James Carter, Ph.D.

Professor and Chair of the History Department

Areas Taught: History

Expertise: Contemporary China’s Nationalism and Its Roots, Life Post-Tiananmen Square, Religion in China

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Understanding China through its Recent History

Imagine China as a roaring dragon hungry to show off its power. But at what cost? That’s modern China, a country taut with tensions as it strives to take its place on the global stage while environmental and human rights concerns percolate, according to 20th-century China expert and Professor of History James Carter, Ph.D.

“Nationalism is a huge factor,” says Carter, who brings a historical perspective to contemporary issues facing China. “Many Chinese people want China to be perceived as strong: a major world power.”

In part, that grew out of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Rather than fall apart, the Communist People’s Party gained strength by making a bargain with its citizenry. “‘We will give you the means to get rich and you will stay out of politics,’” he explains.

The standard of living has improved in China, but often at a huge price, says Carter, who speaks Mandarin and has traveled the country widely. Ironically, “the environmental costs of that personal growth threaten the quality of life,” he says. “This rush to grow, to provide more, may be its own undoing.”

Carter’s research often focuses on individual lives and how they fit into the arc of history. He has written extensively on China, including the books Creating a Chinese Harbin (2002), about the birth of nationalism in a frontier city, and Heart of Buddha, Heart of China (2011), about the life of a 20th-century Buddhist monk. He also has co-edited 1989: End of the 20th Century. Currently, he is researching a book on horseracing in Chinese treaty-ports – cities opened to foreign trade by 19th–century treaties – continuing his interest in relations between China and the West and how they played out in individual lives.

Carter, who is also director of Saint Joseph’s international relations program, was named to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program, where he brings a historical perspective. Recently, he accompanied a delegation of senior U.S. Congressional staffers to China, acting as a scholar-escort. He also is the chief editor of the scholarly journal Twentieth-Century China.

He has been quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on national blogs. Clear Channel booked him for its public affairs program, which aired on several radio stations.