The Chinese Century?

Chair of the Harvard China Fund William C. Kirby (left) and dean of Harvard Business School Jay O. Light address guests at the Harvard Center Shanghai celebratory reception and banquet. Kirby, who is Chang professor of China studies and Spangler Family professor of business administration, served as keynote speaker.

William C. Kirby wears at least four Harvard hats: Spangler Family professor of business administration (Harvard Business School, HBS); Chang professor of China studies (Faculty of Arts and Sciences, FAS); chair of the Harvard China Fund (HCF, University-wide); and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies (within FAS). As such, he played an essential role in building bridges between FAS and HBS in planning for the Harvard Center Shanghai, and, around the University, in involving faculty members from all disciplines in augmenting research on China and in boosting student opportunities for research, study, and internships there. HBS dean Jay O. Light recognized all these roles in introducing Kirby as the keynote speaker for the March 18 “Harvard and China” research symposium formally inaugurating the center.

Kirby began by saying that from his hotel room in Pudong, he could see three Shanghais:

  • the old, formerly walled city (with 400,000 people when Westerners settled in the 1840s);
  • the Bund, anchored by the 1923 Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation tower; and
  • now the third Shanghai, the city of the future, including the recent addition of the International Finance Center tower which houses both the Harvard Center Shanghai and the new headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s mainland offices.

Between the 1920s and the latter part of the twentieth century, Kirby said, “war, civil war, and Maoism led to Shanghai’s utter stagnation.”

At the beginning of what is being called “the Chinese century” (although not to the exclusion of others, he noted—hence the new Harvard center), Kirby observed that China was “on the edge of a great century 100 years ago. What happened?” Politically, the Qing empire collapsed, and China emerged under Sun Yat-sen as the first republic in Asia. But China subsequently fell under an extended period of military leadership—the source, he nevertheless noted, of its recovery of great-power status as it emerged from World War II, the Korean War, and Communist China’s later confrontations with the Soviet Union.

Economically, China was also robust in the early twentieth century—what Kirby deemed the “first ‘golden age’ of Chinese capitalism,” centered in Shanghai: the hub of international trade and commerce in Asia, home to China’s first modern middle class. That activity “would be undone by the Japanese invasion, the communist rebellion, and, above all, by the ruinous policies of the first 30 years of the People’s Republic….” As entrepreneurs fled or hid, Kirby said, “the rest of East Asia prospered, China went backward.” He then documented the economic revival since the momentous reform and opening of 1978.

Finally, he cited education. A century ago, Kirby said, China was opening its doors to new ideas, establishing a dynamic system of higher education featuring strong, state-run institutions (Peking University, Jiaotong University, the Academia Sinica) and creative private institutions. “All this would be swept away in the late 1950s and 1960s,” he said, but the traditions of excellence remained, and had underpinned the tremendous upwelling of support for higher education evident today.

Looking at present circumstances, Kirby cited China’s prowess in investing in infrastructure (“few forces on earth…can match the power of Chinese communist leadership and engineering ambition,” from the Three Gorges Dam to highway networks, airports, and cell-phone systems). Similarly, he said, the country had unleashed private enterprise, yielding enormous new companies and markets, creating a middle class of perhaps 250 million people with rising consumer appetites.

Most significant, he said, was the education story, with university and college enrollments quadrupling this decade, with facilities expanding fourfold in the same period, and with the proportion of the population enrolled soaring. He predicted success for China’s ambition to build “research universities of the highest level,” with rich partnerships with Harvard, devoted to training “those who will be global leaders” in the new century. He raised the critical issue of academic governance: “What is the proper level of autonomy for institutions, whether state or private, that are supposed to, somehow, serve a broader public purpose?” (Among those purposes, he cited both educating the whole person, and extending education beyond the upper and middle classes to those with lesser means.)

 In his conclusion, Kirby asked:

Will the twenty-first century be the Chinese century? No, if by that you mean it’s a new or unusual, or exclusive thing. There have been many Chinese centuries before and there will be many after this; but it will be a century not just for China, but for all of us, in a world of shared aspirations and common problems. That is why we are here today, opening up this grand new center of learning.

We used to say, about the Chinese-American relationship, in so many areas, that we were tong chuang yi meng (sleeping in the same bed, while dreaming different dreams).

Those days are over. In the 1990s, Shanghai began to dream of its new future here in Pudong. We are without question now, together, embedded, in a global system of learning and teaching, learning and teaching now from each other, as never before, and sharing many, if not all, of the same dreams.

This is an online-only sidebar to the news article "Global Reach."

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