Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1996 Issue

Reconcilable Differences

By Dale Keiger
Perhaps what's most striking about the Hopkins-Nanjing Center is the degree to which the Chinese government leaves it alone.

Misunderstand the Chinese and you misunderstand one-fifth of the world's population. You misunderstand a billion people who expect to be taken seriously as a burgeoning economic and geopolitical power. You misunderstand a culture that believes, literally, that the center of the universe is located in Beijing. If you are a member of a Western government, international agency, or multinational corporation, and you make decisions based on your ignorance, you do so at peril. And the ignorance cuts both ways. To the Chinese, the West can be a baffling place.

On the premise that understanding is a more fruitful course than ignorance, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies has spent the last 10 years trying to teach the two cultures about each other. A joint venture between Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University, the center takes the direct approach to cross-cultural education--Chinese professors teach Western (mostly American) students in Chinese, American professors teach Chinese students in English, and Chinese and Western students live together for one academic year. Though the center limits enrollment to 100 students at a time, its founders and current directors hope that during the next 10 to 20 years, many of its alumni will prove influential, rising to occupy positions of power in their respective countries.

The Nanjing Center is unique among American university ventures in China, most of which involve only language instruction and are not true joint ventures. At the Nanjing Center, professors teach, among other things, economics, Chinese history, the thought of Mao Tse-tung, international relations, and foreign policy. The program is jointly administered by Chinese and American co-directors. And to a remarkable extent, the center operates independent of Chinese government control.

"I think it has one fundamental value," says Steven Muller, Hopkins's president emeritus and the originator of the idea. "That is to make it possible for a relatively small cadre of people in America to understand China, and in China to understand America. To have studied and lived together so the level of knowledge goes beyond the usual. That's a rare and potentially precious thing."

Though Muller first broached the idea of a Hopkins academic center in Asia in 1977, the idea didn't go much of anywhere until November 1979, when a delegation of 12 Chinese university presidents visited the United States. One of them was Kuang Yaming, president of Nanjing University. Kuang had heard of a Chinese-born Hopkins physics professor named Chih-Yung Chien, and through the Chinese embassy asked to meet him. Chien arranged for the Chinese academics to make Hopkins the first stop on their tour, thus initiating the relationship between the two schools.

In 1981, the two universities began serious discussions. At the center of negotiations was Chien, the one person who understood both cultures. He read the organizing papers Kuang had prepared, outlining what the Chinese wanted, and the equivalent American document, prepared by Muller and George Packard, who was then dean of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Chien soon realized the differences would be hard to reconcile unless someone carefully crafted the language. For example, the Chinese document spoke of Chinese sovereignty over the center. Chien thought that if "sovereignty" became part of the final agreement's language, then disputes might have to be settled not by Hopkins but by the U.S. State Department. The Americans in their draft said they wanted to train future leaders; Chien believed that the Chinese would never accept language that so directly implied they were sending students to an American institution for leadership training.

The physicist took the two documents and composed a third, selecting what was most important and, as much as possible, avoiding any hot-button political language that might derail the agreement. The two sides agreed that the new institution would be a true cooperative venture, with each side paying its own faculty and collecting tuition. The academic program would be at the graduate level, with each nation's faculty teaching the other nation's students, the American professors lecturing in English and the Chinese in Chinese. They decided to admit 50 Chinese students per year and up to 50 Americans. (The center has since opened its admissions to other countries. Recent classes have included students from Singapore, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Finland, India, South Korea, and Zambia.) The Chinese showed remarkable flexibility, more or less agreeing to build an American-style dormitory that would pair Chinese and American students in each room, and an open-stacks library, which was unheard of at a Chinese university. Says Muller, "I think they trusted us to tell the truth." He credits Kuang. "He had the imagination and the sort of largeness of mind to see what could come of this and not quibble over little bits of crap that could have destroyed the whole thing."

When Muller came home from China, he had to sell his own trustees and faculty on the idea. The Nanjing program is not integrated with SAIS's curriculum, and some Hopkins faculty were unenthusiastic about university funds going for a program that would benefit few if any Hopkins students. But the board of trustees saw an opportunity to repeat the Bologna Center's success in Nanjing, and approved the program.

Wang Zhigang, who was the center's Chinese co-director for its first nine years, says he encountered no resistance among Nanjing University faculty and staff: "As China was opening up to the outside world, they all knew the importance of international cultural and academic exchanges, and were happy in particular that a special linkage was established with Hopkins, a leading university in the U.S."

On September 10, 1986, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center opened for business. It occupied a new, roughly T-shaped facility (which includes an auditorium, cafeteria, classrooms, dorms, and administrative offices) at the intersection of Shanghai Road and Beijing West Road.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony, Muller quoted the architect Daniel Burnham: "Dream no small dreams."

Among the center's first faculty members was Richard Gaulton. He was professor of Chinese politics at Colgate University when he applied in 1986 to join the faculty in Nanjing. Like many China scholars in this country, he had not spent much time in the country he studied. "I was concerned with getting more first-hand experience," says Gaulton, now senior program manager at the Institute of European and Asian Studies in Chicago. "I wanted the chance to live in China, and to teach Chinese students in English."

When classes opened in September 1986, says Gaulton, "the biggest adjustment a lot of us made as teachers was to the status of our Chinese students." He recalls that every American faculty member began revising his syllabus soon after classes started. The Chinese, it turned out, were not as fluent in English as the Americans had expected. Says Gaulton, "When the first reading turns out to be incomprehensible to the students, you've got to make some adjustments. They weren't slow students--they were brilliant. The problem was their background." Years of English classes still hadn't prepared them to comprehend complicated readings and lectures. (Many American students encountered similar problems with Mandarin Chinese and the Nanjing dialect.)

Keming Yang, a student at the center from 1989 to1990 and now a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, says, "In terms of understanding lectures and readings, I don't think Chinese students had big difficulties. But it is really a challenge for Chinese students to express themselves precisely and fluently."

The Chinese were also less than fluent, so to speak, in the intellectual give-and-take common to American classrooms. Gaulton and his colleagues soon realized that most of their Chinese pupils had never encountered anything but the Chinese method of higher education: a professor who lectured at length, while they took notes and rarely discussed or questioned anything. "Our students had to learn to develop their own points of view," he recalls. "It was a little disconcerting for them to take an intellectual risk. They would appeal much more readily to authority--they wanted cues from someone else. American students are strong on creative thinking and sometimes weak on facts. The Chinese were very well prepared, but weak in theory at the graduate level."

Anthony Kane nods and smiles at this. Kane is the current executive director of the center. "You have to learn how the Chinese approach a concept," he says. "The Chinese are always looking over their shoulders to see where they're going. A Chinese will be convinced that his idea is the same idea all Chinese have had for 5,000 years."

Western students vary in their assessments of the classes taught by Chinese faculty. James Heller, a 1991-92 student and now a foreign affairs officer at the State Department, recalls valuable courses in history, Sino-American relations, and the Cultural Revolution. "It was a fantastic year," he says. "I thought the classes were excellent."

Sara Ugarte, a 1992-93 student who is now a market analyst for the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, thought some of her coursework was shallow. "The Chinese professors are teaching what is acceptable to the Communist Party, so it becomes rhetoric," she says. "In economics, for example, it ends up becoming lots of what the five-year plan is--you don't really talk about how the government is actually going to do it. After a while you just tune out."

Former student Ruth Kling (1987-88) understands what Ugarte is talking about: "In class, Chinese professors did not want papers that were an analysis of theory. They wanted to see mastery of the material. If you engaged them in their offices at a personal level, you could get beyond that."

Kane says, "At the center, you get a view of China from Chinese professors, and you learn to take their view seriously. For example, to them, the Cultural Revolution is not a dry academic concept. This was something that profoundly affected their lives. To learn about the Revolution from them is to get a perspective you'll never get from books."

One of the most striking aspects of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center is the degree to which the Chinese government leaves it alone. For 10 years, Nanjing University has honored its agreement to foster the same sort of academic liberty one finds on an American campus.

The library stocks 50,000 books; some of them are not approved by the government, but the stacks remain open to Western and Chinese students alike. Says Keming Yang, "It's a wonderful policy. No Chinese university will allow all students to take advantage of all the stacks. I always read more than what was required by my professors when I was preparing a long paper."

American professors teach their Chinese students the same material they'd teach in this country. The center receives CNN television news. Western periodicals like the International Herald Tribune, The Economist, and The New Yorker arrive a few weeks late but are not censored.

Some of this freedom derives from the decision to place the center in Nanjing, rather than Beijing or Shanghai, which also have prominent universities. Kane quotes a Chinese proverb: "Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away." Were the center in Beijing, he says, it would be subject to much more scrutiny. Nanjing, on the other hand, has a history of intellectual independence dating back to the Ming dynasty. And it's 600 miles from the Chinese capital--the emperor, in this case, is sufficiently far away.

But it takes more than location to protect the center. Says Muller, "This venture depends on the good will of the two peoples and the two governments toward each other. I think the most important thing is, the Chinese regard this as a great asset. I think they want to preserve that."

The most threatening period in the center's history was spring 1989, during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. James Gaulton was co-director then. He recalls that he was attending a student production of Grease--which featured an American Sandi and a Chinese Danny--when he got word that Hu Yaobang had died of a heart attack. Hu, as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1987, had been forced to resign for his tolerance of dissent and was a hero to many Chinese intellectuals and students. Gaulton and his colleagues wondered what sort of reaction his death might prompt.

They didn't have long to wonder. Students by the thousands began occupying Tiananmen Square to mourn his passing and express their discontent over the lack of democracy and the abundance of corruption in China. Protest posters appeared in Nanjing University, and there was a march in the city. For several weeks, pro-democracy demonstrations grew in Beijing and Shanghai, becoming the lead story night after night on American television newscasts.

It was a heady time at the center. Recalls Kindra Tully, a student at the center in 1988-89 and now its alumni coordinator in Washington, D.C., "Chinese people are not a happy group. Their society is not arranged to promote happiness--it's drab and fosters a feeling of hopelessness. But for two months there was a real sense of hope and optimism. Optimism--which you never get." She remembers Chinese professors becoming suddenly freer with their opinions. There were marches in Nanjing, and some of the center's Chinese students took part. New York Times articles about the Beijing demonstrations (faxed to Nanjing from SAIS in Washington) were photocopied and freely distributed.

Then the Chinese government struck. People's Liberation Army troops assaulted the demonstrators in Beijing with tanks on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds and crushing the democracy movement. The government subsequently arrested and tried many of the democracy-movement leaders, executing several. Says Tully, "I'm a cynical person by nature. I came down to breakfast on June 4, a Sunday, and there was a notice that people had been killed during the night. I thought, 'It finally happened.' But my Chinese roommate came back and couldn't believe that Chinese troops had fired on their own people."

Now Hopkins had a big problem. Other American universities quickly shut down their programs and brought their people home. Muller, nearing the end of his term as university president, was afraid Tiananmen might be the end of the Nanjing Center. "If they wanted to shut us down, they could do it quickly," he says. And regardless of what Beijing decided, what was the proper course for Hopkins? Says Gaulton, "Hopkins had a very serious decision to make as to whether to continue."

"That kind of thing is a hard call," Muller says. "You strongly disapprove of what a government has done, but you have a relationship with another institution. If they leave you alone, there's a case to be made to carry on." Gaulton says that officials from Nanjing University approached him and made it clear they wanted the center to stay open. "We wanted it open, too," he says, "but under conditions that let it function as an academic institution."

Kane says that in the aftermath of Tiananmen "education was under a dark cloud." The government in Beijing reinstituted political training on Chinese campuses. It published a list of banned books. Most of those books, including A 10-Year History of the Cultural Revolution by the Chinese author Yan Jiaqi and Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China, were on the shelves of the center's library, which was determined not to remove them.

Officials at Hopkins and Nanjing reviewed the situation. Chien recalls, "Both sides were very candid with each other, like best friends." The two universities decided to make no fundamental changes to the program. The center had canceled its June graduation ceremonies, but opened its doors as scheduled the following September. Librarians placed some of the controversial books in less prominent places, but they remained available to any student at the center. The curriculum and the residency policy remained unchanged. "As a result of our decision to open," Kane says, "Nanjing University was even more protective of us."

Says Muller, "I think we get away with some things because the Deng Xiaoping government is well-disposed toward us. There's been a level of good will demonstrated by all sides. We clearly have the good will of the Party, because without it we'd be dead."

Students, faculty, and administrators alike point to the residency part of the program as one of its strongest elements. "It's total immersion," says Heller. "You're with Chinese students 24 hours a day. You live and study and go to happy hour with them."

The various nationalities socialize in the center's lounge and cafeteria. They drink beer, play cards, learn Tai Chi and aerobics, and listen to music. They explore Nanjing, often taking advantage of its wide bicycle lanes and flat topography. It's a pretty city, they say, with broad-leafed plane trees lining the avenues, and a nearby lake. Shanghai is only four hours away by train. Students hold dances, though as Kane recalls, the Chinese like ballroom dance and the Americans want to rock. Tully remembers that she and her American colleagues hosted Christmas dinner, complete with tree. "A lot of the entertainment's holiday oriented," she says, adding with a smile, "It's like being in an old-folks home."

The language for socializing must be negotiated. Will roommates speak Chinese or English in their dorm room? Tully says the Chinese tend to be aggressive about their desire to use English; they often believe they'll never have an opportunity to leave China, so they regard their year at the center as their best chance to really learn the language. This can frustrate Americans who want the same opportunity to hone their Chinese.

When Americans do acquire greater fluency, especially in the Nanjing dialect, their eyes are opened by their ears. Tully realized the extent to which merchants regularly charged Westerners far more than they charged their Chinese customers. She learned to haggle for better prices. She also could overhear what Nanjing residents said about her, for better or worse. "The more Chinese I knew, the more frustrated I got," she remembers. "You'd be walking down the street, and you'd hear the guy behind you, who sees you're an American and is trying to impress his girlfriend with how much he knows. But all he knows about Americans is from Dynasty."

Dormitory living requires some instructive adjustments on the students' part. Tully says Chinese students, for example, have a different concept of space and personal possessions. She got used to her Chinese roommate using some of her things without asking. She also recalls her roommate's modesty. The woman would not undress until she was under the bedcovers, tossing her clothes out onto the floor.

Jim Heller remembers inadvertently shocking his roommate one day. Soon after arriving in Nanjing, he says, students learn to keep purified drinking water in a thermos. Because he was a runner, Heller kept his thermos in the refrigerator. One day he came back from a run, greeted his roommate, and brought the chilled thermos to his lips. Says Heller, "He looked at me and said, 'You're not going to drink that, are you? The water's cold! Americans drink cold water? Jim, it's not good for your stomach!' He was in absolute disbelief."

Though the center's facilities are comfortable, Americans face day-to-day minor aggravations that over time wear them down. "China is not an easy place to live," Tully says. "You have no recourse to familiar things." Western papers arrive weeks late. There are no movies except for the videos screened at the center on Friday nights. No fast food. Television shows are either Chinese, or reruns of awful American series like Hunter, Hotel, and Dynasty. Many of the small, routine details of life, like identifying a bus stop, become a challenge. It took Tully three weeks to find laundry detergent. "I didn't know what color box to look for," she says. Once she figured that out, she discovered there wasn't any to buy: When the government had announced impending price increases, Chinese shoppers had hoarded whatever was available.

Kling says that on first arriving, everything is new and exciting, the weather is gorgeous, and Nanjing seems pretty and exotic. After a few weeks, you begin to realize how exhausting it can be to live and study in a foreign language. One day the weather turns cold and wet. The holidays come and you're half-a-world away from home. "Then," says Kling, "you go out and somebody points a finger at you and shouts, 'Foreigner!' Then 600 other people do the same thing. Some days you can take it, and some days you can't. Americans are used to having control over things. In China, you're not in control of things, and you have to be careful when you're complaining about your hot running water to a maintenance person who has no running water."

When there are more serious problems, Kane says, as often as not it's because an American seemingly forgets he or she is in China. He cites the example of a painful situation from a few years ago. A professor fell in love with a student--not an unusual occurrence on an American campus. But the professor was American and the student Chinese, and to make matters worse, the student was not only married but a member of the People's Liberation Army. The Chinese were scandalized, and Kane had to smooth over the diplomatic faux pas. (The adulterers eventually came to the States and married.)

Chien recalls another strained situation a few years ago. Someone had posted on a bulletin board at the center a picture of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese general who fought and lost the civil war against Mao Tse-tung and the Communists. The Chinese students were furious; they considered this a provocation and demanded that the student responsible be expelled. Chien says the co-directors eventually convinced them that the incident was simply a prank by a young American who didn't realize how insulting this would be to the Chinese.

Keming Yang remembers other examples of such American obliviousness. "Frankly speaking, some Americans are very arrogant, which is very hard for Chinese to accept," he says. "Even after I am in the U.S., it is very hard for me to personally communicate with them."

Still, Yang says, he valued the opportunity to live with Americans. As did Heller: "People don't pick up on the reservoir of good will toward America in China. It's palpable among the Chinese people. I will be in touch with my Chinese friends when I am old and gray."

As it begins its second decade, the center has graduates now working throughout the international public and private sectors. Its current employment data lists alumni in the U.S. State, Defense, and Agriculture departments; the Chinese Ministry of Finance and the People's Liberation Army; the World Bank, Voice of America, and the World Wildlife Fund; the Far Eastern Economic Review, China Business Times, and Knight Ridder News Service; Mobil Oil Hong Kong Ltd., Lehman Brothers, Nike Inc., and Apple Computer.

Muller worries about the effects of deteriorating relations between the two governments. If the U.S. government denies China most-favored-nation trading status, how might the Chinese retaliate? What if the Chinese confrontation with Taiwan gets out of hand? How much longer will Deng Xiaoping live, and how might his successor feel about this Western academic enclave? Will a new "emperor" still be far away?

For his part, Kane frets about money. The center depends on a variety of sources for its funds. The support of foundations and individuals may not depend so much on the vicissitudes of foreign relations, but will Amoco, Exxon, Nike, Chase Manhattan, and Coca-Cola remain steady if the business climate for American corporations in China changes? There are domestic political considerations, as well--Hopkins depends on U.S. government funding for 20 to 25 percent of its share of the budget. "It's not easy for us to raise the money each year to keep this running," Kane says.

Wang Zhigang wishes the center had more continuity in its American faculty and co-directors. Most teachers sign on for only a year; no American professor has taught at the center for more than three and a half years. And the center has had six American co-directors. Kane acknowledges that this is a problem. He says it is simply hard to find qualified American faculty and administrators who want to live in China long term.

Wang would also like to see a larger Western enrollment. Each year, Hopkins has had trouble attracting a full complement of 50 Western graduate students. This past academic year, for example, it had only 22. The major factor limiting enrollment is the language proficiency requirement--not enough Americans interested in China are also fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Kane notes that the number of applications from Western students has increased significantly this year. As China modernizes and liberalizes its economy, students anticipate opportunities for interesting and well-paying jobs with American corporations eager to do business in the People's Republic.

Despite the center's problems, the people who run the two universities remain persuaded of its value. Wang says, "I am convinced that as more and more students, both Chinese and American, graduate from the center, there will emerge a new generation of professionals with expertise, good language skills, and a better understanding of each other's culture and tradition. They will play an even bigger role in future Sino-U.S. relations."

Chih-Yung Chien, who has been involved for longer than most anybody, looks at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center today and says, "Most of it is still working. It must stick to its goals. Eyes on the future, hands on the present."

"The center is the only place that offers what it does," says Kindra Tully. "It's totally unbleached and unprocessed."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

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