Schol­ars from and on China

Cheng Li has be­come the first Chi­nese Amer­i­can to lead the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s John L. Thorn­ton China Cen­ter, and Li is look­ing to ex­pand the think tank’s hori­zon with some of the top China ex­perts in the US, Chen Weihua re­ports from Wash­ing­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

In 1985, when Cheng Li went from his home­town Shang­hai to at­tend the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, he was keen to study lit­er­a­ture. The 29-year-old, how­ever, did not re­al­ize that the East Asian stud­ies pro­gram there had three dif­fer­ent tracks, for lit­er­a­ture, lan­guage and po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. By mis­take, he was en­rolled in po­lit­i­cal econ­omy and a trans­fer was not pos­si­ble.

Un­der men­tor Robert Scalapino, a noted po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist on China, Li fell in love with his field of study and went on to Prince­ton Univer­sity to pur­sue a doc­tor­ate in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, this time by his own choice.

On Feb 21, the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, ranked the world’s No 1 think tank for three con­sec­u­tive years by the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Global Go to Think-Tanks Re­port, named Li di­rec­tor of the John L. Thorn­ton China Cen­ter, ef­fec­tive March 3.

This means that Li will be in charge of a team com­prised of some of the top China ex­perts in the United States, such as Jef­frey Bader, Kenneth Lieberthal, Richard Bush, Jonathan Pol­lack and David Dol­lar.

Bader and Lieberthal have re­spec­tively served in the White House as se­nior di­rec­tor for Asia and East Asia dur­ing the Obama and Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tions, while Bush served as na­tional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer for East Asia in the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil.

Pol­lack worked at the Rand Corp and the US Naval War Col­lege and Dol­lar was the World Bank’s coun­try di­rec­tor for China and Mon­go­lia and later the US Trea­sury depart­ment’s eco­nomic and fi­nan­cial emis­sary to China un­til last year.

“This is great a trea­sure and world-class team in China stud­ies. I feel very hum­bled to work with them,” Li, now widely re­garded as one of the world’s leading au­thor­i­ties on Chi­nese lead­er­ship, told China Daily in an in­ter­view. Be­com­ing an ex­pert

Li cred­ited his achieve­ments to guid­ance he re­ceived from his men­tors, the late Scalapino and A. Doak Bar­nett, the late leading scholar and US govern­ment ad­viser on China who rec­om­mended Li to be a fel­low of the Wash­ing­ton-based In­sti­tute of Cur­rent World Af­fairs, which al­lowed him to work in China from 1993 to 1995.

Now a board trustee of the in­sti­tute him­self, Li de­scribed his two years in China as es­sen­tial for his later achieve­ments. The ad­vanced aca­demic train­ing in the West and his in­ti­mate knowl­edge of his na­tive land helped him in “re­dis­cov­er­ing China,” which was also the ti­tle of his first book, pub­lished in 1997.

Grow­ing up in Shang­hai dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion (1966-76), Li, the youngest among seven sib­lings, did not go to the coun­try­side like mil­lions of Chi­nese youth to re­ceive so-called re-ed­u­ca­tion from the peas­ants be­cause his el­der broth­ers and sis­ters had al­ready gone there. In­stead, he at­tended a three-year vo­ca­tional med­i­cal school and ended up be­ing a physi­cian at lo­cal hos­pi­tals in Shang­hai for four years.

Com­pared with the older gen­er­a­tion who left China be­fore the found­ing of the People’s Repub­lic in 1949 and the younger gen­er­a­tion born af­ter the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Li be­lieves the life and ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence of his gen­er­a­tion has helped them un­der­stand to­day’s China in a much more so­phis­ti­cal way.

He feels for­tu­nate that he chose to fo­cus his study on Chi­nese lead­er­ship and set up his own data­bank on Chi­nese elites.

Un­like the re­search based on ab­stract mod­el­ing or in­stinct done by some schol­ars, Li’s data­bank, which now in­cludes some 20,000 Chi­nese of­fi­cials and other eco­nomic and cul­tural elites, en­ables him to an­a­lyze and speak with facts.

When Li wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s about the rise of “tech­nocrats’’ in the Chi­nese lead­er­ship, prob­a­bly no one had used the term to de­scribe Chi­nese govern­ment of­fi­cials.

But to Li, the data­bank re­flects clearly the tra­jec­tory of China’s po­lit­i­cal elite. It was not a sur­prise to the world that later top Chi­nese lead­ers such as Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jin­tao and Wen Jiabao, had an en­gi­neer­ing back­ground.

While his stud­ies helped es­tab­lish his rep­u­ta­tion in aca­demic cir­cles, Li later no­ticed a dra­matic shift in China’s lead­er­ship: a de­cline of the tech­nocrats. Only one of the cur­rent seven polit­buro mem­bers of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of China — Yu Zheng­sheng — has an en­gi­neer­ing back­ground.

The rise of tech­nocrats has widely been be­lieved to con­trib­ute to China’s dou­ble-digit eco­nomic growth and dra­matic in­fra­struc­ture trans­for­ma­tion. To Li, an in­creas­ingly di­verse back­ground of the po­lit­i­cal elite is im­por­tant to China as the coun­try faces not only eco­nomic chal­lenges, but huge so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems.

Due to his unique ex­per­tise, Li, now a Chi­nese Amer­i­can, has been a sought af­ter speaker in the past decade or so when the change in China’s lead­er­ship drew huge at­ten­tion in the US and around the world.

His next book, Chi­nese Pol­i­tics in the Era of Col­lec­tive Lead­er­ship, is ex­pected to be fin­ished this fall. It tells that China has re­cently un­der­gone a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion from an era shaped by the ar­bi­trary power of strong para­mount lead­ers, first Mao Ze­dong and then Deng Xiaop­ing, to a new era of col­lec­tive lead­er­ship. Con­se­quently, China’s po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, the rules and norms that gov­ern its elite pol­i­tics, and its pol­icy for­ma­tion process are all un­der­go­ing pro­found changes. Ris­ing mid­dle class

Be­sides delv­ing into the Chi­nese lead­er­ship, Li was also prob­a­bly the ear­li­est to write about China’s emerg­ing mid­dle class when no one thought about or used the term in China. His book Re­dis­cov­er­ing China: Dy­nam­ics and Dilem­mas of Re­form about the Shang­hai mid­dle class was re­jected a few times in 1997 by pub­lish­ing houses.

“They don’t be­lieve a mid­dle class ex­ists in China, and they be­lieve China only has a small group of rich people and the ma­jor­ity are poor people. But now ev­ery­one is talk­ing about mid­dle class,” he said.

A McKin­sey & Com­pany re­port last June shows that the ex­plo­sive growth of China’s emerg­ing mid­dle class has brought sweep­ing eco­nomic change and so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, and it’s not over yet.

By 2022, more than 75 per­cent of China’s ur­ban con­sumers will earn $9,000 to $34,000 a year, a mid­dle class in­come range, ac­cord­ing to McKin­sey.

Li is also work­ing on a new book about China’s mid­dle class. Now ti­tled Mid­dle Class Shang­hai: Pi­o­neer­ing China’s Global In­te­gra­tion, it will fo­cus pri­mar­ily on Chi­nese who re­turned to the coun­try af­ter study­ing abroad. The book, based on sur­veys done in Shang­hai in 2009 and 2014 re­spec­tively, will tell the dif­fer­ences and change in val­ues for those re­turnees and the home­grown mid­dle class. Chi­nese thinkers

As di­rec­tor of re­search at the John L. Thorn­ton China Cen­ter for the past few years, Li has been a prin­ci­pal edi­tor of the cen­ter’s Chi­nese Thinkers Se­ries, which in­tro­duced prom­i­nent Chi­nese thinkers to English-lan­guage read­ers. They in­clude China in 2020 by econ­o­mist Hu An­gang; In the Name of Jus­tice by He Weifang, a noted law pro­fes­sor at Pek­ing Univer­sity; and Democ­racy is a Good Thing, a book by Yu Keping, deputy chief of the Cen­tral Com­pi­la­tion and Trans­la­tion Bureau of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of China. Yu’s book sparked heated de­bate in China when it was re­leased in 2006.

Li wrote a pref­ace for all the books, and he said he feels for­tu­nate that through do­ing so he made close con­tacts with China’s prom­i­nent schol­ars.

He feels proud that China now boasts some of the top schol­ars, es­pe­cially on the Chi­nese econ­omy and so­ci­ety. On the other hand, he said he is con­cerned that aca­demic re­stric­tions in some ar­eas — such as law and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence — have a neg­a­tive im­pact on some schol­ars in China.

While more world-class schol­ars have sur­faced in China, Li is also de­lighted to see the rise of many fel­low Chi­nese schol­ars and re­searchers now work­ing in the US, just like him­self.

Though views of­ten dif­fer, Li men­tioned how he ap­pre­ci­ates Pei Minxin, now di­rec­tor of the Keck Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Stud­ies at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege and for­mer se­nior as­so­ciate of the Asia pro­gram at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. “His words were sharp, but he was of­ten very in­sight­ful. It’s so much bet­ter than those who know only flat­tery,” said the 57-year-old.

Like Li and Pei, many other schol­ars com­ing to the US from the Chi­nese main­land in the past three decades have also be­come opin­ion lead­ers, such as Yawei Liu, di­rec­tor of the China pro­gram at Carter Cen­ter; Dali Yang, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Chicago

• and Yanzhong Huang, a se­nior fel­low for global health at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in New York. The list goes on.

Many of the schol­ars of Li’s age came to the US in the 1980s when China just opened to the out­side world. Their ex­pe­ri­ence of the cat­a­strophic Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion is unimag­in­able to the younger gen­er­a­tions. Mean­while, these schol­ars are be­lieved to not only in­ject fresh spirit into the study of China in the US, but also help con­nect the study of China within and out­side of the coun­try.

Li cred­its the rise of China for the achieve­ments that he and his fel­low Chi­nese schol­ars in the US have made.

“With­out the more than three decades of re­form and open­ing up, the so­cial and eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion and China’s grow­ing sta­tus and in­flu­ence on the world stage, there won’t be such at­ten­tion and in­ter­est in China in the West and there won’t be such a Si­no­ma­nia,” he said. Learn­ing, leading

In Li’s view, China has been chang­ing so rapidly that ev­ery stu­dent of present-day China must chal­lenge him­self or her­self. “You will feel dis­con­nected if you don’t go to China for two or three years and don’t keep in touch with the re­al­ity there,” said Li, who re­gard­less of his Chi­nese back­ground and knowl­edge, still trav­els eight or 10 times to China ev­ery year.

at is prob­a­bly why when Max Bau­cus, the new US am­bas­sador to China, was chided dur­ing his US Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing last month for his lack of China knowl­edge, Li im­me­di­ately came to his de­fense, ar­gu­ing that Bau­cus is good at learn­ing and lis­ten­ing.

Li, who had a con­ver­sa­tion with Bau­cus not long ago, said such char­ac­ter­is­tics in a per­son are more pre­cious than what he knew be­fore, or even if he is an ex­pert on China.

With his new post start­ing next Mon­day, Li is ready to lead his star-stud­ded team of China ex­perts at Brook­ings to ex­pand the in­sti­tute’s hori­zon.

To Li, Brook­ings’ own stand­ing, the cen­ter’s world-class team, its Bei­jing of­fice and the vi­sion and fi­nan­cial sup­port from its chair­man of the board, John L. Thorn­ton, are a huge ad­van­tage. But China has been chang­ing so rapidly, it re­quires think tanks to con­stantly mon­i­tor the change.

He said the cen­ter should have a global per­spec­tive, be able to grasp is­sues in a timely man­ner, pro­vide pol­icy anal­y­sis and be able to look into the fu­ture.

He wants the cen­ter to pro­duce more pos­i­tive im­pact, such as in fa­cil­i­tat­ing ex­changes be­tween the two cen­tral gov­ern­ments and also gov­ern­ments at the lo­cal level.

“Brook­ings’ con­ven­ing power will en­able its schol­ars to in­ter­act more with govern­ment de­part­ments and first-class schol­ars else­where,” he said.

His Brook­ings China Cen­ter team is also ready to ad­vise both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can can­di­dates in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, as well as to those in Congress. Li joined the ad­vi­sory team for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2008 and later Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s team af­ter he de­feated Clin­ton for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. The new team leader also has set his sights on the meet­ing of the 19th Congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of China in three years.

“Qual­ity, in­de­pen­dence and im­pact will guide the cen­ter, Li said, cit­ing Brook­ings’ motto. An op­ti­mist

A fre­quent com­men­ta­tor in global me­dia on is­sues re­gard­ing China or China-US re­la­tions, Li re­mains over­all op­ti­mistic about those re­la­tions de­spite the of­ten pes­simism of other schol­ars in China and the US.

He said his op­ti­mism on China is based on China’s most rapid de­vel­op­ment in his­tory. “China’s ex­pand­ing mid­dle class, grow­ing eco­nomic sta­tus, people’s chang­ing mind­set, en­trepreneur­ship and their yearn for glob­al­iza­tion and in­te­gra­tion into the world, the state-of-the-art in­fra­struc­ture and ad­vances in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy have all cre­ated huge ad­van­tages for China,” he said. “I can give a long list,” Li said. To Li, China’s rise may not look like a straight line, but he be­lieves that no one, or even a burst of the cur­rent real es­tate bub­ble or a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, can halt its steps for­ward.

“It all de­pends on how the lead­ers can grasp the op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said.

The ex­pert on Chi­nese lead­er­ship gives high marks to the first year of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s lead­er­ship.

He talked pos­i­tively of the vig­or­ous an­ticor­rup­tion cam­paign, the out­come of the trial of Bo Xi­lai, a for­mer Polit­buro mem­ber and for­mer Party chief in Chongqing, and most im­por­tantly, the com­pre­hen­sive and deeper mar­ket re­forms em­braced at the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.

“They have done a lot of things in the first year to meet the high ex­pec­ta­tions and over­come the var­i­ous chal­lenges both at home and abroad,” Li said.

“The new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers has made a good start, bring­ing con­stant changes and de­light­ful sur­prises. This has also largely been the case for China in the past 25 years.” Con­tact the writer at chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­


Pei Minxin, di­rec­tor of the Keck Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Stud­ies at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege


Dali Yang, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Chicago

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