Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Pursuing the Spirit of Niu

| March 2, 2009


"Pursuing the Spirit of Niu" was reprinted in The International Herald Tribune on March 2, 2009.

PROBABLY BECAUSE of the financial crisis, most people have been referring to the Chinese Year of Niu ("bull" or "ox" in Chinese) as the year of the ox. But a bullish period will be emerging sooner from the crisis if we learn something from the spirit of niu.

Niu has been an important labor force on Chinese farms for thousands of years. Therefore, in Chinese culture, niu is often used to symbolize a hardworking and trustworthy spirit. There is a famous saying in Chinese — "Although niu only eats grass, it produces milk" — which praises niu's willingness to contribute. In addition, a poem by the 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun brings home niu's attitude of serving without complaining: "To a thousand pointing fingers I defy with fierce brows, and to younglings I'd be fain to bow and serve as a niu." Niu's qualities — no-complaints, trustworthiness, unselfishness, and willingness to give and serve the people — are exactly the spirit that we should pursue in a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear amid the crisis.

That spirit must inhabit us all. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, there is a demand to return to the truth — the values upon which America's success depends — including honesty, hard work, courage, and fair play. Last December, an American friend ended 25 years of service for a healthcare company. She laid herself off in order to save colleagues who she thought would need their rice bowls more than she does, like a single mother of three and a man who has vision in just one eye. Her courage and unselfishness reflect the spirit of American people mentioned by Obama: The selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose her or his job sees us through our darkest hours.

In the global context, at a time when international solidarity and mutual assistance is called for to weather the storm, complaining or blaming others will bring no solution. The recent US voices about China's currency manipulation have sparked tension between China and the United States, and speculation from the world about a potential trade war between the two countries.

A trade war between two of the largest economies will only lead to an accelerated deterioration of the global economic situation. Trade has played a significant role in world economic growth. It accounted for 23 percent of the global economy in 1998 and has skyrocketed to 32 percent today. To revive an economy in which trust and credit have collapsed, rebuilding confidence and letting international trade flow are key. No wonder Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain urged keeping global free trade alive to weather the stumbling global economy.

Bilateral trade between China and the United States was valued at $333.7 billion in 2008, about 120 times more than 30 years ago. Keeping a healthy and progressive trade relationship with China is strategically important to the United States, not only because it benefits ordinary US households who need the cheaper Chinese products, but because many countries are in the midst of initiating free-trade negotiations to lessen their dependence on the United States.

Chinese believe in the philosophy that "the one who tied the bell on the tiger should untie it." One can only hope that Obama can live up to the enormous expectations that the world has for him, including salvaging the crisis while maintaining constructive and cooperative relations with other countries. Newton's Law of Motion illustrates that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same principle applies to country-to-country relations — when we hit or hurt someone, then we, too, will be hit or hurt with equal force. When countries are closely linked with each other in today's world, cooperation and unity, instead of self-protection and irresponsible accusation, are the only way out of a crisis. That's why many leaders called for greater international cooperation in Davos.

During a visit to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to keep buying US treasuries. China, America's largest creditor, has not chosen to sell US treasuries despite its own hardship. This is also part of niu's spirit.

In Chinese, crisis (wei ji) means crisis (wei) and opportunities (ji). The crisis may open up an opportunity for the world's largest developed country and largest developing country to address global challenges instead of triggering a crisis in bilateral relations. Obama has the choice to turn a crisis into an opportunity — if he leads in the spirit of niu and works with world leaders to turn the year of the ox into the year of the bull.

Queenie Qian is a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Anne Wu is an associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of the Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Qian, Queenie and Anne Wu.“Pursuing the Spirit of Niu.” The Boston Globe, March 2, 2009.

The Authors