A col­lege course opened his world to China

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CHEN WEIHUA in Wash­ing­ton chen­wei­hua@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

For­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Thomas Donilon was talk­ing about the US re­bal­ance to Asia at a sem­i­nar at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion not long ago when Kenneth Lieberthal, a se­nior fel­low at the in­sti­tu­tion, raised his hand for a ques­tion.

“Are you grad­ing my pre­sen­ta­tion?” Donilon asked, trig­ger­ing laugh­ter among the au­di­ence.

Lieberthal told China Daily af­ter the talk that it was an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment.

How­ever, the 70-year-old has spent most of his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese pol­i­tics de­spite his years at the Brook­ings and ser­vice in Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s White House as spe­cial as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent for na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs and se­nior di­rec­tor for Asia on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

And the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, where Lieberthal had worked for 26 years, an­nounced it will re­name its Cen­ter for Chi­nese Stud­ies as the Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Richard H. Ro­gel Cen­ter for Chi­nese Stud­ies to honor its re­spec­tive for­mer scholar and fi­nancier for the cen­ter. A cel­e­bra­tion of the re­nam­ing will be held in Ann Ar­bor on Oct 16.

But for Lieberthal, his China con­nec­tion started as an ac­ci­dent.

As an un­der­grad­u­ate at Dart­mouth Col­lege in the early 1960s, Lieberthal spent much of his time study­ing Soviet af­fairs. He then pur­sued his stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity when his ad­viser, Zbigniew Brzesin­ski, who later be­came the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor un­der Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, told him that he had al­ready cov­ered pretty much what Columbia could of­fer in Rus­sian stud­ies. He ad­vised Lieberthal to take some­thing else.

Check­ing on his sched­ule, Lieberthal found a course on China of­fered by Doak Bar­nett, a prom­i­nent scholar on China. Know­ing noth­ing about China, Lieberthal thought it might be in­ter­est­ing to find out.

“So I took that course with Doak and just be­came ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing,” Lieberthal re­called.

Barne t t en­cour aged Lieberthal to join the East Asian In­sti­tute and do a pro­gram on Chi­nese lan­guage and pol­i­tics on his way to his doc­tor­ate de­gree.

Then 22-year-old Lieberthal fol­lowed his ad­vice. He was fas­ci­nated with com­par­ing the Chi­nese and Soviet rev­o­lu­tions.

“And it be­came one of the most for­tu­nate de­ci­sions I have ever made, be­cause I have en­joyed go­ing to my of­fice ev­ery day through­out my ca­reer,” Lieberthal said.

While still keep­ing an in­ter­est in the Soviet Union, his re­search in­ter­est turned to China. That in­cluded study­ing Chi­nese lan­guage start­ing in the sum­mer of 1966 and then con­duct­ing a six-month lan­guage pro­gram in Tai­wan in late 1969 be­fore mov­ing on to Hong Kong for a year of his dis­ser­ta­tion re­search.

Then Hong Kong was the clos­est place to the Chi­nese main­land that Amer­i­cans could go. Lieberthal’s re­search was on the revo­lu­tion in the city of Tian­jin, from the 1930s up to the Three An­tis and Five An­tis Cam­paigns in the early 1950s.

He delved into the Tian­jin revo­lu­tion by re­search­ing on the early stud­ies by Nankai Univer­sity and good collection of ma­te­ri­als in Hong Kong about China and talk­ing to a wide range of im­mi­grants in Hong Kong from Tian­jin. But it was dif­fi­cult for him to talk to some dock work­ers from Tian­jin be­cause some of them were then se­cret so­ci­ety mem­bers, which was banned in colo­nial Hong Kong.

Lieberthal was un­able to travel to the Chi­nese main­land un­til a decade af­ter he be­gan his China study. It was in the sum­mer of 1976, a trip that Lieberthal never for­got.

As a China specialist and a pro­fes­sor at Swarth­more Col­lege, Lieberthal went with Jan Ber­ris of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on US- China Re­la­tions in a Con­gres­sional staff del­e­ga­tion. Just hours af­ter their ar­rival in Bei­jing, the cat­a­strophic Tang­shan earthquake hap­pened, killing more than 200,000 people.

hi le the agenda in Bei­jing was some­what cut short due to the dev­as­ta­tion there, the group trav­eled to He­nan and Shang­hai.

Since then, Lieberthal not only goes to China ev­ery year, in many years he goes be­tween five to 10 times. He has given up count­ing the num­ber of trips but said it might be 200.

Lieberthal en­joyed his teach­ing job, de­scrib­ing his 11 years’ teach­ing at Swarth­more Col­lege from 1972 to 1983 as a “fab­u­lous ex­pe­ri­ence.” His class on Chi­nese pol­i­tics drew 35 stu­dents, a big size at the elite lib­eral art col­lege where the aver­age class size is 15.

When Lieberthal taught at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan for more than 20 years from 1983, his largest lec­ture course had 540 stu­dents.

He then fo­cused en­tirely on China’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and had no in­ter­est in study­ing Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy, un­til he took a sab­bat­i­cal leave in 1975 to work at Rand Cor­po­ra­tion on Sino-Soviet re­la­tions in the late 1960s.

His later in­ter­est in US and China for­eign pol­icy also had to do with Michael Ok­sen­berg, a China hand whom Lieberthal de­scribed as his men­tor and friend.

Ok­sen­berg, who played a ma­jor role in the full nor­mal­iza­tion of diplo­matic ties be­tween China and the US when he served as a se­nior staff mem­ber at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion, would call Lieberthal from time to time to dis­cuss is­sues.

“Then I be­came in­ter­ested in US poli­cies to­wards China,” Lieberthal said.

How­ever, with two sons in gram­mar school and high school, Lieberthal was not ready to leave them be­hind in Ann Ar­bor to serve in the govern­ment when he was of­fered some se­ri­ous po­si­tions on f ive dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions. “So I waited,” Lieberthal said, re­call­ing that in 1996 he told his wife that he would love to be the China di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil be­cause he thought it was the best job out there.

In 1998, Lib­erthal got an un­ex­pected call. It was from James Stein­berg, the then deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, who wanted to see if he was in­ter­ested in the po­si­tion of se­nior di­rec­tor for Asia at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Lieberthal came to Wash­ing­ton to meet then Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Sandy Berger, dis­cussing a wide range of is­sues dur­ing two and a half hours of “in­ter­view.”

Al­though Berger told Lieberthal that they would let him know in two weeks, Lieberthal re­ceived a call the fol­low­ing day for the of­fer. “That was great, to­tally un­ex­pected,” Lieberthal re­called.

The pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese pol­i­tics had a good in­tro­duc­tion to the White House. When Pres­i­dent Clin­ton trav­eled to China, Lieberthal re­ceived a call from his boss Berger, ask­ing him to read and com­ment on a speech that Clin­ton was about to give. He was ex­cited to find later that Clin­ton adopted all the changes that he had sug­gested.

At that time, the US was fo­cused on the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in Asia and China was not at the cen­ter of the US agenda. Lieberthal felt then the US was be­gin­ning to pay a price not pay­ing enough at­ten­tion to what was go­ing on in China.

He sat down with Berger to dis­cuss what the US should do with China fol­low­ing Clin­ton’s trip there. The new fo­cus be­came ne­go­ti­at­ing for China’s ac­ces­sion to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

While people like Char­lene Barshefsky, then US Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive, played a ma­jor role, Lieberthal said it then be­came the cen­tral fo­cus of US China diplo­macy.

But a huge cri­sis took place in the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship.

It was on the evening of Fri­day, May 7, 1999, when Lieberthal and his wife, Jane Lind­say, were about to go out for the first time in a month for a con­cert at the Kennedy Cen­ter when the phone rang. It was from the White House Sit­u­a­tion Room, in­form­ing him that the Chi­nese em­bassy in Bel­grade was bombed by US-led NATO forces.

The in­ci­dent, which killed three Chi­nese re­porters, sparked ou­trage among the Chi­nese, with mass demon­stra­tions in sev­eral Chi­nese cities. De­spite the US apol­ogy for the ac­ci­dent, many Chi­nese be­lieve it was a de­lib­er­ate act by the US.

“The re­al­ity is we did not do it in­ten­tion­ally,” Lieberthal said. “It made no sense, given what we were try­ing to ac­com­plish with China then, to bomb the em­bassy in Bel­grade,”

He de­scribed the bomb­ing as things of lower prob­a­bil­ity go­ing wrong at the same time, but he ac­knowl­edged that over the years, he has failed to con­vince the Chi­nese that it was not an in­ten­tional act.

Now a se­nior fel­low in for­eign pol­icy and global econ­omy and de­vel­op­ment at the Brook­ings, Lieberthal said at any given time, there were a lot of is­sues in US-China

Age: 71

• Dart­mouth Col­lege, BA 1965 Columbia Univer­sity, MA, 1968 • Columbia Univer­sity,

PhD, 1972 Pro­fes­sor, Swarth­more Col­lege, (1972-1983) Pro­fes­sor, Univer­sity of Michi­gan, (1983-2009) Spe­cial as­sis­tant to the Pres­i­dent for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Af­fairs and se­nior di­rec­tor for Asia at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, (1998-2000) Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, since (2009) re­la­tion­ship. “But I thought we man­aged to keep the over­all re­la­tion­ship in pretty good shape,” he said.

To Lieberthal, top Chi­nese and US lead­ers com­mu­ni­cate to each other bet­ter now be­cause they see each other more of­ten.

“I think in those re­spects the re­la­tion­ship is calmer and more sub­tle. And I think it has a much stronger base, and is more much in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, than the me­dia in each of coun­tries treat it,” he said.

While US-China re­la­tion­ship is not one be­tween al­lies and one be­tween coun­tries which have to­tal con­fi­dence with each other, Lieberthal said it is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween coun­tries that would do bet­ter rather than do worse with each other.

He be­lieves if the re­la­tion­ship be­come fun­da­men­tally an­tag­o­nis­tic, it would be a huge fail­ure on both sides and would be very costly for them in bi­lat­eral and broader is­sues.

The China hand said that the fu­ture of bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship is not pre­de­ter­mined. “It’s shaped by de­ci­sions, and their con­se­quences. So diplo­macy plays a very im­por­tant role,” he said.

Say­ing that there is no fore­or­dained out­come be­tween ris­ing power and ex­ist­ing power, Lieberthal does not think that declar­ing a new type of ma­jor coun­try re­la­tion­ship makes it true.

“I think it’s some­thing you have to work at it. You have to fig­ure out how do you re­solve ar­eas we dis­agree, how do you han­dle cri­sis that in­evitably oc­cur, and how do you build con­fi­dence with each other,” he said. “Those just re­quire a lot of work.”

Lieberthal has con­fi­dence in the lead­ers of the two na­tions in han­dling the re­la­tion­ship, de­scrib­ing them as se­ri­ous people with con­sid­er­able ca­pa­bil­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I think both sides un­der­stand very well why it is more ben­e­fi­cial for them to re­duce ten­sions than it is for them to try to score points at the other to ex­ac­er­bate re­la­tion­ship,” he said.

But he em­pha­sized that even if Chi­nese and US lead­ers do a good job, a cri­sis could still oc­cur in other ar­eas such as the ten­sion be­tween China and Ja­pan, a treaty ally of the US.

“You can’t fully con­trol the fu­ture, but you can work hard at it,” said Lieberthal.


Kenneth Lieberthal, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton, has spent most of his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese pol­i­tics. His China con­nec­tion be­gan when he de­cided to take a course on China at Columbia Univer­sity.

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