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NMSU professor, Confucius Institute bring perspective to protests against China

The 2008 Olympic Games have thrust China into the public eye and handed the emerging economic giant a torch lit with protests in Tibet, demonstrations against their Darfur policies and demands for improvement of human rights.


The protests have surprised China and they have ignited a nationalist movement by the Chinese to criticize the West, in what the Chinese see as an attempt to embarrass them at a time when they are poised to show the world their country's changes.

"The Olympics provide an opportunity for China to show off its development, show off the growth of its economy and show off how modern and sophisticated it has become, but at the same time it makes them very vulnerable because people see the Olympics as an opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese and embarrass them," said Kenneth Hammond, associate professor of history and director of New Mexico State University's Confucius Institute.

Hammond has studied China and Tibet relations for many years. Beginning in 1982 Hammond spent five years living and working in Beijing. In 1991 he spent time traveling with education groups in Tibet and China lecturing and studying the history of China since the Ming Dynasty and the relationships between China and Tibet.

"Since the 17th Century, Tibet, for the last 400 to 500 years, has been part of a sequence of Chinese or China-centered governments and states until 1912 when the last imperial dynasties fell apart. From 1912 to 1950 Tibet was functionally independent, but the problem was that nobody recognized them as an independent government and always treated them through the Chinese government," Hammond explained.

Hammond's research puts in perspective why from time to time the West, and those favoring Tibet's independence, flares into the public eye. The 2008 Olympics is a vehicle for Tibet supporters to once again bring the issue to the forefront.

"The recent protests up in Lhasa, Tibet, are tied to the 49th anniversary of the rebellion against Chinese control in March of 1959. The anniversary comes around every year but has never been anything like what we have this year. I believe the presence of the Olympics has given people an opportunity to get more attention and use it as a leverage and a threat to embarrass China over the Olympics," Hammond said.

The issues of China and Tibet go back a long way and the current protest is a classic example, which has gotten a lot of sympathy in the West, Hammond said. "But it's only hardening the position of the Chinese authorities because they see it as an attempt to embarrass them right before the Olympics," he said

Part of the goal of the Confucius Institute is to bring an understanding of these controversial problems by trying to understand the history behind it. Hammond has taken many students to study in China and has arranged for Chinese students, faculty and staff to study and lecture at NMSU.

"There is a profound need for more education and communication about China in the United States and other Western countries," Hammond said. "There are fundamental differences in the ways in which government and politics are conceived of in China and the West. In the modern West we think of a multi-party electoral system as the 'sine quo non'of democracy. In the eyes of many Chinese, this is just a system for passing the buck between the parties."

This understanding is one of the goals of the Confucius Institute, which is part of a global initiative by the educational authorities in China to try and promote the Chinese language and an understanding of the Chinese culture and civilization. At NMSU the Confucius Institute is part of an outgrowth of a partnership between NMSU and a college in Northern China called the Shijiazhuang Language and Culture College (SLCC) in Hebei Province, south of Beijing.

As an example of how differently Chinese and Westerners think, Hammond relays how a friend in China told him that they see the American politics as a way for neither party to accept real responsibility. "But with only one party in power, in China, there is no question where the buck stops," he said.

"There is real, substantive debate over policies and practices within the Chinese Communist Party, and in many forums across (Chinese) society. When the policies of the government are unpopular, there is no question who's to be blamed. This is not the model we are used to, but it is one which has been working in China and which has broad support among most ordinary Chinese," Hammond said.

In his studies, Hammond has found that "China's modern historical experience has been deeply shaped by the invasion and domination of China beginning early in the 19th Century," he said. "The economic and political power of the West was used to draw wealth out of China and to subject China to the will of elites in the West. This is still deeply resented, and when Western countries adopt self righteous attitudes about issues like Tibet or Darfur, based on simplistic media coverage and sensationalism, this seems like more Western bias and high-handedness," he said.

Hammond's research and the work and goals of the Confucious Institute are a means to bring about a better understanding that puts an emphasis in education and communication about China. On April 18, Hammond conducted a public lecture to try to bring more reflection and balance into the problems, protests and controversies that have occurred in recent days over Tibet and China.

"The more we can learn about the realities of life and politics in China the better. This is a long-term process and needs to be carried on beyond the level of headlines and sound bites," Hammond said.