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Tuesday, April 18, 2006 - Page updated at 01:45 PM


Guest columnist

A century of reaching out to China

Special to The Times

When we welcome distinguished guests from China, as now during President Hu Jintao's visit to Seattle, we at the University of Washington feel we are among old friends. That is because the UW has been intellectually crossing the Pacific to understand China and Asia since 1909, when our international-studies program was launched with a focus on "Eastern and Oriental Studies."

That near-century of experience is crucial to our future relationships with this remarkable nation. President Hu's visit will shine a spotlight on a complex and rapidly changing China. Indeed, China's image is seen in very different ways by different facets of our community and our country. Exporters see in China a vast bazaar of consumers, factory workers see a legion of underpriced labor, retailers see a source of high-quality affordable products, military strategists see a potential competitor, software makers see a growing talent pool of skilled programmers, and so on. Microsoft sees one China, the Port of Seattle sees another, the orchard growers yet another.

A research university such as ours plays a vital role in connecting the dots between these various viewpoints. Our task is to study the complete picture and to teach about the integrated whole: the commercial, the confrontational, the cultural, all the pieces. Academic settings have a way of turning down — at least slightly — the rhetoric of the moment, even when the issues are challenging and hotly debated.

The University of Washington's patient cultivation of ties with China's academic leaders and institutions meant that our state had already built bridges with China when China was ready to engage with the rest of the world in the 1970s. Our intellectual infrastructure was in place to help contribute to the founding of the Washington Council on International Trade and the Washington State China Relations Council, establish sister-state relations with Sichuan and sister-city relations with Chongqing, and to contribute to the first visit of a top Chinese leader to Seattle when Deng Xiaoping journeyed here in 1979. The UW helped pave the way to deeper, more thoughtful relations then, and we will do so now and into the future.

Today's UW ties to China are extensive and deep. Let me give you a single example taken from the village of Yangjuan, in Sichuan Province. For several years, villagers there have welcomed our students and professors from disciplines that range from forestry to public health. UW students have measured the growth of local forests, compiled a floral survey, made an ethnobotanical collection, mapped the village with Global Positioning System technology, measured the growth of village children and analyzed prospects for apple growing. In all, it has been a vital infusion of talent and resources to an isolated rural area, and an incredible educational opportunity for our students.

UW students form partnerships with students from China to develop strategies for addressing our common challenges. Most recently, a UW student returned from his studies in China to start his own company that turns the waste stream from food production into biodiesel fuel, while another is developing new mechanisms to remove trace organic compounds from drinking-water supplies.

Those students and faculty return with a deeper understanding of China in its breathtaking richness, just as their Chinese hosts gain a similar understanding of our people and nation. That deeper understanding is also the outcome for students enrolled in our world-class Asian Languages and Literature and China Studies programs, for those who collaborate with Chinese scholars on innumerable scientific research projects, and even for our national championship women's volleyball team planning to tour China this summer.

As China enters the superpower spotlight, where else but at a great research university, with its concentration of engaged scholars and teachers, can we work on comprehensive, thoughtful approaches to dealing with the challenges that China's emergence will mean to the people of Washington, the United States and the world.

In addition to serving as a source for understanding and balance, the University of Washington is a nodal point for direct cooperation with China through a wide array of joint research and teaching projects in areas such as biotechnology, computer science and medicine. These partnerships provide UW students with the opportunity to gain an education that will prepare them to be successful in the changing world that China and the U.S. must face together. These partnerships are also the foundation on which other relationships are built, in government, business and nonprofit institutions.

But in my mind, no task seems more crucial right now than to expand our thinking about China, to try to open our perspective beyond the dualities of "mercantile opportunity" and "competitive threat." This is a time that, perhaps more than ever, demands balance and reflection.

Mark A. Emmert is president of the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company