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Professor develops 'Chinese heart'

China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-15 10:04
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William Brown signs and sells his book about Xiamen University at the university in Xiamen, Fujian province, in April 2006. [Photo by ZHANG XIANGYANG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Xiamen University business professor William Brown, 62, has spent nearly half his life in southeastern China's Fujian province developing what he calls a "Chinese heart".

The fluent Mandarin speaker hails from the United States but has lived in Xiamen, one of China's five earliest special economic zones, for 30 years.

In that time, he has witnessed the country's hardships and development, with heavy investment from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as foreign countries, helping to put Xiamen at the forefront of China's reform and opening-up.

Brown's love of the city started in the 1970s, when he was stationed in Taiwan with the US Air Force. "I was curious about what the people were like on the Chinese mainland," he said. "Xiamen is right across the Taiwan Straits.

"When I got back to the US and met my wife, we talked about China the very first time we met. We found we were both so interested in the Chinese mainland. So I like to say China was our matchmaker."

In 1988, Brown sold his company and moved to Xiamen with his wife and two sons.

"I chose Xiamen University because it was the only university that allowed foreigners to bring their families with them to learn Chinese at that time," Brown said.

The trip to Xiamen was difficult, he recalled. After a long flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, his family took an 18-hour overnight boat trip up the coast to Xiamen.

There were a lot of inconveniences in daily life. Electricity was sometimes out for days, and so was the tap water. There were only three bus routes in the whole city. "The floors of the buses were made of wood, and the bus exhaust fumes came into the carriage," he said.

Despite all that, Brown foresaw the country was changing rapidly and working on all-around improvements from economics to social regulations.

When Brown became the first foreigner to obtain permanent residence in Fujian in 1992, many people were amazed and asked him why, since many Chinese were eager to go abroad at that time. Brown told them opportunities of the future were not overseas but in China.

A year later, Brown bought a van. He and his family spent three months driving over 40,000 kilometers around China in 1994.

On a trip from the Gobi Desert to the Tibet autonomous region, the Brown family saw that every corner of China was changing. Newly built roads led to inland places like Gansu province and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, where schools and hospitals were being built in rural areas.

"It may seem strange to foreigners that the government 'wasted' so much money on infrastructure in such poor places, but I saw that the government had a very long-term perspective," Brown said.

"As the saying goes, 'Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime.' Because of the world-class infrastructure, China gradually lifted the poor out of poverty."

In 2002, Brown spent eight months preparing a presentation to help Xiamen's bid to win the title of International Garden City.

As the city's spokesman, Brown told the judges in Stuttgart, Germany, that in the 14 years since he had arrived in the city he had seen Xiamen transform into one of the most livable cities in the world, with a unique balance of growth and greening. Xiamen later won the honor.

Besides teaching, Brown is now committed to developing English-language websites and has published more than 10 books about Xiamen and Fujian.

Once, when he walked into a bookstore, he found young students reading his books with dictionaries in their hands. "The young people love their city and wanted to know a foreigner's perspective on it," Brown said.

He then started publishing his books bilingually, in Chinese and English, starting with Discover Gulangyu. The small island in Xiamen, known as "the richest square mile on earth" 100 years ago, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in July last year for its cultural history and historic buildings.

He said China has achieved great changes thanks to the reform and opening-up policies implemented since 1978. The country has learned much from the world but, today, the world also has much to learn from China, such as its bullet trains.

"The first time I took a bullet train was from Xiamen to Fuzhou (Fujian's provincial capital) with my wife and sons," Brown said. "It was so fast and so smooth that we did not feel like we were traveling at all. It's amazing that China now has one of the best highway and rail systems in the world."

Brown is also an avid Alipay user. "It's so convenient; I'm amazed the rest of the world has not learned from Alipay and WeChat and developed similar applications," he said. "It just shows that China has not only caught up with the rest of the world but surpassed it."

Every time someone says Xiamen is Brown's second hometown, he corrects them immediately. "Xiamen is my first hometown because, in the US, the longest I lived in one place was seven years - but I've lived in Xiamen for 30 years," he said.

When asked about his future, Brown smiled and said, "I'm staying in Xiamen."

"China is so charming, and with continued reform and opening-up, I cannot even imagine what it will be like in another 40 years," he said. "I want to stay and be a part of it."


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