Jake B. Schrum, President, Southwestern University

In today’s world, to be well educated means to know a great deal about China

In the academic world, it is rare for a day to lapse without hearing the word China. Moreover, any well-informed citizen in most parts of our global community would agree that what happens in China will affect the entire planet.

My wife, Jane, and I traveled in China in 1986. This was before the Tian’anmen Square massacre, and China was beginning to be more comfortable with western visitors. However, our three-week visit had a very strict itinerary, with little chance to stray from our assigned venues. It was one of the most fascinating and elucidating learning experiences of my life.

There remains a feeling of sensory inundation when remembrances of China flood my mind. What comes to mind are the following themes: economics, environment and population growth.

Even in 1986, China was beginning to allow its citizens a glimpse of entrepreneurship. Just outside the excavation site where the terra-cotta soldiers were discovered in Xian, the ancient capital of China, we were able to enjoy a few moments of shopping at what most consumers would call a flea market. After some negotiation, we purchased a beautiful piece of old lace that we still treasure today. This type of free enterprise was only just beginning to take hold. Present-day China is vastly different. A member of Southwestern’s Board of Visitors has traveled regularly to China for at least 15 years and has a very successful furniture business based on his contacts with Chinese manufacturers.

As we know from recent news reports, there are challenges working with China when it comes to business, but it appears the country will continue to enjoy an ever-increasing share of the world’s trade.

Even on our trip 20 years ago, environmental problems were rampant in the cities on our itinerary. It was sunny every day we were in Beijing, but one could look directly at the sun and not damage their eyes. The pollution was horrible, and every public building smelled like garlic because all the cooking is done with garlic. The environment might just be one of China’s greatest challenges, and the size of their population makes matters even worse.

Finally, there seemed to be people everywhere. Even on a remote hillside above the Yangtze River one could see a farmer working a plot of land that was no bigger than the inside of a compact car. Every inch of space for growing food is utilized to support millions upon millions of people. Waves of bicycle riders would move down the streets of Beijing, weaving in and out of public buses where citizens were packed in and leaning outside, holding on for dear life.

My test for whether a society is getting better or worse has to do with hope. I wondered about this in China, even in 1986 when many of these present challenges seemingly were not as insurmountable. Perhaps there was a lot of hope and because of cultural nuances it was not readily apparent to me. I do know this: we must help our students at Southwestern understand China, its culture, its challenges, and its plans for meeting them. In today’s world, to be well educated means to know a great deal about China.

Jake B. Schrum ’68
President, Southwestern University