William C. Kirby: Is China Ready for Leadership on the Global Stage?

China’s internal politics, global aspirations, and relations with the United States, with William Kirby, former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, now Chang professor of China Studies and Spangler Family professor of business administration.

William Kirby



China is the most populous country on Earth, and until a few hundred years ago, it was also the most economically powerful. Today, China is ascendant on the world stage. What does its government seek in its relationship with the United States? Do China and the U.S. share common goals with respect to nuclear North Korea? How far will China press to reunite with Taiwan? What are the country’s economic prospects, and is the perception that it is governed by engineers accurate? How is China coping with pressing issues of the day, from climate change to coronaviruses? In this episode, William Kirby, Chang professor of China studies and Spangler professor of business administration, considers China’s aspiration to lead internationally in the twenty-first century. 


Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):


Jonathan Shaw: China is the most populous country on Earth. Just a few hundred years ago, it was also the most economically powerful. With its modern resurgence, and the recent U.S. retreat from international leadership, what role will China assume on the global stage? Welcome to the Harvard Magazine podcast, Ask a Harvard Professor. I'm Jonathan Shaw.

Marina Bolotnikova: And I'm Marina Bolotnikova. During today's office hours, we'll speak with William Kirby, who is Chang professor of China studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Spangler Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. A historian of modern China, Professor Kirby studies the country’s business, economic and political development in international context. He’s the author of more than 50 Harvard Business School case studies on business in China and the global strategies of Chinese companies. At Harvard, Professor Kirby has chaired the history department, directed the Harvard University Asia Center and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and led the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as dean. He currently chairs the Harvard China Fund, which supports university academic ventures and he’s the faculty Chair of the Harvard Center Shanghai, Harvard’s first university-wide center located outside the United States. He is also—full disclosure—the president of Harvard Magazine’s board of directors, for which service we are grateful. Welcome, Professor Kirby.

Bill Kirby: Thank you very much, Marina.

Marina Bolotnikova: The aim of our conversation today is to learn what’s going on inside today’s China and what its relations are with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Could you sketch the big picture for us?

Bill Kirby: The big picture is something that you can understand from history in part. China was—or the place we call China today—the largest, most populous, in many ways most sophisticated polity and largest economy in the world as little as 200 years ago. Its retreat from global eminence over the period from about 1830 or so, to 1970 looks more like an aberration than the rule. And the period of Western dominance of the world from the late 18th century through to the end of the 1960s also looks less durable than many in the West would have thought a long time ago. One of the large questions now is, is China's rise a rise to global leadership? Is the 21st century to be the Chinese century in the way that some had said that the 20th century was an American century and perhaps the 19th century a British century? I'll answer that question at the end.

Jonathan Shaw: What is the Xi era government like? What are its priorities?

Bill Kirby: Thank you, Jonathan. The government of Xi Jinping is a communist government modeled on the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which is the model for the People's Republic of China. It is ruled by a small number of individuals, in this case, the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, over which Mr. Xi is chair. His most powerful position, however, comes arguably from being the chair of the Military Affairs Commission, and whoever controls the military—this is true in many, many countries beyond China—is the arbiter of power. And whoever has been Chair of the military affairs commission, be it Chiang Kai-shek for his party and government in the 1930s, 40s and afterwards on Taiwan, or Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping in their time in Communist China, is number one. His priority, I think it’s fair to say, and their collective priority of the Chinese leadership is, on the one hand, very similar to that of Chinese leaders over the last century and a half: a return to wealth and power, a return to a central status for China in the world—not necessarily a dominant status, but a return to a position of eminence in global affairs, a return to the capacity to produce great prosperity at least in parts of China, ideally in larger parts. For Mr. Xi Jinping, perhaps the greatest overriding priority is the maintenance of Chinese Communist Party rule. There are tensions between that goal, that is to say what is good for the party, and the goal of acting on what is good for the country.

Jonathan Shaw: What can we learn about the Chinese system of government from the story of Bo Xilai?

Bill Kirby: So for listeners who may not be familiar, Bo Xilai was a rising star in the Chinese political firmament. He was Party Secretary of a very prosperous, special municipality, basically a province, Chongqing and he was one of two people vying for leadership in China in the year 2012. The first thing that we can learn from it is that China’s succession apparatus is very creaky. This appears from a distance to be a very well-ordered machine, at least to many people today without a sense of history.

But in the entire history of the Chinese Communist Party, there has been only one transition of leader from one to another without either violence or a political purge and that happened in the year 2002. What happened in 2012 was a political purge. And the case of Bo Xilai, I think tells us several interesting things about the public system. First of all, both he and Mr. Xi Jinping were the sons of somebodies. They were sons of an earlier generation of leaders. And as in Imperial times, when the throne is open, the princes of the great families will vie for the throne: one wins, and one loses.

In Imperial times, the loser would usually be executed with his entire extended family. In modern times they’re just imprisoned and purged and that is indeed what happened to Bo Xilai, but it shows you have a leadership and a central leadership that has come to rely more and more—or at least as much on bloodlines—and connections back to founding fathers than on others because whom can you trust more than family? So it shows you a dynastic element of the Chinese political system.

Bo Xilai was also party secretary of Chongqin, the highest position more than the governor or mayor and he was in total charge of Chongqin as every party secretary is over the area that they are appointed to rule, total charge every day until he was not. In the 1930s, we would have called him a warlord, but we don’t use that word anymore for some reasons. Warlord is what you call losers. If you win you become chairman.

He also used the political system to attack his enemies ruthlessly using a very imperfect legal system to attack his enemies in Chongqin, and then his enemies once he was removed from office, used the political system to attack and defame him and his wife in a series show trials—the outcome of which was preordained, and the details of which no one should believe. It shows you how malleable the law is in matters of politics in contemporary China.

And finally, he shows you how the military may still be the arbiter of power in China. He had many supporters in the Chinese military. Xi Jinping also had many supporters in the Chinese military. There were, and there has been since Bo Xilai's fall, a major purge of the Chinese military. Xi Jinping had more support at the end of the day in party and in military than Bo Xilai, but it might well have happened the other way around. But it tells you that the military and once again, who is chair of the Central Military Commission, which at that time, Xi Jinping was not yet. That this gives you a central lesson of the roots of political power in contemporary China.

Jonathan Shaw: What does the Chinese government hope for its relationship with the United States and what does it make of the current U.S. administration?

Bill Kirby: Well I think the Chinese government hopes for a stable relationship with the United States. The U.S.-China relationship has had many ups and downs over the decades from the middle of the, or the earlier part of the 20th century, to today. We were strong allies against Japan in the Second World War. We then became strong adversaries one against the other from the Korean War on through to the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972. But since 1978, in the beginning of economic reform, the end of the Maoist period in China, and particularly since 2001, China’s entrance into WTO, we have had extraordinarily and mutually beneficial economic relations, growing social and cultural relations.

The large number of Chinese—370,000 Chinese students studying in the United States—and many American tourists and students going to China. While at the same time maintaining a strong and enduring ideological—conflict is often too strong a word, although perhaps not today—but strong ideological differences between a system, a political system that has its roots in the Soviet Union, in the early part of the 20th century, and an American political system that has its roots in European thought of the late 18th century.

I always tell my students that both of our countries have real problems. The United States has a political system inherited from European ideas of the late 18th century that does not work very well today, and China has an early 20th century European political system that has great challenges in meeting the challenges facing China, at home and abroad.

Jonathan Shaw: How do you think the Xi government regards the Trump administration?

Bill Kirby: Perplexed I think, would be fair to say but they wouldn't be alone, would they? I think it would be fair to say that many in China, at least those whom I spoke to at the time of the 2016 presidential election, imagined that a Trump administration might be friendlier to China than a Clinton administration. Secretary Clinton was arguably likely to be quite strong in American policy delineating American interests in the western Pacific under her presidency. But she would also be very predictable. And predictability is prized by this collective leadership, and by Mr. Xi Jinping himself, in deciding how to respond to foreign policy actions by the greatest power on earth for the moment, the United States. And the Trump administration has been extraordinarily unpredictable. Shortly after he was elected, simply as president-elect, Mr. Trump picked up the phone and called the president of China. He called the President of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Perhaps his Rolodex was off, but this was not a good start to his relationship with the People’s Republic of China.

He has since tried to make amends and since tried to forge a friendship with President Xi, but he has also acted in very unpredictable ways in starting, and then escalating, a major trade war between the two greatest trading powers on earth.

Jonathan Shaw: Do China and the United States share common goals with respect to nuclearized North Korea?

Bill Kirby: It’s a great question. I think at the end of the day, they share the common goal of wishing a denuclearized North Korea and from China's perspective, also a denuclearized South Korea, that is to say no American capacity that is nuclear in South Korea. How they wish to get there, however, has been quite at odds. North Korea probably would not exist today as a state without significant Chinese aid over the last two decades. It has been kept on at least a lifeline from the People's Republic of China.

China is loath to see one of the last few communist countries disappear as a country. And so political change in North Korea as a part of a denuclearization, as part of, for example, the future unification of the Korean Peninsula seems not to be in the interests of China. If I were—happily I'm not—but if I were in charge of Chinese foreign policy, I would worry even more than the Americans about a nuclear North Korea. First of all, you never know where one of their rockets might come down, and China’s closer to North Korea than the United States by some measure.

But second, if North Korea remains for the long term a nuclear power, and if as it seems clear the United States is retreating from global leadership at the moment, then in time South Korea will become a nuclear power. Japan will become a nuclear power, Taiwan could become a nuclear power. This is not a recipe for success for Chinese foreign policy. Rather, it would be a disaster for Chinese foreign policy. So China’s interest in a denuclearized Korea are in many ways stronger than ours, but their interest in maintaining the rule of the party at home, and the rule of a Communist Party in North Korea appears to be for the moment equally strong.

Marina Bolotnikova: You mentioned that China is a communist country, but many people who work there or visit there, feel that it’s more of a capitalist country. So what explains that? What’s going on there?

Bill Kirby: That’s a great question. Certainly, it has a healthy dose of both. The heights of political power are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, not just in Beijing, but down to every municipality and to every village, in fact. At the same time, and this is the large difference between the end of the Maoist period where the party and the state controlled so many aspects of life. No private businesses whatsoever legally allowed, the state determining when you may be married, how many children you should have. Sadly, it still does that, at least in the now two-child policy. Since the late 1970s, gradually but steadily, the personal lives of Chinese are much, much freer than they were in the first 30 years of the People’s Republic. So what you have is a strong ruling party and a strong internal security apparatus to keep the party in power, a security apparatus that has a larger budget actually than the military. At the same time, you have an increasingly mobile, economically mobile, physically mobile population with much greater freedom to do what they wish in their daily lives.

This is the China in many ways that China was poised to become before the 1949 revolution. Under the nationalist regime, one had a strong, military-based one-party state, the Nationalist State, presiding over a mixed economy, with certain level of state-owned enterprises, but with large parts of the economy privately owned, and with large parts of the economy seeking to or wishing to engage in international trade. This is flourishing to a much greater degree now than ever before, certainly than in the nationalist period.

And so, you have a great unleashing of private enterprise. China has the longest, deepest tradition of private enterprise of any country that I know of, certainly more than any in Europe, certainly more than any in North America and this has returned with an extraordinary imagination and energy over the last several decades. Some of the most amazing private companies, Alibaba, Tencent, Wanxiang, a company that I just taught about in my Harvard Business School course yesterday.

These are really remaking the landscapes in their respective industries, not just in China, but also globally. At the same time, the state controls much of the levers of power. State-owned banks are still the largest banks, private banks are comparatively small. State-owned banks preferentially meant to state-owned enterprises. So, you have a kind of a contained government sector that is very large and under Xi Jinping, growing.

It used to be said in the height of the reform period in the 1990s and early 2000s, that the policy was one of guo tui min jin, of the state retreating and the people, that is to say, private enterprise advancing. Today it appears rather the reverse. And the state is holding on to the heights of economic power but also to many forms of enterprise that in any other country in the world would be private enterprise. So a mixed answer is what I shall give you, but the private sector is the driving force of China’s economic miracle over the last four decades.

Marina Bolotnikova: How far will China press to reunite with Taiwan, to turn to a different topic?

Bill Kirby: This you should better ask Mr. Xi, but Chinese governments have claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, Chinese mainland governance, the People’s Republic since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Even though the People’s Republic has never governed the island of Taiwan, or any of the territories controlled by Taiwan for one second. It is part of, in their view, the inalienable territory of China that they were to inherit when they established the country, their regime. And you’ll have seen a general press for the re-unification of China throughout the period of the People’s Republic.

Hong Kong reunified as a special administrative district in 1997, but the difference with Taiwan is that unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan has an army, it has an Air Force. It has a vibrant, alternative political system. It formally was a one-party state like that on the mainland, but it is now a vibrant democracy. It has its own flag, it has its own anthem, and it has increasingly its own identity. I think if I were an optimist, I would say that the wish of the Chinese government is to bring Taiwan ever greater into the fold economically, culturally and otherwise, of a greater China dominated and in time controlled by the People’s Republic of China.

I don't believe and here again, I am an optimist, that the People’s Republic would be foolish enough to attempt a military attack on Taiwan, because think of what the consequences of that would be. The military attack on Taiwan might or might not succeed. If it didn’t succeed, almost surely the party would fall from power. Even if it did succeed or destroyed part of Taiwan, Taiwan has the capacity to destroy major cities in China.

Bill Kirby: No one would win automatically in a physical sense, but what would automatically happen would be a cessation of U.S.-China relations, at least for a generation, the end of foreign investment in China, not just by the United States, but by many, many countries around the world. It would be a major political disaster for the People’s Republic of China, certainly a major foreign policy disaster. I don’t think that this government is a risk-taking government to that degree, however much they may believe that Taiwan rightfully belongs as part of the People’s Republic.

Marina Bolotnikova: What about the way that Chinese citizens see themselves in relation to the rest of the world, compared to the way the government conducts foreign policy? Are there differences there?

Bill Kirby: There are some differences there. Chinese citizens today are so much more mobile and so much more global than ever before. Just walk out into Harvard Yard every morning and see the busloads of Chinese tourists. Sadly, not recently because of the coronavirus, but when I was in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, I would get to my office in University Hall, usually before eight in the morning and already, there were a busload disembarked, standing in front of the John Harvard statue, getting a small history of Harvard University and sometimes I would chime in, in Chinese to give them a few extra pointers on this.

Enormous numbers of Chinese are visiting abroad having both intellectual hunger and education—also to study abroad. As I said before, there are perhaps a million studying abroad across the world, more than a third of whom are studying in the United States. They are an increasingly globalized society and you can see this in the hunger for information, mostly gotten from abroad, about what is happening in China today at the height of this coronavirus because of their disenchantment with the kind of information that they can get at home.

It isn’t really a disaffection with Chinese foreign policy. I think most Chinese are patriotic citizens. They believe that China has a rightful place in the world. They may or may not believe that China has sovereignty over Taiwan, but certainly a number, a good number of citizens will hold that belief and they believe in China’s territorial integrity. So I don’t see a major dispute on the part of the netizens as they’re often called, the people who can opine on the internet in China regarding Chinese foreign policy.

What irks them enormously, and particularly today is the lack of accurate information from their own government, the increasing censorship of the press. Of course, it has been censored ever since the founding of the People’s Republic, and at times in a much more draconian fashion than today, but it has become more and more censored under Xi Jinping’s leadership than before. There’s a collapse of faith in government information that comes from the fact that it took seven weeks from the discovery of the conoravirus to its public announcement in January.

Jonathan Shaw: What sorts of economic strains is China facing now? Specifically, how is China coping with the slowing economy and reduced international trade?

Bill Kirby: I think China is coping without question with the slowing economy. It is still growing, until this epidemic, it’s still growing at a faster rate than almost any other country in the world, and at an enviable rate of nearly 6%, although not everywhere, and many parts of China and Northeastern China are growing perhaps in a negative rate, and parts of Southeast China at a higher rate than what we see. So it’s not just one economy and in many ways, not just one set of figures that can define how the Chinese economy is going.

But I’m optimistic in the long run, very optimistic in the long run about the capacities of the Chinese economy. Not least because there are still two to three to 400 million people in China, who are at present still too poor to become part of the rapidly growing new consumer society in China. If they were in time to get the education and health care, basic social security that would allow them to be consumers, and the mobility in terms of household registration and other issues to move and live legally in different parts of China, think of it! China has an additional North America or Europe to add as a consumer market, and it is right at home.

So, the long-term prospects for the Chinese economy I think, are actually very great and they may be as great at home, or greater at home, than they are abroad. Probably the biggest strain that China faces is one that we face: growing income inequality, a Gini coefficient that is somewhere between 50 and 60 (0.5 and 0.6), making it one of the most unequal societies on earth in terms of income. Make no mistake, the poorer people in China today are much better off than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but the distinction between where they are and what their prospects are compared to say to the richest 10 to 20 percent is also—that gap is now much larger than before.

Jonathan Shaw: Is the perception that China takes an engineering response to everything largely accurate? Has that played a role in shaping the response to the novel coronavirus or in the government’s use of its extensive surveillance capabilities?

Bill Kirby: That’s a great question. I’ve written a lot about China as an engineering state and this is a concept that really goes back to the early 20th century. It’s not a new concept. Sun Yat-sen wrote a book in 1921, called the International Development of China, translated in Chinese as Qianren Jihua, industrial plan, about how China would be industrialized with Western capital and expertise, he believed, but how it would develop railroads and rail networks, highway networks, ports and other facilities, infrastructure that would be the envy the world.

He was far ahead of his time, but his blueprint was later on the blueprint for both the nationalist and the communist governments. His plan for the Three Gorges Dam, first articulated in 1921, has been realized in the latter part of the 20th and first part of the 21st century. So there was a strong sense that a modern government ought to be made in part what he called, as he translated the term, technocracy. He translated it as the “dictatorship of the engineers,” and nothing better categorizes, or at least its one categorization of the government of the People’s Republic of China in recent decades.

Almost all of the leaders and almost all of the members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party over the last two decades at least, have been engineers in background. So they believe in the physical transformation of the Chinese landscape. They believe in high speed rail. They believe in subways, they believe in infrastructure as a means of national strength. And they’re not wrong to believe that. The building of the Eisenhower interstate system in the United States was an enormous boost to the mobility and economic growth of the United States in the way that Chinese infrastructure is doing for China today.

But if you take something like social engineering, their record is much less happy. The social engineering of the Communist period moving: first of all, giving farmers their land and then taking it away, putting them all into collectives and then communes in a harebrained scheme that would lead to the death of somewhere between 40 and 60 million Chinese in the greatest famine in modern world history, or in the movements of whole populations in other periods of the People’s Republic of China, or even in ecological engineering. Today, the movement of water from the Himalayan snowmass that goes into the Yangtze and other rivers toward the north, toward the parched north of China. Here their record is much spottier than one would imagine from their success in physical infrastructure. So if you take this virus or its predecessor, the SARS virus of 2003, you see two sides of the political system. Take SARS, for example, because that’s done and we know what the outcome was. The Chinese government was slow to react to it, it’s suppressed information about it.

Bad news is never good news and good news is what is in the newspapers, and what is shared with people by and large, and local officials are always afraid to share bad news because it reflects badly on their management of their locality. Once that became an epidemic, the government’s highly intrusive, really dictatorial approach to managing it probably kept it from going much further than it otherwise would have. So once it was recognized as a danger, having that sort of authoritarian government may have been a boon for China and not a burden. We shall see what the outcome is of this episode today.

Marina Bolotnikova: With growth and of course, and of course with the growth of the consumer society comes increases in greenhouse gas emissions. What is China’s national strategy for confronting climate change? Is there a climate denialist movement comparable to what we see in the United States?

Bill Kirby: Happily, no, I have never met or read of anyone denying climate change in China, perhaps that’s because of the high level of engineering education, not just in the leadership, but in the universities and elsewhere. You don’t have this fringe group that actually will believe that the world is not changing and in fact, there has been a strong recognition—China has had over the past decades some of the worst pollution on earth. It has poisoned its waters, it has poisoned its airs, as it sought to get rich fast.

Yet at the same time, the same kind of leadership that would help unleash or at least allow these productive forces is a leadership that can recognize the scientific cost of them and begin to force change. And so as bad as the air has been in the times that I’ve been visiting China over the last three decades and more—and it was really terrible a decade ago—it has gotten better. It’s certainly gotten better in Beijing and Shanghai now, in part in Beijing, because they’ve moved factories to down, a little bit further south to Northern Hubei province where it has gotten worse.

But there is now a serious enforcement of environmental rules in China, that is beginning to make a difference. When I think of my own experience in Asia, about the capacity of countries to deal with this challenge. When I was a student, I was a student in Taiwan in Taipei, which was then a gritty, industrializing, modernizing city. Enormous pollution, surrounded by beautiful mountains, which you could never see unless a typhoon was coming in, blowing everything away.

Today, Taiwan, which was really one of the more polluted places on earth in the 1970s, with also rivers polluted, its air and water polluted, is one of the greenest places on earth. In a generation and a half has turned this around. Now it helped that Taiwan also had an opposition party, known by its color as Green and took the environmental issue as a means of hammering the ruling party. China doesn’t have that capacity unfortunately, at present, but I think China will make enormous strides in environmental protection.

Jonathan Shaw: You have also written a great deal about China’s education national system. What are China’s prospects as a global leader in higher education? How do the top Chinese universities rank globally?

Bill Kirby: It’s a great question. Before 1949, in the republican period, China was developing one of the best small systems of higher education in the world, a system of public and private Chinese and foreign institutions that pound for pound, were among in my view, the best in the world at what they did. These were largely destroyed or at least Sovietized in the 1950s and early 60s, and then nearly totally destroyed in Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today and really beginning in 1977, with the first examination back into universities, but slowly and steadily, China has built the fastest growing system of higher education in quality as well as quantity in the world with extraordinary public universities, led by Peking University and Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Nanjing University, Zhejiang University, but many others across the country.

And not so well known, an increasingly dynamic system of private universities serving different clientele, maybe a quarter of Chinese higher-education institutions are now private in ownership, and some very focused institutions that are Sino-foreign institutions, such as NYU Shanghai, or Duke Kunshan University. Duke Kunshan University establishing a 200-acre residential campus to educate people in the liberal arts and sciences in the heart of China. It’s a place of enormous experimentation and it is a place that has more of the best human capital of any educational system in the world.

This is in part why you have seen Chinese universities rise rapidly in the global rankings, certainly 10 years ago, none of them in the top 100 in the world. Today, two often ranked in the top 20 in the world, and surely in the top 30: Tsinghua University and Peking University. I think in the latest ranking of the QS, so a British ranking system. And of course, all these ranking systems have their idiosyncrasies. Tsinghua University was ranked number 16. Can you guess what number 17 was, Jonathan?

Jonathan Shaw: Harvard?

Bill Kirby: No, happily not, We were, I believe, right at the very top, but I can’t tell you which one we were, number 17 was Yale. Felt just right to me. So this is happening and they’re rising fast, particularly in the engineering sciences in time in the life sciences and other areas. Less fast, for reasons that we can discuss in the humanities, and in the social sciences. But these global rankings are disproportionately geared toward ranking science, rather than other areas.

Jonathan Shaw: That gives a reason for optimism, but shortly after Xi Jinping became president of China, the government issued a document outlining what you refer to as the seven nos of the ideological sphere. Specifically, for example, there should be no discussion of Western constitutional democracy, independent judiciary, nationalized army, general elections, universal values, such as human rights, freedom of the press, discussion of past party mistakes. Will it be hard for China to become a leader in education when there are subjects such as these that are taboo even in university classrooms?

Bill Kirby: Yes, of course. The modern university has not been around forever. Universities have been around a very long time, but the modern research university, a place that is designed to promote original knowledge that is connected also to undergraduate education, to education in the liberal arts and sciences. This is a little bit more than 200 years old, stemming from the model of Humboldt at the University of Berlin and it’s about the intersection of teaching and learning.

The capacity for students to have lernfreiheit, as Humboldt put it, to the freedom to learn, just as professors will have lehrfreiheit the freedom to teach, and it’s been the foundation, really of the academic enterprise. Those two words in different languages for more than 200 years, and when Chinese universities work at their best, and probably it is true these days in the sciences, but it has been true at different points in times in the humanities and social sciences.

Those two principles have held, at least within the walls of a Chinese university for much of the past several decades, you could say pretty much what you think and be very direct and outspoken, but under Xi Jinping, once again, the vise has tightened intellectually in this regard. So you have these seven nos that were articulated one year into his presidency. Seven things not to talk about at a great university and whenever I give a speech on higher education in China, I refer to these and I make the point which I would make here or anywhere else in the world, that a great university has to be a place where there is not a single question that cannot be answered, let alone seven questions.

So it’s a moment of great tenseness right now. Chinese universities house the scholars that are the future of China, they often and they educate the people who will be the future political leaders of China, and how students act and react has had enormous political consequences for Chinese government since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, student demonstrations of 1935, the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, and I can guarantee you that it will again, at some point.

And here’s an interesting example and this gives me optimism about the future both of Chinese students and of Chinese universities, if not, perhaps in the immediate term. So, all students are encouraged to study Marxism-Leninism. Why not? It’s part of the required curriculum of the Chinese Communist Party. Some very intrepid students at Peking University, Renmin University, Nanjing University and a number of others, therefore started their own Marxist study groups. They read Marx, the real Marx, not the Marxism textbooks that they were assigned in their required courses.

Then they went to South China to organize workers into real unions to stand up for their rights, as they believed Marx would have had them do. Now, you may not know this but in China unions are not unions of the kind that would be recognized in North America or in Europe. Unions are government-organized unions and unions are an employer’s best friend.

So these unions were suppressed. Many of the students were arrested and dismissed from university. The president of several universities and presidents and party secretaries of several universities were fired for being too lenient on their students, and so on. But it shows you that there is still enormous idealism in this generation of young Chinese and it will find an outlet.

Jonathan Shaw: Some business and government leaders in China expect the country to lead internationally in the 21st century, which you alluded to earlier. But you have written that economic dynamism is not enough, noting challenges such as brain drain, pollution, corruption and inequality, and among the elites, an apparent lack of faith in Chinese education and investment prospects based on where they send their children and their money abroad. Is China likely to change enough to win the confidence of those elites?

Bill Kirby: I think in time, yes. I think right now you have a political system in China that is extremely powerful, when it wants to be, no question about it. Mr. Xi Jinping, a very powerful man, when he wishes to be and to intervene. And yet it is a political system that is powerfully insecure. A system that is secure to itself would not censor the internet, and censor newspapers and books and magazines, to the increasing degree that is happening in China today.

A system that is secure in its beliefs and in its legitimacy would not imprison. Mr. Liu Xiaobo, a man who was sent to prison and who died in prison—died for his beliefs—for writing an essay, a man who committed no crime against any property or person and a man who was not allowed to accept the Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded. Think of it, this great country with its great political and intellectual traditions, its citizen was the second individual awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison and not allowed to receive it.

The first was the German journalist Carl von Ossietzky imprisoned by the Nazis, who died I believe in 1935. This is not the kind of company that China should keep, nor is it the kind of company I am convinced that China will keep. There are many points of view in China. Many progressive things are happening in China. There is not, at the moment my experience in China tells me, at the moment when everyone because of the political pressure appears to be saying the same thing in the same language.

That is when there’s real disagreement in China, and I am in the long run very optimistic about China’s capacity to find a political system that will make the greatest use of the extraordinary human talent that is there on the ground in China and among Chinese around the world.

Marina Bolotnikova: Attorneys General across the U.S. are investigating a growing number of cases of so-called academic espionage, meaning what they see as the illegitimate transfer of scientific or medical knowledge to foreign countries, particularly to China. I’m sure you’re aware and listeners should be aware of the case of Charles Lieber, the Harvard chemistry professor who was just arrested in a case of academic espionage. Do you think that academic espionage is a national security threat and how is it affecting efforts to open up relations and understanding between the U.S. and China?

Bill Kirby: I think it can be a national security threat, would have to look at it on a case-by-case basis, and to look where technology or information that is truly of national security importance is endangered, and is sent or bought abroad. This is not the first time that this country has been faced with this. We've had, in fact, or this university or other universities, there have been cases that go back with many other countries, going back to the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s and it is part of being an international institution.

Universities as a whole, and those who have federal grants, have strong rules and strong procedures to mitigate against this. Of course, they have to be followed and if they’re not followed, then bad things can happen. What I worry about more, however, is that there's a kind of a sweeping suspicion of all things Chinese and that any collaboration with a Chinese partner is as a result, somehow suspect.

That’s how it was in the McCarthy period of the 1950s, when my later adviser John Fairbank was hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee for many of his earlier dealings with Chinese. We have a lot of Chinese happily for Harvard, as does every major research university. The country with the largest number of students in our Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from any one country comes from China. Why is that?

Because they’re the best. That is to say they’re disproportionately in numbers the best because our graduate students school admits department by department on the basis of quality and quality alone, and these individuals are contributing to the creation of knowledge both here and abroad. It’s not a criminal act for a Chinese to come to this country to get a Ph.D. and to have a postdoc, and then to return to their home country to study. Many Americans would think this is a good thing.

It’s not a brain drain, but a kind of a brain flow, as it were, between our two countries. Obviously, if there are classified information that is part of that flow, that is the problem, but it is not the flow that is the problem. There’s this criticism, which I don't quite understand against the so called Thousand Talents Program. China has a program, and like everything in China, they give it big publicity and they have a program to bring back initially it was 1,000, but it’s many more and potentially, 1,000 senior people mostly, initially from China who have gone abroad to bring them into China's growing university system or research labs.

So they’re recruiting scholars. Well, we recruit here at Harvard, we recruit scholars all the time. We recruit them from China, we recruit them from Germany, we recruit them from Berkeley, from Stanford, from Yale, and we are happy to steal talent. Well, we don’t steal it, but we invite talent from all over the world to join us. That’s what universities do. That’s the essence of competition in higher education, and that competition is what makes you good. And if you were worried about your faculty being recruited somewhere else, you're worrying about the wrong problem, because you do not want a faculty that nobody else wants.

Marina Bolotnikova: How has the Trump administration’s China policy panned out in the last three years compared to what you thought would happen? Do you think Trump's China policy represents a departure from that of previous administrations?

Bill Kirby: As I said before, it represents a departure in the sense of how unpredictable it is. It represents a departure in terms of who is actually running the policy. There are many people in the American government, in past Republican and Democratic administrations who are highly capable of leading policy analysis about China, but the people who are doing it for this administration, this is not the A team. It’s not the B team, and even in an age of grade inflation, it’s not the C team.

You have a disproportionate part of this being handled by a very small number of people who, from an external perspective, do not appear to be deeply knowledgeable about the issues with which they are dealing, with a few notable exceptions. And if you take the trade war, well, here we are so many months into it and we are back to status quo ante. What have we gained? What has China gained? What have we gained? Very, very little as far as I can see, except massive dislocation and fear, and the beginning of the movement of some Chinese and foreign enterprises out of China, simply to avoid the unpredictability of the American administration.

I don’t see that as a far-sighted approach toward our long term relationship with China and at the same time, there has been no criticism whatsoever from the American side on the worsening condition of human rights in parts of China, in particular Xinjiang, and so there is a strong sense that this is an administration that cares only about money as measured in bilateral trade and cares not a whit about the values that have defined American foreign policy.

Marina Bolotnikova: Well if listeners want to learn more about China, the contemporary world, is there a book or other resource you recommend?

Bill Kirby: There are several things I would recommend. I’m happy to recommend a book that I co-authored a few years ago. It’s called Can China Lead? Asking this question: will the 21st century be the Chinese century and rather than answering it right now, I should recommend that people read the book and think of what their own answer might be. I would also recommend and again, this seems a little self-centered, but my colleague, Peter Bol and I did an online course for Harvard, for our online platform called HarvardX.

It’s called ChinaX and it is 10 mini courses for all of Chinese history giving a survey, and an interpretive view of history, culture, economy, politics, business, right up to the present day and it’s available on the HarvardX platform, ChinaX, for free, which is probably a terrible business idea, but a very good educational idea. So far, nearly half a million people have looked at one or another of these mini courses and we would welcome people to do that and to give us our feedback.

But the third thing I would ask people to read is President Bacow’s speech at Peking University last spring, in 2019. He spoke near the anniversary of the great intellectual ferment of May, of 1919, of the May Fourth Movement in China, a period of great ferment and open discussion of the virtues of democracy, science, also of Marxism and other forms of social organization. And he spoke above all about the values of the university and he made the point, and about free and open inquiry.

He made the point, at this great Chinese University, that precisely at a moment when relations between countries may be strained, such as between China and the United States, this is the moment that universities around the world, and Chinese and American universities, in this context need to work more closely together. Because at the end of the day, and I can guarantee you that this is true, we and our professorial counterparts at Peking University, we and also the leadership of great institutions like Peking University share many more of the same values than we do not.

The future of education, the future of learning, and the future of learning one from another will come in future in large measure through our universities and I’m so glad that he went out there to deepen not shrink our relationship with China.

Jonathan Shaw: Thank you for joining us today Professor Kirby.

Bill Kirby: My pleasure, Jonathan, thank you very much.


Ask a Harvard professor is hosted by Jonathan Shaw and Marina Bolotnikova, and produced by Jacob Sweet. Our theme music was created by Louis Weeks. This second season was sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union and supported by voluntary donations from listeners like you. To support the podcast, visit harvardmagazine.com/supportpodcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on iTunes. Contact us with questions at harvard_magazine@harvard.edu.

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