Thursday, March 23, 2017

China Comes to MIT

An edited version appeared in Asia Times.

“China Comes to MIT” is an exhibit celebrating the 140-year history of students from China that attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On display at the Maihaugen Gallery in the MIT Library until November, the exhibit contains an amazing collection of personal stories of students from China that attended MIT from 1877 to 1931. Along with individual profiles, the exhibit also explains the circumstances and developments that led to the special relationship between China and MIT.

Eight of the first nine to enter MIT from China were members of the Chinese Education Mission, sent by the Qing government to receive an American college education. The CEM was the result of Yung Wing’s tireless effort with the imperial court promoting the idea of exposing China’s youth to western education.

Yung, under the generous sponsorship of American missionaries, was the first Chinese to graduate from an American university—Yale, class of 1854. He recognized the value of a western education in helping China modernize and convinced the government to send young boys, ages 12 to 15 to live with missionary families in New England and begin their American education.

The first Chinese student to matriculate MIT was Mon Cham Cheong in 1877 just ahead of the young men from CEM. Cheong’s father was a progressive minded, wealthy merchant who sent him to the US under the guardianship of a similarly wealthy merchant in Boston. Thus Cheong was also the first self-funded student from China.

In all, stories of 38 individuals were profiled in the exhibit including the bio of the first Chinese woman to enter MIT. She was Li Fu Lee; she married Kuan Tung (MIT ’27) and followed him to MIT. She entered as a junior and received an electrical engineering degree in 1929. There were only 25 women in her class and she was made chairman of the social committee of the MIT Chinese Students’ Club—already enough attending to have a club.

The Wong Tsoo story was my personal favorite. Also known as Wong Tsu, he was among the first batch of students to graduate from the newly formed department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1916. Upon recommendations of others at MIT, William Boeing hired him sight unseen to be his first chief engineer.

In less than a year, Wong had designed a seaplane that Boeing sold 50 copies to the US Navy and that was how the Boeing Company got its start as an airplane manufacturing enterprise. (Maybe this is why as a MIT undergrad, I could always get a summer job at Boeing when I went home for the summers.)

Wong did not stay in Seattle very long but went back to China in the latter half of 1917. For services rendered, Boeing gave him a check for $50.77 as payment in full. The MIT exhibit picked up the rest of his story.

Upon arrival in China, Wong began to design and build many more planes while moving his factory several times to the interior to keep out of the grasp of invading Japanese troops. Because of the shortage of strategic materials during wartime, he even designed and built gliders out of bamboo for use as troop carriers.

Wong had a MIT classmate who shared his passion for aviation and was his partner in operating the first airplane factory in China. Japanese spies assassinated him and Wong took over managing the plant and adopted his friend’s son

He shared his enthusiasm for aeronautics by teaching in Tsinghua’s engineering college where he actively encouraged promising aeronautical engineers to pursue additional training at MIT. One of his students was Qian Xuesen, who would later become the father of China’s rocket science.

The MIT exhibit isn’t just about individual stories; it’s a comprehensive portrayal of China’s fascination with practical education available in the west at the turn of the 20th century. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the western powers in the 19th century, every aspiring student in China dreamed of additional training in the west so that they could acquire the skills needed to modernize China and catch up with the rest of the world.

As pointed out in the exhibit, “by 1914, engineering had become the favorite field for government students (i.e., funded by the Chinese government). In the eyes of many, engineering was not simply a practical skill, but a means of serving the nation.”

In 1914, MIT had 33 students from China, more than any other school in America. This tradition continues today. With a total enrollment of nearly 13,000 undergrad and graduate students, 30% are international students from over 140 countries. Nearly one out of every four comes from China; at a total of 888, China has more than twice the number from second place India.

Professor Emma Teng, head of MIT Global Studies and Languages, curated this exhibit. It’s obvious that she has put a lot of thought and energy in assembling the different parts of the display. The exhibit is a treasure trove of historical information and personal stories. Not everyone will be able to visit the display but all will be fascinated by the content of the companion website,

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Whither the U.S. and China

Bay Area U.S.-China Policy Speaker Series
Monday, March 20, 2017

5:45pm Check-in
6:30pm Program
7:30pm Book Signing
The Commonwealth Club

555 Post Street,
San Francisco, CA
For many years after its reform and opening in 1978, China maintained an attitude of false modesty about its ambitions. That role has been set aside, asserts panelist Howard French, who says China has revealed plans for pan-Asian dominance by building its navy, increasing territorial claims to areas like the South China Sea, and diplomatically bullying smaller players. Hear from French and China analyst George Koo, who says that whatever China’s plans, following a western template to become a global hegemon is not a likely outcome, nor will “false modesty” necessarily find any validity. Come for a fascinating discussion about the historical context of China’s actions and what the future holds for the U.S. relationship with China under the Trump administration.
Register Here
Howard French, Former New York Times Asia Correspondent; Author, Everything Under the Heavens: Empire, Tribute and the Future of Chinese Power
George Koo, Ph.D., Member, Committee of 100; Regular contributor, online Asia Times
George Lewinski, Former Foreign Editor, "Marketplace"—Moderator

The Committee of 100 is a non-partisan leadership organization of prominent Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, entertainment, and the arts. For over 25 years, the Committee has been committed to a dual mission of promoting the full participation and inclusion of Chinese Americans in all fields of American life, and encouraging constructive relations between the peoples of the United States and Greater China.
See video excerpt at
See follow up TV interview in Putonghua,
Podcast of the entire discussion and on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Blowback is a lesson the Trump Administration should keep in mind

An edited version of this commentary first appeared in Asia Times and later reposted on SupChina.

“What goes around, comes around,” can be a critics comment on the blowback at the perpetrator whose action had misfired. The late Chalmers Johnson devoted an entire book criticizing American foreign policy based on “blowback.”

However, once in a while, what comes around could be a good thing. One example, remarkably enough, involves China and Japan. The story came from a speech by Daisuke Kotegawa given at the international conference organized by the Schiller Institute, held in June 2016 in Berlin. Mr. Kotegawa was a retired career bureaucrat from Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

He noted that after Fukushima in 2011, hotels in Tokyo had vacancy rates of 90%. But in recent years, tourists from China are filling the hotels. When the cherry blossoms are in bloom, Chinese tourists are overfilling the hotels.

In 2015, 5 million visitors came to Japan, double from just two years earlier. With average spending of about $3000 per person, that was a $15 billion injection into Japan’s economy.

“So thanks to those foreign tourists, our economy is now very good,” said Kotegawa. He went on to say that he was part of the team that agreed to provide economic assistance to China in 1989 to the tune of more than $10 billion per year for six years in the form of loans at 0.5% interest.

These loans were made to build airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, along with seven each of ports, railroads, fertilizer factories, dams and power plants. The telephone networks in Shanghai and Beijing were financed by these loans as well as the subway system in Beijing.

Thanks to the infrastructure put in place with Japan’s assistance, the Chinese people got wealthy and as Kotegawa-san observed, “Now we are actually getting the fruits in the form of huge numbers of Chinese tourists.”

This story has a couple of lessons for the Trump Administration. One is that a well-oiled economy needs a first rate infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers just released their quadrennial “Infrastructure Report Card” on sixteen sectors of America’s infrastructure such as roads, rail, dams, drinking water and so on.

Most sectors earned a rating of D, which means the infrastructure is “in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.”

Even though the category of bridges earned a C+, one of the higher grades from ASCE; nevertheless, 56,000 bridges in America are “structurally deficient”—in other words, potential catastrophes waiting to happen.

President Trump campaigned on fixing the infrastructure and members of Congress have known for years that the nation’s infrastructure is old and worn. But either Congress lack the intelligence to figure out where the funding can come from or lack the courage to propose taxes that would pay for the improvements. Kicking the can down to next election is what they do best.

According to ASCE, it will take a couple of trillion dollars to bring America’s infrastructure up to snuff; mind you, not at grade A state of the art but at least up to grade B enabling the American economy to start humming again. But if Congress can’t come up with the funding, how will Trump deliver on his promise?

This is where China comes in. They have gone from being a recipient of soft loans and foreign assistance to becoming the world’s largest investor, partner and builder of infrastructure projects. They have taken their Silk Road initiative around the world and countries are eager to work with China because China has developed the reputation for producing quality results on schedule and at low cost, and additionally with attractive financing terms.

All Trump Administration needs to do is to be willing to take a different approach to the bilateral relations with China, a new look based on what’s in national interest for America. How will sailing naval fleets on South China Sea benefit our national interest? How will launching a trade war with China benefit America? In other words, how will confrontation benefit America? Not much.

On the other hand, if Trump can invite the Chinese companies to help build and finance the infrastructure projects; that clearly would be in America’s interest. Trump can even stipulate that for every winning bid by a Chinese company, it would have to take on a joint venture partner drawn from the list of local American construction outfits. Since it’s been many years that American companies have undertaken large infrastructure projects, these JV projects will help bring them up to speed again.

By making sure that what comes around will benefit America, the Trump Administration will be well on the way to developing a winning relationship with China. Just keep in mind that the people of America and China have everything to gain by collaboration and nothing by confrontation.