China 101

January 26, 2012

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In 1982, a Chinese graduate student in education named Min Weifang moved into a small rented room on Alvarado Row. Next door lived Amos Nur, professor of geophysics. Twenty years would pass before the two men met.

Min, MA ’84, MA ’86, PhD ’87, returned to China after his time at Stanford and became a leading educational reformer. Now executive vice president at Peking (Beida) University in Beijing, he has nudged Chinese higher education away from a stratified, inflexible model of specialization toward one that embraces a broad curriculum and promotes technology transfer as an engine of economic development.

Two years ago, Min invited Nur, the neighbor he never knew and now director of Stanford’s Overseas Studies Program, to Beijing to talk about a possible Stanford program at Peking University. During two days of discussions, they worked out most of the details—everything from where Stanford’s offices would be to whether students would be able to play squash on the university’s courts. After hearing horror stories about the bureaucracy and delays that hamstrung other program start-ups, Nur found the timetable refreshingly short. “We were surprised; others were astounded,” he recalls. “I think Weifang told the school officials there, ‘This is a must, and we have to make it happen.’”

When Stanford’s first group of students arrives at Peking U. this fall, it will be the culmination of years of hope and planning—Stanford has been contemplating a program in China for the past 10 years. It also illustrates the influence of a generation of pioneer Chinese scholars who were among the first wave to arrive at U.S. universities a quarter century ago. ”China’s government decided in the late 1970s to begin sending its best students to the United States, and Stanford attracted a good number,” Nur says. Min was among the first.

Like many of his contemporaries, Min had experienced the hardships and “re-education” of the Cultural Revolution. His years at Stanford helped shape a new vision. “He wants to build a world-class university at Beida,” Nur says, “and Stanford is his model.”

Stanford President John Hennessy, in a speech dedicating the new program at Peking U., said the two schools would benefit from an initiative forged from friendship and dedicated to common goals. “It’s critical to provide person-to-person experiences” that augment Stanford students’ classroom study, he noted. In a press conference later, he told Chinese journalists that the new program “helps students in their professional lives in relations with China, and that will be very important going forward.”

Min concurred. “This program is a breakthrough in fostering human capital, and it paves the way for further cooperation between our schools,” he said at the dedication ceremony.

Eighteen undergraduates are enrolled for the inaugural fall quarter. Although they will be required to study Chinese, their other courses will be taught in English by Peking U. faculty. “You can’t learn the language in 10 weeks,” says program director Jason Patent. “We are trying to get people hooked; to reconfigure their view of China. We want to build transpacific citizens.”

Students will live on campus. Emeritus professor of Chinese Albert Dien will be in residence during the fall. He’ll be replaced spring quarter by Harold Kahn, professor emeritus of history.

Issues of academic freedom were an obvious concern, but with Min’s help those have been resolved, Patent says. In fact, at the dedication ceremony in May, Min asserted that “academic freedom is critical.”

“It’s been made clear that the classroom is a sacred space, a free-speech zone,” Patent says. Outside the classroom, though, Chinese rules apply. “Students will have to learn to express moral outrage in ways that won’t be destructive. If you want to protest, you don’t go wave signs in Tiananmen Square. That will screw things up for you and for the other students.”

American students in China are still a novelty, although about 20 U.S. schools have programs there. That said, Stanford must work hard to see that its students are experiencing the real China, not China Lite. “There is a deeply inculcated distrust between Chinese and foreigners that goes back generations,” says Patent. “Historically, if you’re a foreigner you live where foreigners live and you do what foreigners do. It takes a lot of effort to make Chinese friends. One of our challenges will be to get students out as much as possible. It will be easy for them to get sucked into the expatriate, clubbing lifestyle.”

According to Nur, the program should challenge students’ assumptions about China, including preconceived notions about its government. “I’ve always felt Communism was just another coat of paint on China,” he says. “It’s an ancient civilization, not some upstart nation. It’s one-fifth of humankind. We have to be there.”

“A lot hangs on U.S.-China relations,” adds Patent. “We can’t afford for the United States and China not to know and understand each other. This program is one small contribution.”

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