Journalist John Pomfret on Chinese Culture, Perceptions, and Personal Experiences
John Pomfret is an American journalist and writer who, in 1980, became one of the first American students to go to China and study at Nanjing University. Since then, he’s become an expert on Asia and his book, Chinese Lessons, was one of Cushing’s summer reading selections. On Feb. 25, Pomfret flew from China to spend the day with the Cushing community.
In an all-school assembly, Pomfret spoke to students and faculty about New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin—whose family is Chinese and Taiwanese—and how Lin is an example of the expanding definition of what it means to be Chinese. Until the 19th century, it was a capital offense to leave China. And, if you left, you were no longer considered Chinese. Today, Lin, who is an American citizen, is embraced by the Chinese people as a role model.
Shifting Chinese perceptions of the United States are evident in Pomfret’s own experiences as well. While he was studying in China in 1980, his Chinese friends were intensely curious about American life. Less than a decade later, after the Tiananmen Square protests, there was a crackdown on pro-American and pro-democratic sentiment in the Communist country. The climax of anti-American feeling, Pomfret told Cushing students, was in 2008, at the time of the economic collapse in the United States. Since then, the Chinese have become engaged in conversations about food safety, education, and other middle-class topics, and have an increasing openness to Western ideas.
In response to a student question about reforms in China, he said that there are liberal groups that want to engage in reform and who want to encourage freedom of expression. But there are also powerful special interest groups that are blocking such change. Thus, there is a conflict between the notion of a free economy and the government’s desire to control the flow of information.
One student was curious about how the more rural parts of the country were dealing with increased industrialization. Pomfret answered by saying that the resistance to industrialization on the part of western China was broken down by the Cultural Revolution. Many young people have left the western parts of the country to work in the factories on the east coast and that has had a profound change on their society. The status of women has changed because they’re part of that highly mobile workforce and they’re bringing home the money that pays for the modern amenities people hunger for, like flush toilets, cell phones, and flat screen TVs.
On a topic close to the hearts of many on Cushing’s diverse campus, Pomfret feels that influence of Chinese students studying in the United States is positive and that their presence shows a strong link between the two countries.
Asked what Pomfret currently does in China, he noted that he is on leave from the Washington Post to write a book about the intertwined American and Chinese stories as far back as the 18th century. After the book is complete, he anticipates going back to work at the Washington Post.
Following the assembly, Pomfret joined a smaller group of students for lunch, and another to discuss internationalizing efforts at Cushing.
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