainment, it can act as a vast creative umbrella under which all other disciplines blend together. In my curriculum I also proposed immersive and interactive environment design, which are closely allied to theme park entertainment and technology. One can see such becoming satellites and external extensions of the giant theme parks. As inventive shopping malls, they are already pervading our daily lives. It is where young generation aims in search of social interaction, limited forms of amusement or basic escapism, for a lack of anything better.

Yet given a conventionally slow, risk averse academic setting, I know that it will take a few years for the system to implement most of my design. By then the dynamics and opportunities will be very different?

A year ago, after my initial visit, I wrote: “China, as one of the ancient countries, some say 5,000 years old, with the longest and deepest roots, does not change as fluidly as those nations that are younger or more rebellious or more open minded as a result of multicultural populations with diverse perspectives.”

Today, due to greater insight, I am willing to contradict myself by expanding on the above: Many say that China is 7,000 years old, hence even richer and deeply rooted in its ancient heritage, beliefs and traditions. Yet while the Cultural Revolution has successfully devastated most of its culture, traditions, heritage, artistry, wealth and identity, and the spirit of the past remains deeply felt, I am willing to bet that in this century, China will evolve and advance forth faster than any other country on this planet.

One curator at a modern art museum in Beijing put it to me as follows: “Even though China is one of the oldest cultures, having gone through the Cultural Revolution, it should be considered a 40 years young. Yet, because of its newly awakened energy and a fervent desire for its own artistic identity, it is currently evolving with a greater acceleration than any other land around the world. Thus, he stated, 10 years in China’s current progress can be considered equals to 100 years in any of the European countries.”

A year ago I wrote: “China is an awakening giants, for now, only economically. It is not hard to imagine how mighty this nation can become, and how great its impact on the dynamics of the world will be, once it spreads its wings, web or tentacles. This though will depend on the aspirations of its controlling rulers.

China is only one of the arising giants. Its bear neighbor, Russia, has an rich history of domination over other nations. It will be exciting to see how the play, competition or interplay between these two giants will advance, and alter the world. Despite their extensively complex millenniums long histories, neither of them has ever felt democracy or freedom, whether from the emperors, tsars or Communism. Their rulers have masterfully muzzled populace under their respective dominance, often taking advantage of people’s love for their country, their nationalistic bents or permeating yearning for supremacy over neighbors.

Now, I wish to embellish the above statement: China is not just arising economically but becoming savvy politically as well as robust militarily. It is aware that its vast populace positions it as the most desirable customer base in the world. From what I saw, it is playing its cards shrewdly and with an unparalleled vision for the future and a role it can play within it. Over my time there I have seen China making active advances towards India, the second largest population in the world, that is also advancing economically, though at a lower pace. These two ancient giants will make an unequaled couple in impacting the future.

While we in the formerly mighty West are bickering internally, wasting our limited resources in trying to seed “democracy” in countries that will turn then against us as soon as it is convenient for them to do so, China is aggressively and wisely investing in other countries, and I do not mean our USA alone but also in South East Asia and in Africa. Whenever I watched Chinese English news broadcasted, I saw programs designed to honor cultural wealth and heritage of developing countries in Africa. Thus a population of China, traditionally not too fond of black people, is swiftly altering its attitudes for the better. Chinese government, planning ahead, sees vast new markets in African. Through its extensive investments it is assuring itself of a long term ability to influence those nations that owe it money and are unable to sustain themselves without the cumulative Chinese credit extended to them, USA being amongst them.

I wish to conclude this new blog with a deeply felt assertion, which some find uncalled or unjustified or politically incorrect or simply unnerving to consider. Nevertheless, based on my time there, I deem that China represents the power that will shape a foreseeable future of our World. What is happening there now, and will forth, will impact the rest of the world with a greater force than most wish to contemplate.

Yet the ambitions, ideology, perspectives and vision of this newly awakening giant will define the climate of world we live in, and our children will grow up in. In my judgment, for better or worse, current century represents China’s turn as the dominant power shaping, directly or indirectly, the character of everything. It is for this reason that I propose that the West reaches out to the East to ascertain a greater dialogue that will not just institute multifaceted collaboration between the economies, political and military titans but seed, and then cultivate, a healthier understanding, shared, mutually favorable and enriching regard and appreciation for each other’s individuality, aspirations, personality, needs and reciprocal fortes.

The West and the East exemplify two diverse perceptions, philosophies, systems and unique talents with which we can benefit the other. As the balance of the world shifts and due to globalization our World is shrinking. We must seek ways through which to benefit each other in ways that will be beneficial and enriching to the one key entity we share, our World and our future on it.

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