Professor Chien, Diplomat
Two decades ago, launching a graduate program in Nanjing, China, required bold vision, strategic thinking, and an awful lot of work. It also required the skills of an unlikely envoy: a professor of particle physics.
In 1979, Chih-Yung Chien was a professor in Johns Hopkins' Department of Physics and Astronomy, and he was mostly occupied with his research into the dynamics of quarks. But particle physics wasn't the only thing that interested him. Chien — a 40-year-old, Chinese-born naturalized U.S. citizen — was an amateur historian as well, with a particular interest in the difficult, even tumultuous dealings between China and the United States over the last century. And he harbored, for the time, an extraordinary notion: that maybe some day the two countries would have a more amicable relationship.
So when Steven Muller, then president of Johns Hopkins University, approached him about helping to forge an affiliation with a Chinese university, Chien didn't stop to consider what flying back and forth to China would do to his research, his course load, or his family life. He didn't think about his lack of formal training in diplomacy or international relations. He didn't worry that even though he wasn't a dean or even a department chair, he was being charged with a very delicate, very high-level task. He just said yes.
"The hope is that you can leave a place better than it was when you entered it," says Chien. "I wanted to contribute something to Hopkins, and this was something I could do. Steve had this dream, and I shared it."
Muller, of course, is the visionary behind the
Hopkins-Nanjing Center, which this June is officially
celebrating its 20th anniversary. It was Muller's idea to
open a campus in China where American and Chinese students
could live together and study in each other's language.
Patterned after the successful Hopkins Bologna Center,
whose graduates have made significant contributions to
Europe since World War II, Muller and Kuang Yaming, then
Nanjing University president, saw the Hopkins-Nanjing
Center as a place where graduate students could not only
study politics, history, and economics but also where they
could reach a higher level of mutual respect and
|Chih-Yung Chien: "The hope is that you can leave a place better than it was when you entered it."||
It was a bold idea. No American university had ever
established a campus in Communist China, much less a joint
program with a Chinese university. "China was still this
Communist power that was completely unknown," explains
George Packard, who at the time was dean of Johns Hopkins'
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "It had
been only 10 years since Henry Kissinger had showed up in
Shanghai and nine years since we normalized relations with
China. It was by no means guaranteed that American students
would ever have an educational experience over there."
Muller and Packard believed that a Hopkins-China collaboration could succeed, but they knew that, to make it happen, they would need to work in equal partnership with a Chinese university and have supporters within the Chinese government. They knew that it would have to be a long-term commitment, one that was mutually beneficial to both China and the United States.
They also knew that they were both too busy to devote the necessary attention to traveling and making the arrangements for a new Hopkins campus some 11,000 miles away. The center needed someone on the ground in China who could help make Muller's vision a reality. Chien, who had come to Hopkins in 1969, was perfect for the role. "Chih-Yung had the language, and he had connections with Nanjing University," says Muller, who retired as president of Hopkins in 1990. "He also had an understanding of the Chinese culture, which was critical to this. And he was thrilled to help. It was serendipity."
To: Steven Muller, Johns Hopkins University vice presidents, and deansChih-Yung Chien was born in Sichuan Province during World War II. His family moved to Taiwan, where Chien finished primary school, high school, and college before coming to the United States for graduate study.
Having spent years studying the United States and China's rocky relationship, he believes that many of the problems between the two countries are based on misunderstanding. "When the United States supported China in the '20s and '30s, it was mostly because of the American missionaries sending back letters to the United States, letters that said, 'Here are 4 million souls waiting to be saved, and there is a Christian leader willing to work with us,'" Chien says. When China began opening up, he thought the United States and China might finally base a relationship on mutual understanding. Muller's idea to start an interdisciplinary center in China, an idea the president and the professor first talked about in 1977, struck him as one way to do that. "Steve and I wanted Americans to learn about the real China and the Chinese to learn about the real United States," Chien says.
Chien already knew some important people. He had met Wan Li, then chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of the Province of Anhui, during the leader's visit to Maryland in 1979. (A decade later, Wan Li would become vice premier and chairman of the National People's Congress in China.) The professor also had served as a host when Kuang and top administrators from nine other prestigious Chinese research universities came to Baltimore in November 1979, and Chien had introduced the Chinese delegation to Muller.
In the spring of 1980, when Kuang invited Chien and his family to spend three months in China so that Chien could lecture at Nanjing University and visit other universities, they saw an opportunity. "China is opening up," Chien says he told Muller. "Either we do this now or we will be followers."
As a physicist, Chien is big on gathering and
sorting out information. On his first visit to Nanjing
University, he made it his first task to collect the data
that would enable him to understand as best he could how
Chinese universities functioned. Soon after his arrival, he
learned that among the 1,000 faculty members, only a couple
dozen carried the title "professor"; the rest were all
"teachers." It seemed that normal promotions had stopped 20
years earlier. Chien asked one of his hosts how many
faculty members would be promoted from teacher to
professor. "We don't know," he was told. "Go have a look
and maybe you can tell us." So Chien went from department
to department, asking questions about what they did and how
they worked within the institution. Curious about the
university's structure, he asked his hosts, "Please show me
your organizational chart." "We don't do those charts,"
Chien was told. So he visited deans' and department
offices; the student services office; the personnel,
payroll, and facilities offices, asking questions.
"By the end of that trip I really understood how a Chinese university operates," Chien says. "Wan Li said I knew it better than he did."
After his seven weeks at Nanjing ended, Chien spent his remaining time in China visiting some two dozen universities and research institutions in Shanghai, Xi-an, Ghuangzhou, and Beijing. He concluded that Beijing would be too close to the power center and that Shanghai was too new a city and too commercial.
"Nanjing is historic — it was the capital of six dynasties," Chien says he told Muller. "And Nanjing University, previously National Central University, has many traditions and has trained top leaders in many areas. This is the city with the right cultural background and a university with traditions of service to society." Muller agreed, and in September 1981, he led a Hopkins delegation to Nanjing so the two schools could begin hammering out a formal agreement. The two presidents agreed that the Hopkins-Nanjing Center would have equal numbers of American and Chinese students who would take classes in each other's language. Chinese faculty would teach the 50 American students, and American faculty would teach the 50 Chinese students. Each university would pay its own faculty and collect its own tuition.
In setting up the center, cultural differences could be problematic, and navigating them often fell to Chien. For starters, there was the exact wording of the agreement. Both university presidents had written how they wanted the new center to be organized, and they asked Chien to translate their documents. "I worked until 3 a.m. and was so frustrated," Chien says. Certain words just didn't translate, like Muller's statement that the Nanjing Center would train "future leaders." "In Chinese, 'leader' isn't an abstract word; it's specific and there are already special schools in China to train leaders," Chien says. Kuang's statement that the Chinese would have "sovereignty" over the center was a problem, too. "That makes absolute sense in Chinese, but not in English," he says. "Hopkins cannot deal with sovereignty; only the U.S. State Department can handle the sovereignty issue."
"To hell with it," Chien finally said. The best thing to do was to compose a new document. Chien put the Chinese and English documents side by side and started crafting a new document simultaneously in both languages. By 5 a.m. he had completed it. The new agreement was not entirely grammatically correct in English or Chinese. But Chien says it effectively conveyed how the universities would work together. "It's not a piece of English writing or a piece of Chinese writing — it's both," Chien says. "That's the way it should be." Muller and Kuang met a few hours later and signed the document.
Not long after, Muller returned to Baltimore and faced growing criticism from Hopkins faculty members and trustees. Money was an issue. Start-up costs for the Hopkins-Nanjing Center were estimated at $2.5 million (which would be close to $6 million today). Why should the university spend so much on a center in a Communist country when there were plenty of projects in Baltimore that needed funding? "They thought I was crazy," Muller says of the Johns Hopkins trustees.
The late W. Doak Barnett, then chair of China Studies at SAIS, initially didn't support the idea, either. "He worried that the center would divert funds away from other projects involving the United States and Asia, and those funds were limited," Packard says.
Muller convinced the trustees that the center was worthwhile. And Barnett eventually came around, too. Packard recalls a time just after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 when some people at Hopkins who had been critical of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center pressured him to shut the program down for good. "Doak became my biggest ally," Packard says. "He had come to see the value of the center and told people, 'This is the time that you stay in China. Now it's more important than ever.'"
Western Union Mailgram, from Chien to Muller
In Nanjing, almost three years after the agreement
had been signed, construction on the center had yet to
begin. The project had the approval of both countries'
governments; fund raising at Hopkins was ongoing; and
design work had begun. Nanjing had identified a perfect
site (though it was occupied by a primary school, a
cannery, and squatters), but three levels of Chinese
government — provincial, city, and district —
needed to jointly work out a solution and sign off on the
project, and they weren't moving. It took Chien some time
to figure out that this was the problem, but when he did,
he was on a plane to China.
Chien invited government leaders, the primary school principal, and other officials to a banquet. As the host, he was expected to deliver a long, eloquent speech about the project. But, he says, he couldn't find the words that would be both complimentary and motivational, words that would inspire but not accuse about the delay, words that would be appropriate and effective for all the officials present. So he said nothing. Instead, he stood up, toasted three times to the highest ranking official in the room, the secretary general of the provincial government, and sat back down. "Three is an important number to the Chinese," Chien says. "Three is the traditional number for most formal actions: A bride and groom bow to each other three times; in ancestor worship the living bow to their ancestors and offer sacrifices three times," he explains. Plus everyone in the room knew the project had been languishing for three years, and the toasts served as a reminder.
"After a while, the secretary general stood up, and I became anxious," Chien recalls. "I wondered what he was going to say. He held his glass out to Chien and said, "The Nanjing Hopkins Center has been approved by our State Council in Beijing three years ago. Today Professor Chien came to our city again and toasted me three glasses of MaoTai. I would like all of you to join me to toast him three glasses of MaoTai." They toasted, and he continued, "Enough drinking. Enjoy the banquet Professor Chien invited us to." He sat down.
After the banquet, Chien searched the room for the secretary general. "Why do you look for him? He's busy," Chien remembers being told by Xu Fuji, vice president of Nanjing University. "Doing what?" he asked. "What you want him to do. Getting the site for our center ready." That very night, the secretary general was meeting with the other government officials so that the existing buildings could be razed and construction could begin. Even now, Chien laughs when he recalls the exchange. "That problem was solved in a very Chinese way," he says.
To: President Steven MullerGroundbreaking on the Hopkins-Nanjing Center took place on September 1, 1984, though there were still plenty of details to work out. Chien, who taught in Baltimore during the academic year and flew to China during breaks between semesters, was indispensable in dealing with problems as they arose.
For one, he knew how hot the city of Nanjing could be in the summertime — one of China's "four ovens," he calls it — and insisted that the building be air-conditioned. "At first [Nanjing University] said they couldn't afford it," Chien says. "I told them that if the building isn't air-conditioned, five years from now no one will enroll in the program. So they agreed."
No other building at the university was air-conditioned; electricity was in short supply, and the city had rotating blackouts. Again, Chien the physicist took over. "When you design a physics experiment, you don't take anything for granted," he says. "I didn't take anything for granted here." He worked with the Meteorology Department to project electrical costs. He asked Nanjing University leaders to speak with the power company, which agreed to make a special exception. He worked with various officials, explaining why air-conditioning was so vital to the project. In the end, he helped work out a solution in which two different power stations would provide electricity for the building. A diesel generator would serve as the final backup in case of a power failure.
Then there was the fact that Nanjing's administration was frequently changing. "Poor Steve," Chien says. "Every time I came back from Nanjing, I brought an agreement from a university leader with a different signature on it," he says. The good news was that in Chinese universities, leaders always come from within the institution, Chien explained to Muller. He had visited all of the departments and met the staff, so he always knew the new vice president personally and could keep the project moving without interruption. "Three levels down, I had their trust," he says.
Trust — between president and professor, between Americans and Chinese, between two universities on opposite sides of the earth — was central to the birth of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Chien was there to bring it along. As Muller's vision turned into bricks and mortar, into library stacks and students, Chien watched it grow. And when the center opened its doors on September 10, 1986, he sat on stage with Presidents Muller and Kuang for the opening festivities, beaming with pride.
June 10, 1986_____________
Maria Blackburn is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine. Letters and archival materials cited are from records of the Office of the President, Steven Muller, 1972-1990, Special Collections, MSE Library, Johns Hopkins University.
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