A Kunshan Diary, by Noah Pickus

October 31, 2015

How does an American university professor and grandson of a Jewish immigrant prepare to teach citizenship at a university in China?That is the question I grappled with as I headed to Duke Kunshan University to teach part of a course on “Citizenship and Globalization in the 21st Century.” Actually, three of us from Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics are co-teaching the course in two and three-week modules, beginning with Suzanne Shanahan (a sociologist), followed by me (teaching public policy), and ending with Wayne Norman (a philosopher). For years we’ve taught our own separate courses and at DKU we’re integrating them into one.

The first section of the course focused on justice beyond borders. My section focused on the meaning of national citizenship in a mobile world. And the final section, running now, will examine the ethical obligations of multinational corporations. Each module of the course highlights a different angle on the same issue: new challenges to values and identities in the modern world. In short, the course is about the ethics of globalization.

This brief diary captures a few highlights from my time in Kunshan March 15 – 27, 2015.

Tuesday, March 17 – Thursday, March 19

Last Train Home


Our students came from universities across China, from India and from Duke. While designing our DKU course back in the U.S., we wondered what it would be like to teach in this setting. Once we started class, it became immediately clear that the students were ready and eager to debate a range of domestic and international principles and policies. One evening, for instance, I showed a film that had only been viewed by small audiences in China and provoked a lively debate among the students.

Last Train Home illustrates the human dimension of China’s household-registration system (hukou) that determines where people can settle internally. The system means that when parents from rural areas relocate to cities for work, their children aren’t eligible for school or social insurance and so must either remain in the countryside or struggle in the cities. The students were sympathetic to the teenager in the film, whose encounters with her parents on their rare visits home focus on her school performance. Many, however, were surprised that most countries do not regulate where individuals can live and what educational and health benefits are provided to them based on residence. This is a system that the Chinese government is seeking to reform – President Xi Jinping proposed doing so 14 years ago in his Ph.D thesis – and some students felt keenly that the current policy was unfair. Others pointed out that China couldn’t afford to have everyone move to the major cities and that families who had paid in to the social insurance systems of the major cities should benefit more than those from outside.

These kinds of arguments continued throughout the course. They debated Eric Liu’s claim, in the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has a competitive advantage because “America makes Chinese Americans. China doesn't make American Chinese.” And they puzzled over how the Dutch can, in the name of liberalism and free-thinking, require new immigrants to profess those values as a condition of receiving citizenship. The varying positions in the debate, in fact, mirrored those held by students in my Duke classes. I’m still not quite sure whether this points more to the spread of free inquiry (where good readings inspire critical thinking and consideration of alternatives) or to the triumph of globalization (where all debates begin to sound the same).

Saturday, March 21 – Tuesday, March 24

Synagogue and Singapore


Globalization and diversity turn up outside of class as well. In Shanghai for the weekend, I find myself in the cool and elegant lobby of the five-star Swissotel. Located a half block from Starbucks, the Western guests are thin and casually stylish and the Chinese guests sport a brand of urban chic. White Apple earbuds – those understated but distinctive accessories – are a unifying feature. But if the hotel lobby seems cosmopolitan in a uniform kind of way, my visit to a store-front synagogue for Shabbat services is a startling contrast. The congregants are a hodge-podge of nationalities and the service is in the Sephardic tradition, a reflection of the Jews who came to Shanghai from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a good reminder that every level of homogeneity contains within it multitudes of differences.

Returning to Kunshan from Shanghai, I got an even fuller sense of the diversity of opinion among the students when a group from China and India invited me to discuss democracy. Like the rest of my class, most of these students were studying science or engineering in their home institutions but harbored an intense desire to talk about broader subjects. What did it mean, they asked, to say that the U.S. was a democracy? Did that mean popular rule? Why not? Very quickly we found ourselves comparing notes on the differences between a democracy and a republic. And what about the trade-offs between social order and individual liberty? How can a country the size of China manage itself without significant central control? Was India developing less rapidly because of its democratic practices?

The specter of chaos, it became clear, was very real in their minds. So, too, was the death that morning of Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and a consideration of the relationship between economic liberty and political or personal liberty.

The students held a wide range of views on all these issues – far more so than in a typical U.S. class – and the discussion benefitted greatly from these differences. At times, the conversation was difficult, as the students sought to practice the ground rules of civility that they had established for their group. Although the students were especially careful to ensure that those more fluent in English did not dominate the conversation, there was little of the elaborate rituals I have observed in U.S. classrooms via which students work hard to ensure that no one is offended. The discussion, too, went beyond the merely analytic. The students talked about what these ideas meant to them personally. They described the outcome of these debates as if they mattered to their own lives.

Thursday, March 26 and Friday, March 27


This range of views and deep personal commitments made it especially remarkable when, halfway through the class, China and the United States announced that they were merging into one country: Chimerica. Actually, that was the scenario with which the students had to grapple as part of a simulated “Citizenship Task Force.” Having studied U.S. and Chinese conceptions of citizenship – blood-based and birthright, single and dual – and explored the meaning of the rule of law, social connections, equality and loyalty, how would they answer the first question any new nation is confronted with: who is a citizen?

Working in teams, the students proved themselves adept at the now apparently universal language of PowerPoint. Perhaps more surprising, they also seemed to naturally articulate a universal language of rights and liberty. Even as concern for stability and social order had emerged as a key issue in the discussion of democracy, tolerance - most seemed to agree - was absolutely essential to the new nation’s self-definition.

If there was one salient difference from my Duke classes, it was the number of students for whom loyalty to family, cultural tradition and the nation was essential. “How can you have your body in one place and your heart in another?” one student asked about the U.S.’s acceptance of dual citizenship. They regarded the U.S. approach as shallow and lacking in strong ties to a people and a place. Still, if some students prioritized blood and nationality over individual choice of multiple citizenships, and others embraced an emerging global consensus accepting multiple citizenships, most of my students seemed genuinely torn. They were divided, within themselves as much as among themselves, between their desire for a more mobile and more global personal existence and their commitment to the development of China as a singular player on the global stage.

From Belarus to Shanghai


My final two days at DKU involved a documentary about, and field trip to, the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees in Shanghai – more popularly known as the Shanghai Ghetto – in which more than 20,000 Jews found refuge from Hitler’s Germany. The only place in the world that didn’t require a visa for entry at the time, Shanghai offered a narrow entry point among jostling empires for Jews fleeing persecution. It’s a curious piece of history, one I’m hoping might connect the issues we’ve been studying in class to a place and a time where the human costs of statelessness are palpable. And I want to draw a link, however tenuous, between my ancestry and theirs.

I am helped in this cause by my cousin, David Pickus, who is now a professor of history at Remnin University in Beijing. David sketches the European backdrop to the Shanghai Ghetto story and prompts the students to think about how and why it happened. To sketch the improbability of our joint presence at DKU, we show a Google map of Gomel, Belarus, where my grandfather (and his great-grandfather), Nissan Wolf, left to come to the U.S. Zooming out, we trace the unlikely journey that took him to Sioux City, Iowa, and eventually Chicago, and to his descendants’ perhaps equally unlikely presence together in Kunshan.

For our students, the questions are more immediate. What, they want to know, takes place in a Jewish religious service? Since most Chinese have no formal experience with a religious service of any kind, this turns out to be harder to answer than I might have imagined. It’s a reminder that some basic reference points I take for granted teaching in the U.S. – that even the most secular students are in some way familiar with religious practices – have to be re-examined when teaching in China.  Still, their unfamiliarity with religion only stokes their interest. They wanted to better understand why there has been so much anti-Semitism throughout history, and the ways in which religious differences shaped the creation of Israel and its policies on citizenship.

Eventually, these questions led us back to a basic question underlying our visit, one that also illustrates the larger themes of the course: Why did China take in Jews when no one else would? As David helped illustrate, there’s a specific historical answer: neither China nor the European controlled areas in Shanghai nor, post-1937, the occupying Japanese army, found it in their interest to enforce passport controls or got around to doing so. But the students want to push further, continuing the discussion in person and over social media. Does a country ever act out of anything beyond its own self-interest? Do broader, more global or universal commitments play a role? Should they? At Duke, students often tend to start with a cosmopolitan perspective and I have to work to get them to see national interests. Here in China, the students seem to start with assumptions about national interests and the work involved is to draw out the moral commitments that go beyond borders. Standing on the former site of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, it’s a great dialogue.

Noah Pickus is Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and Associate Research Professor of Public Policy Studies at Duke University. He also chairs the curriculum group of Duke's Liberal Arts in China Committee.

East Asia