In 1957, Ronald Chao Kee-Young, a child of China, went to study in Japan. He was 18 years old, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and knew no one in Tokyo.
After a year in language school, Chao managed to master Japanese and felt at home.
“In 1957, Japan was very poor, poorer than Hong Kong and for sure poorer than Shanghai,” Chao recalls.
Emerging from consecutive wars, the Japanese society had a sense of defeat and “definitely had no time for any antagonism towards us foreign students”, he says.
What helped Chao adjust was living with 20 to 30 other Tokyo University students – half international and half local – in single rooms at the university’s international house. Chao learned about his housemates’ interests and their ambitions and quickly adapted to the campus.
It was easy, he realised, because Japan shares so much cultural heritage with China. And he found in Japan many of the traditions and values that were subsequently done away with during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Fifty-six years later, Chao wants today’s university students to share similar experiences.
Now the vice-chairman of Novel Enterprises, a family business that produces woollens and yarns, Chao donated 100 million yuan (HK$127 million) in 2010 – 20 million each to five mainland universities – to build Sino-Japanese dormitories, inviting Japanese and Chinese students to live together.
“At the end of the day, a country, just like a person, must work to earn the respect of others. When you do, others automatically follow you,” says Chao, echoing the Confucian philosophy that the two nations share.
At the Sino-Japanese Youth Centre, which opened last year at Peking University, 20 students from each country won a competition to become the first residents of the Zhongguancun-based dorm.
Similar centres will open next year at Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Shanghai Jiaotong and Fudan universities. Each will house at least 100 students.
Chao next wants to persuade Japanese universities to establish Japanese-Chinese centres.
“I want to do this because I am old,” jokes Chao, 74.
His ambition harks back to his student days in Japan, where he spent five years studying, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1962. He went on to earn a master’s in the same subject two years later from the University of Illinois in the United States.
Chao arrived in Japan at the height of anti-communist sentiment during the cold war.
“Most of my classmates were going to the UK or the US,” he says. His father – Chao Kuang-piu – sometimes referred to as Hong Kong’s “wool magnate” – was trading with the People’s Republic. “We figured I would probably be refused a UK or US visa, and Japan was just beginning to internationalise itself, so off I went,” Chao says.
Chao remembers little resentment during his time in Japan. “There were few foreign students, and we were almost all viewed with jealousy because we were richer and came from countries that had just won the war,” he says.
Chao recalls the sentiment of General Chen Yi, who was China’s foreign minister when diplomatic relations between China and Japan were established in 1972: “The key to good Sino-Japanese relations would be for China to forget the past and for Japan, never.”
“What is happening now is the exact opposite,” Chao says as the Chinese media frequently mention Japanese wartime atrocities, while some Japanese politicians deny those brutalities.
“Why do China and Japan have to hate each other so much?” Chao asks. “Germany, France and Britain used to be at war against each other, for longer than the Sino-Japanese war, but now what? They are all in the EU, almost like one country.”
The governments are primarily to blame for today’s situation, Chao says.
Creating further tension has been the divergent economic paths of the two countries in the last two decades, Chao says, with Japan stagnant and China becoming the major financial force in Asia.
Yet old views die hard. “Turn on the TV or radio in China, it is still about the Sino-Japanese war and the Japanese ‘devils,’” Chao says. “Pick up a book about China in Japan, it is all China-bashing.”
Chao dreamed up the youth centres to bring together some of the two countries’ brightest young people and to help change those old views.
The universities involved at first worried that any conflict could escalate into diplomatic incidents, he says.
Also, housing local and international students together had been unprecedented at mainland universities.
But Chao’s plans seem to be working.
Kagiyama Yuka, a Japanese exchange student who lived in the centre at Peking University, says, “China feels closer than before and interests me in a lot of ways.”
Such cultural exchanges between the two countries should take centre stage, Chao says. “Once you have contact with actual people,” he says, “it will last.”