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A China watcher looks back

TWENTY-SIX years ago Ingrid d'Hooghe enrolled in a Shanghai university and was bored by rote, passive learning. Today she herself teaches here and welcomes all questions. Alex Linder reports.

When Ingrid d'Hooghe first arrived in Shanghai to study Chinese in 1985 it was quite different from the bustling megalopolis we know today.

She remembers a quiet town with few cars crowding the roadways and hardly any highrises to blot out the sun. It felt somehow different from other Chinese cities, though. The people had more style, she thought, and the atmosphere was more dynamic, as if they were all on the cusp of momentous changes.

But even when looking from the window of her 12th-floor apartment out onto endless miles of interstates, shopping malls and skyscrapers, she said that the urban development of the city isn't what stands out to her as the biggest difference from then to now in Shanghai. Instead, she points to what has occurred in the classroom.

Cutting class to travel

d'Hooghe's career in Sinology began as something of a joke told by a Dutch adolescent unsure about what she wanted to study in university. When pressed by her parents, d'Hooghe came up with China. "Instead of my parents reacting like, 'oh, come on,' they became serious," d'Hooghe laughs. "They said, 'oh, what a good idea'."

From there what had started as a jest became an overwhelming fascination. Strictly speaking, Sinology is the study of classical Chinese language and literature, but she discovered it has broader implications. "I was drawn to the fact that it was not just studying language; in fact language is just a key," she explains. "It involves studying China's history, China's economy, China's culture."

Of course, the best place to study a country is from the inside and so d'Hooghe happily enrolled at Shanghai's Fudan University in 1985.

However, she quickly became dissatisfied with her classes - they bored her to death.

Each class followed a simple formula: the professor would dictate the information and the students would learn it by heart. "There was no discussion of alternative implications or context of the ancient text," she explains.

The materials they worked with also felt very confining. The faculty couldn't make use of international academic literature except for one or two approved works and the Chinese scholars didn't travel to international conferences. "They didn't know the West and the West didn't know their work," d'Hooghe notes.

After enduring a few weeks of this stifling routine, d'Hooghe decided that there must be a better way to learn about China, so she cut class and toured the country by bus and train, meeting the people and seeing how they live.

"I've never regretted that decision," she says. "Although it was against the rules, the university did not stop me and so I traveled to all corners and provinces." She visited Yunnan, Guangdong provinces in the south, Heilongjiang Province in the north and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest and southwest.

In her travels she picked up more wisdom than she had reciting ancient scrolls. "I saw a lot of poverty, but also the signs of development in areas around the big cities," she remembers. "That year laid the basis of my overall view of China. I have seen where they are coming from."

Now, 26 years later, d'Hooghe is living in Shanghai again, but this time she is here as the expert. From her view at the other end of the classroom, she can't help but be encouraged by what she is seeing.

She sees more Chinese academics becoming involved and recognized worldwide and a record number of Chinese students taking the opportunity to study in the United States or Europe.

Before her lectures to students, she is not asked what she'll discuss beforehand or what texts she'll draw from. "When I give guest lectures at universities or think-tanks in Beijing or Shanghai, I feel free to discuss every part of my research," she says.

Open discussion

Half of her lecture time is devoted to opening up a discussion with students and addressing their questions. She says that often students will follow-up via e-mail, offering up even more questions or comments or just sharing some of their hopes and dreams.

What d'Hooghe lectures about is the fast-emerging field of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is a much less sinister, PC version of "propaganda," dealing with how governments try to present and explain themselves to foreign peoples worldwide.

The Chinese government has begun attaching great importance to the role of public diplomacy. It has invested a great deal in media targeting people outside China and has even set up local organizations to think about the issue, such as the Shanghai Public Diplomacy Association founded last year with Yao Ming as honorary ambassador.

d'Hooghe says that because of its size and growth China has had difficulty in forming a cohesive message, but she has been encouraged with how much stock it is putting into communicating abroad. "I'm surprised by the speed at which China is picking up the topic and how it has become such a hot topic with leaders," she says.

More Chinese less Dutch

In her research d'Hooghe speaks with the requisite cabinet of scholars, think-tankers, officials and diplomats. But she points out that when you live here you encounter all kinds of people in your daily life who are just as important to speak with.

"You just start a conversation," d'Hooghe says. "You meet people sitting on the train, taxi drivers, people that you go and buy flowers from, and you ask about their lives."

She finds these conversations valuable in getting a better sense of the developments in China and in figuring out what's driving ordinary society, rather than just being confined to an academic bubble.

Also, chatting away with the locals allows d'Hooghe to keep up with the language, something she says she struggles with in her native Netherlands. She simply cannot use it enough, apart from the specialized jargon that appears in the public diplomacy papers she reads.

She will have plenty of time to strengthen her language skills because she plans to be in China for the next four years together with her husband, Peter Potman, Dutch consul general in Shanghai. In the past she has just been able to steal a month or a few weeks each year in China.

She said these quick journeys always made her feel more like a passerby in China and she is excited that she now has the chance to really become immersed in her research and in China.

d'Hooghe says that her 30 years studying China has certainly changed her outlook. "It makes you less rigid, more open-minded," she explains. "You open up to what the Chinese view is. It made me less Dutch quickly."

Ingrid d'Hooghe

Nationality: Dutch
Age: 50
Profession: China scholar at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael

Self-description: Curious, sociable, critical.

Favorite place: Jinxian Road, a wonderful little street in the former French concession.

Strangest sight: Flower sculpture at the Gubei Road and Yan'an Road crossing.

Worst experience: Use of the Internet.

Motto for life: Always look on the bright side of life.

How to improve Shanghai: Invest more in protecting the city's cultural heritage.

Advice to newcomers: Explore the city by bike.


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