A Glimpse Behind the Curtain
Global expert shares up-to-the-minute analyses of breaking news in China
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
October 5, 2012
The Brookings Institute's Cheng Li, a national advisor on Chinese-American relations and Chinese politics and culture, chats with students about current affairs. From left: Jason Gates ’15, student project manager at The Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues; Han Kyeol Kim ’15; Kun Il Kim ’16; Desmond Carpenter ’16; Jordan Peters ’14; Xijing Zhang ’14; Thomas Shewell ’15; and Li.
When China is in the news, national leaders and global news outlets often turn to Cheng Li for advice and contextualization. And lately, Li's phone has been ringing off the hook, as the world grapples with a major news event that has placed this already prominent global expert in even higher demand.
Li is director of research and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute's John L. Thornton China Center and director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and his scholarship includes an 11-year-old text that predicted major elements of a major upheaval in the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).
As a result, Li's past few weeks have been a dizzying flurry of high-level briefings and appearances on CNN, C-Span, BBC, ABC World News, NPR and PBS. And this week—sandwiched between meetings with congressmen and a former secretary of state—Li traveled to Dickinson to bring campus and community members into the loop about the breaking scandal, as part of a yearlong series that brings noted scholars, artists and leaders to campus to deliver public presentations and interact directly with students, in and out of class.
"It's amazing to think that the person you're casually chatting with has met the Dalai Lama and President Hu Jintao and will be on a panel the following afternoon with Henry Kissinger."
—Justin Gates '15
The scandal in question revolves around top Chinese politician Bo Xilai, the charismatic son of a famous revolutionary who, until recently, was widely regarded as the CPC's rising star. Last spring, his wife, Gu Kalai, was accused by police of murdering a British businessman. Just a few months later, evidence bubbled up that Bo had committed a long list of criminal and moral wrongdoings, including high-level bribery, abuse of power and improper conduct. Last week, Gu was given a suspended death sentence and Bo was expelled from the Communist Party.
While these events are shocking in themselves, Bo's dramatic fall from power—and the vacancy it creates—arrives at a time when the Chinese government is preparing its once-a-decade transition to new leadership. This joint threat to social and political stability is widely viewed as the most serious Chinese political crisis since the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Li's visit to Dickinson came just days after news of Gu's sentence and Bo's ousting reached the international media.
In a public lecture—co-sponsored by The Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues, the Dickinson departments of sociology, women's & gender studies, American studies and East Asian studies and the Penn State Dickinson School of Law—Li outlined the facts of the scandal and offered insights into the Chinese political system, the personalities of the major players and the events' effects on Chinese culture and politics. "[Bo's dismissal] may have prevented an even greater international crisis," he said, adding that, under masterful leadership, the current crisis may help Chinese leaders and citizens seriously pursue needed political reforms.
Li also interacted closely with students, allowing them to interview him for the college radio station and for a educational-video project about the nature of leadership and participating in a student-led roundtable discussion about the latest developments in Chinese culture and international affairs.
Throughout the hourlong roundtable, students from international business & management, law & policy and Chinese-language classes probed Li on topics that ranged from world economics, the global recession and Chinese-Tibetan policy to Chinese movies and television.
Andrew Afsahi '16, a first-year student planning to declare a major in international business & management, questioned Li about the brain drain created by mass educational exhange—a concept he'd just learned about in an economics class. Li, who has published a book on the topic, agreed that this is a challenge, since China has sent 1.5 million students abroad since 1979, and the majority do not return home (this includes Li, who grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, earned a doctorate at Princeton University and taught at Hamilton College before joining the Brookings Institute in 2006). But, he stressed, "Education bridges minds and reduces misunderstanding. That is the point of international student exchange, and it is a worthy cause."
That stance resonated with Xijing Zhang '13, an international student from China who majors in history and East Asian studies. She said she and several friends were thrilled by the opportunity to gain new insights into current social and political issues in her home country, such as China's Tibetan policy. "The Chinese government seems mysterious to us—we don't know what is happening [behind closed doors], so we were excited to learn about it," she said.
Jason Gates '15 was equally impressed. "It's amazing to think that the person you're casually chatting with has met the Dalai Lama and President Hu Jintao and will be on a panel the following afternoon with Henry Kissinger," said Gates, a Clarke Forum student project manager who led the student interviews and discussion and introduced Li prior to the speech. "Having the opportunity to learn about China and U.S.-Chinese relations from one of the most important experts on these issues is an experience I will not forget."