Reconsidering Decades of Western Outreach to China

President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
Western institutions have long assumed that cross-cultural exposure would loosen the Chinese regime’s grip. But the risks of such exposure are just as great.

Twenty years ago, as a lowly adjunct professor, I taught crisis management for Harvard in China. My memories, and some qualms about doing so, have flooded back as the world ponders whether China’s political system enabled the virus’s spread by discouraging local officials from reporting bad news. During those “executive education” programs at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I hoped that my colleagues and I might help nudge the Chinese system toward greater openness. But even back then — at a time when China was “ascending” to the WTO and optimism reigned among us globalists — our experiences of the country left me with doubts.

How to handle crisis was part of the curriculum when the Harvard Kennedy School struck a deal with the Beijing government to provide public-management education for local officials from across China. I have no idea whether the mayor of Wuhan was in the group I helped teach, but it’s quite possible. Our goal was to expose local and regional officials to Kennedy School-style techniques, which combine technocratic policy analysis with political leadership. It didn’t take long to see that the school’s dedication to fostering “freer” societies was going to be tested in the weeks a group of faculty spent at Tsinghua, thanks to what I understood to be the cooperation of the opaquely named Organization Department of the Central Committee.

It was above my pay grade to question whether the school should have entered into such a relationship in the first place. As I reflect, it’s possible that we planted some seeds for a freer society — but it’s just as likely that we helped provide legitimacy for a totalitarian government.

My role was to teach classes by the famous Harvard case method, in which narratives (cases) framed political or policy decisions to be discussed and argued over. Open debate alone represented the possibility of progress for China, or so I told myself. Of course, we were using cases set in other countries, in order, we hoped, not to upset Chinese government officials.

One such case directly foreshadowed the coronavirus pandemic. It dealt with Hong Kong’s response to the bird-flu epidemic of 1997, and it was meant to provoke discussion about how officials speak to the public at times of crisis: Can reassurance and candor be reconciled?

The central figure in the case was Hong Kong’s public-health commissioner, Margaret Chan, who went on to become the head of the World Health Organization. When it was revealed that live-market chickens were the likely cause of the bird flu, Chan told Hong Kong residents, “I eat chicken every day.” Eventually, Hong Kong chose to kill every chicken in the territory, a decision widely judged to have saved the world from the illness. Our students mocked Chan’s statement as the Hong Kong public had, thus opening the door to the idea of accountability for public officials and citizen influence over public policy, both foreign concepts in China. And because the story had a relatively happy ending, another essential principle was made plain: It’s possible to make mistakes in handling a public-health crisis but they are best openly acknowledged and corrected.

Despite such promising signs, the program, it turned out, also took some ominous turns that made clear the serious limitations of outside efforts to reform China — and foreshadowed the COVID-19 crisis.

I recall specifically our discussion of a case I wrote myself, about police corruption in La Paz, Bolivia. It tells the story of a reform-minded mayor of La Paz dealing with a largely illiterate and corrupt local police force. The mayor, Ronald MacLean, who went on to co-found Transparency International, considered a variety of ways to weed out the corrupt from the force and motivate the rest. But his approach was not embraced by the class. One official had a dramatically different and revealing perspective. The mayor, he said, should simply assemble a “secret army of replacement police” and, without warning one morning, have them swoop in and take over, replacing all the current cops, who would be brought up on charges. Might that not spark popular resentment? Would police work improve? The questions did not resonate.

I’d never encountered that sort of response to the La Paz case before, although I’d taught it around the world. The important thing, it seemed, was for the Chinese government’s middle managers to demonstrate to officials higher up the food chain that the corruption problem was contained. In the People’s Republic, the “people” really didn’t play a role in the government’s thinking. Arguably, the same systemic weakness could be seen in the belated response in Wuhan. Secrecy is a feature, not a bug, of the CCP system, and it has real consequences.

As the class went on, it became clear that Harvard’s involvement had unforeseen effects on the enterprise we were all engaged in. Chinese officials would now be able to boast of having been trained by Harvard professors, and local officials who were participating were getting the message that the Communist Party had, in some sense, the approval of Harvard. What’s more, officials from the Organization Department — the HR branch of the Party Central Committee — were in the class, likely evaluating the hand-picked up-and-comers who were our students on grounds of political correctness. Over time, we noticed that participants were looking to senior officials for guidance as to what to say.

Of course, one never knows what seeds one plants, perhaps even over informal dinner discussions. I recall quietly citing the work of Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, finding that economic growth is more likely to be sustained over time in democratic societies. Perhaps the right person was listening. But I fear not: Cooperation between Harvard and the Chinese Communist Party government continues today, even as it is increasingly clear that the country is becoming less, not more, free.

Yale, NYU, Duke, and UC Berkeley, among other prestigious American universities, have also established campuses in China. As a recent Department of Education complaint about universities reporting income from China makes clear, there is big money involved: Yale alone may, according to the DOE, have failed to report $375 million in overall foreign financial support. So, too, is there the risk that intellectual cooperation is a one-way street, as seen in the recent case of a Harvard chemistry professor charged with lying to federal officials about being paid to share his research with the Chinese government. But the greatest risk of all may be selling legitimacy to an illegitimate regime.

Howard Husock is an adjunct scholar in domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on local government, civil society, and urban-housing policy.


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