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Wang Zhenyao, A Chinese Technocrat, Finds U.S. Education An Asset


The U.S. rivalry with China has a curious feature. Some Chinese officials confronting the United States were educated in the United States. Their education once seemed likely to help bring the two nations together. U.S.-educated Chinese are among those we have met as we hear stories of people with a foot in each country.

We're in a car. We're in central Beijing. We're on our way to an office to meet someone who had an American education and brought it back to China - not that it's so hard to find such a person. In fact, by chance, the very car that we summoned take us there is driven by a guy who's put a magnet here on his dashboard that says Harvard.

The driver didn't want to be recorded but proudly told us his son went to school in Massachusetts. He now works in finance in Beijing. The driver left us at an office building, and we rode an elevator to the China Global Philanthropy Institute.

WANG ZHENYAO: Nice to meet you.

INSKEEP: It's nice to meet you.

WANG: Please, please.

INSKEEP: Director Wang Zhenyao also took courses at Harvard while working for China's government.

Does the government of China rely a lot on people like you who were educated at some point in the United States?

WANG: Yes, yes. You can find maybe more than senior - even, you know, the - Liu He.

INSKEEP: Even Liu He, he says, China's representative in trade talks with the U.S., who studied at both Seton Hall and Harvard. People tell a joke, if the trade war turns out well for China...

WANG: That means American, or Harvard course, is good.


INSKEEP: Then it'll show the Harvard class on negotiation is good. Wang Zhenyao's story suggests how and why China has leaned so heavily on American schools. Sitting in front of a wall of windows, he looked out on office buildings under construction in Beijing, and he recalled when China was very different.

Where did you grow up?

WANG: I grew up in rural - very poor rural district in middle China.

INSKEEP: He says his parents were farmers in a village. People were starving after a failed effort to modernize China's economy called The Great Leap Forward.

WANG: The young generation cannot believe that time in 1960s - no food. We almost died - very hungry.

INSKEEP: Later came the Cultural Revolution, a movement to root out capitalists along with scholars and intellectuals. Universities closed for years. When university entrance exams resumed in the 1970s, Wang was part of the first class of students admitted. He graduated and took a government job. He oversaw an experiment with voting for local officials in village elections. But listen to how he says when he was told to do this.

WANG: The division chief in charge of the village election...


WANG: That's either (ph) in 1989 (laughter).

INSKEEP: Which was a momentous year, yes.

WANG: Very tough.

INSKEEP: 1989 was when China's army massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, 30 years ago this week. Though village elections continued, democratic reform went no farther. The communist government did send officials to that democracy across the Pacific. Wang went to Harvard twice in the 1990s. He was one of many officials sent for mid-career education.

What did you learn from being in the United States and going to Harvard?

WANG: Open up my mind.

INSKEEP: As much as any specific class, he recalls seeing the world without the filter of state-controlled media.

WANG: One American professor invited me to her home. After dinner, I said, how much I should pay? She was so surprised. She's like, why - should pay? I said, the Chinese media said that we...

INSKEEP: The Chinese media said Americans are all about money...

WANG: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...And only care about money.

WANG: Yes. That term is the wrong information.

INSKEEP: He found Americans to be generous.

WANG: Philanthropy, especially philanthropy. Philanthropy I find in America is very popular. Donation, volunteer, you know, this is very, very important.

INSKEEP: After returning to China, he helped to coordinate the response to an earthquake in 2008. He says his Harvard education helped. And at that time, China accepted U.S. aid.

Having had this exposure to America that you've had, what does America need to learn from China?

WANG: Food (laughter).

INSKEEP: We could have better Chinese food. OK, yes.

But he still regards America as the country with greater knowledge. After he left the government, Wang accepted an offer to run the institute where we met him. It aims to educate a generation of Chinese philanthropists.

WANG: Each year, we send the philanthropists to Rockefeller family (ph), to New York.

INSKEEP: How many people each year?

WANG: Each year, about 20.

INSKEEP: So each of these 20 people is probably very rich, someone who's made a fortune and wants to give back something.

WANG: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: Bill Gates of Microsoft and the investor Ray Dalio financed this effort. China's new rich learn from Americans how to give their money away.

What do you think about now that some Americans have begun regarding China as a rival or even an enemy?

WANG: I believe - it's hard to say.

INSKEEP: He turned to our interpreter to find words for what bothered him.

WANG: (Through interpreter) Nationalism, emotions.

INSKEEP: He thinks if more Americans visited China, they would feel less threatened.

WANG: Most of the China people actually want to learn from the United States so far. Actually, China and American, it's a long history. I cannot imagine China as an enemy to the United States.

INSKEEP: As an enemy, you can't imagine.

WANG: I cannot imagine.

INSKEEP: To Wang Zhenyao, the United States is still the country that sets the standards for the world. Although, it's also true that China has become more assertive. While Chinese students still attend U.S. universities, one program has stopped. President Xi Jinping has been asserting his country's growing power. And a few years ago, China ceased sending mid-career government officials to study at Harvard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.