China education

Why an aspiring US secretary of state chose to study in Beijing

Schwarzman Scholars from 26 countries to form a foreign bridge to China in terms of politics, business and culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 9:01pm

Mark McGinnis, a 22-year-old graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, dreams of becoming secretary of state someday and has spent lots of time in Washington, accumulating experience in Congress and the Supreme Court.

But now he is ready for “deep dives” in China – a rising rival across the Pacific and a “compulsory course” of study for aspiring global leaders in the 21st century.

His choice is a one-year master’s in global affairs programme at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, where President Xi Jinping and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, both studied. While Tsinghua is known as a top training school for China’s scientists and communist party officials, the programme McGinnis has just commenced is funded by a US$100 million donation from Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of US investment firm Blackstone Group.

“China is growing. I need to know what’s going on there,” McGinnis said of his decision to join the Schwarzman Scholars in Beijing. “The best way to do that is to be fully immersed in the area ... by talking to people here.”

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With McGinnis are 125 similarly ambitious students from 26 countries, nearly half of them from the US and a fifth from China. After extensive contact with all walks of Chinese life, they are expected to serve as a future foreign bridge to China in terms of politics, business and culture.

The programme, modelled on the Rhodes Scholarship at Britain’s Oxford University, accepted its second intake of students this month.

“It doesn’t strike me as the same as other soft-power efforts,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World. “In this case a foreigner was given a significant amount of control.”

The programme received the blessings of Xi and then US president Barack Obama when it accepted its first students last year. In his letter of congratulations to the programme, Xi said he hoped it could become “an international platform to train the world’s top talents”.

Schwarzman’s personal endowment, plus US$400 million raised from prominent entrepreneurs through his influence will fund up to 200 young people each year, making it the largest subsidised programme of its kind in Chinese history.

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This month’s opening ceremony for its second intake had an air of special importance about it, reflected by the recorded congratulatory messages from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio and General Motors chairwoman Mary Barra, and the presence of Terry Branstad, the new US ambassador to China.

“The idea here is not just [fostering an] understanding of China, but in 20 years a fellow will be able to pick up the phone and call someone who’s sitting in the government,” said Amy Stursberg, executive director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

Tsinghua would appear to be the ideal location for a global leadership programme, given its historical lineage – it was set up in 1911 as a preparatory school for students to study in the US – and its status as a cradle of Chinese leaders. It is also eager to gain global influence in its second century, even though accomplishing that would be “a rather long process – not one or two years,” according to Lu Xiang, a researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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“China needs to adopt international standards on its road of cultivating soft power,” he said. “When introducing its story of success, we must realise the national differences ... It should be presented in a soft manner.”

Beijing has increasingly turned to soft-power strategies in recent years, with the government-backed Confucius Institute launched in 2004 to support the teaching of Chinese and cultural exchanges at foreign universities. It now has a presence in 125 countries.

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There have also been a number of institutions set up by Chinese and foreign universities, including Kunshan Duke University, Shanghai New York University, the University of Nottingham Ningbo and Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University to promote a better understanding of the country.

Peking University also set up the Yancheng Academy to run a China studies master’s programme.

Schwarzman scholars can take courses in a wide variety of subjects, from Chinese values to political institutions, and can also focus on areas that strongly interest them. Through organising research trips, they can explore the country’s multiple dimensions, including its booming cities and impoverished rural areas.

“There are lots of open and trusting conversations ... There is academic freedom here where students can talk about anything and ask questions,” Stursberg said.

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McGinnis has just concluded a visit to a small rural village in northwestern China’s Qinghai province. He said his attention had shifted from big-picture geopolitical topics such as the South China Sea to local realities such as the virtual personal networks people on the mainland use to access blocked overseas websites.

“We really learn from just talking and having dialogues,” McGinnis said.

The end goal, however, was not determining which type of government or political system was better or more effective, Kurlantzick said.

“More important is to promote the view that China is committed to certain aspects of the international system ... not disrupting the international system,” he said.