U.S. Academic Defends China, Citing Progress

The Wall Street Journal talks to Susan Brownell an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the the University of Missouri- St. Louis who was a nationally-ranked athlete in the United States before winning a gold medal for Beijing City in the 1986 Chinese National College Games:

Ms. Brownell doesn’t dispute that China has problems, but she says many Western criticisms are hypocritical or ignore the huge progress China has made in many areas. More than that, she sees the two sides’ failure to understand each other as a tragedy.

Susan Brownell, far left, accepting the sixth-place award for Beijing University in the 1986 Beijing City College Meet. (WSJ, Susan Brownell Family)
Susan Brownell, far left, accepting the sixth-place award for Beijing University in the 1986 Beijing City College Meet. (WSJ, Susan Brownell Family)

“When you see the enthusiasm, the idealism and the faith in a better future and then when you look at the perception abroad — that it’s propping up a regime, air pollution, child-athlete factories — there is a disjuncture,” Ms. Brownell says.

Ms. Brownell, a 47-year-old anthropologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, has also recently translated into English the biography of China’s only member of the International Olympic Committee. And she has gone further, sometimes advising Chinese officials on how to be more effective in communicating with the West.

In the small world of academics who write on sports in China, Ms. Brownell’s positions are by far the most optimistic.

“Susan wants to counteract prejudices against the PRC and she seems, sometimes, to become an apologist for the regime,” wrote Allen Guttmann, a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts who has written on sports history, in an email answer to a query. “Mostly, however, I think she’s about as objective as is possible. I don’t think, in anthropological jargon, that she’s ‘gone native.’”