China Rhodes: Schwarzman at Tsinghua

Ryan Manuel is Asian Century Graduate Fellow at the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research in the Crawford School of Public Policy and Government, The Australian National University; and a DPhil candidate at Oxford University. He was educated at the University of South Australia, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Oxford University and Peking University. He was Rhodes Scholar for South Australia in 2006. (He is still baffled as to how his badminton career could be deemed a ‘manly outdoor pursuit’, but he’s very glad that it was.) Ryan will join the Australian Centre on China in the World in July this year.—The Editor


As a book-loving young child, I needed no long-term plans. I had a short-term plan. I would win a scholarship and get far from where I didn’t want to be.

I loved the clarity of examination scholarships. You sat a test and if you didn’t get the marks, you didn’t get in. If I needed sixty-five on math – well, sixty-five it must be. So I diligently wrote to the scholarships testing board asking for practice exams, and sweltered through another Whyalla summer preparing. I was a very strange child.

Yet, as it turned out decades later, perhaps I wasn’t that strange – I was just in the wrong place. Elite Chinese university students seemed to understand my mindset as an eleven-year-old perfectly. Of course, they would say, mei banfa 没办法(there’s no other option). And, having shrugged their shoulders and delivered this most resigned and yet resilient of Chinese phrases, conversation would move on.


Stephen Schwarzman

I suspect US multi-billionaire Steve Schwarzman might well have a similar love of clarity. He recently said that he was ‘frustrated’ after being turned down for a number of scholarships after he finished college.

Instead, Mr Schwarzman became wealthy beyond measure. He decided this week to use his personal wealth and connections to create his own scholarship – in his description, a new US$300 million Rhodes scholarship alternative to send graduates to China.

Cecil John Rhodes (Source: Wikimedia)

Businessman and colonist John Cecil John Rhodes (Source: Wikimedia)

Schwarzman scholars will have all their fees paid to attend Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University for a year. They’ll undertake one of four newly designed Masters degrees, taught in English. They’ll get language training, cultural immersion and a number of trips throughout China under the guidance of their professors. And they’ll all live together in the rather posh Schwarzman College (currently under construction), complete with sunk pool, bar and custom library.

On the face of it, this is a bloody brilliant idea. What could possibly be wrong with more people – and handpicked rainmakers of the future no less – knowing more about China without a cent of public money being spent? Yet the idea is not without its critics.

Part of this may be due to differing views on what Schwarzman scholars should be. A scholar implies someone of deep learning and knowledge; a scholarship then, presumably, is an award in recognition of that learning and knowledge. Yet scholarships such as the Rhodes – which, judging by Australian evidence, appears to be the template for most scholarships these days – are aimed more at discovering leaders than training academics and scholars.

But picking future ‘leaders’ is a subjective, and prospective, game. So success in these modern-day scholarships is usually seen as an arbitrary matter, often dependent more on luck than any form of objective achievement. Candidates are advised to concentrate more on justifying their decisions than reciting their achievements. Why one did something is as important as the fact that something was done at all. One’s values are examined as much as one’s achievements.

Elements of this attitude can be seen in Rhodes’ Will in which he bequeathed the scholarships. Rhodes explicitly didn’t want mere bookworms, ‘smug’ or ‘unctuous’ types (nor women, for that matter, who were banned from the scholarship until the 1970s, and who are still statistically under-represented today). Instead, he wanted men of literary and scholarly attainment, fond of and successful at ‘manly outdoor sports’ who possessed the (many) values that Rhodes himself thought most worthwhile.

Rhodes saw the great idea of his scholarship being the promotion of the ‘importance of qualities entirely ignored in the ordinary competitive examinations’. The other part that was somewhat unique was his insistence that Rhodes scholars show ‘the demonstration of moral force of character and of instincts to lead … to guide him to esteem the performance of public duty as his highest aim’.

Rhodes’ goal for what his scholars would do at Oxford was far more open. He wanted them to spend some time in a residential college, to absorb some English values and to gain an attachment to the country. This was once pithily described to a scholar thus: ‘to bring some people to England, leave them alone for a couple of years and hope they don’t hate the place too much at the end’.

Rhodes’ long-term goal for his scholars was ambitious. He wanted a ‘union of English-speaking people’, thinking that this would encourage world peace. He saw his scholars as creating and even enforcing this peace – fighting, as the saying goes, the world’s fight.

This potted history may provide us with some hints as to the direction of the Schwarzman scheme. Schwarzman scholars are not supposed to be China specialists, just as Rhodes’ ‘leaders of tomorrow’ were not meant to be England specialists. Neither do they appear to need to be specialists in a field. Nonetheless they are supposed to know what they want to do in the future so that they can be paired with a Chinese mentor.

The Rhodes Colussus - a cartoon illustrating Rhodes as a giant standing over the African continent - Rhodes was known for his  ambitions of controlling Africa "from Cape to Cairo". Cartoon by Edward Linley Sambourn, published in Punch magazine in 1892.

The Rhodes Colussus – a cartoon illustrating the businessman and colonist Cecil John Rhodes as a giant standing over the continent – Rhodes was known for his ambitions of controlling Africa ‘from Cape to Cairo’.
Cartoon by Edward Linley Sambourn, published in Punch magazine in 1892

Mainly, Schwarzman, like Rhodes, wants to send people he thinks will be future leaders to China for a little while, expose them to China, in the hope that one day some of the things they pick up will be useful. The experience is intended either to make them more predisposed toward the place or at least better able to interpret developments in China.

Whether of course this will work remains to be seen. Many a foreign student has fled Beijing swearing never to return. Schwarzman’s goal, indeed, is to isolate his scholars from this, noting that ‘Beijing can be a harsh place in terms of weather, traffic, all kinds of friction’.

Yet developing sentiments against a place because of living there was (and to this day remains) a situation not unknown to students at Oxford. Rhodes himself noted: ‘A lot of young Colonials go to Oxford and Cambridge, and come back with a certain anti-English feeling, imagining themselves to have been slighted because they were Colonials. That, of course, is all nonsense. I was a Colonial, and I knew everybody I wanted to know, and everybody who wanted to knew me’.

This idea of ‘being known’ is the other part of Schwarzman’s plan that appears unspoken but clear – Schwarzman wants future winners as much as leaders: people who will be ‘known.’ As he puts it, his thinking behind the scholarship was ‘what does it take to really attract the best kids you could ever get. You know, the top of the top’. The big idea of Schwarzman’s scholarship is not that scholars have a certain set of values – it’s that the ‘best of the best’ go to China rather than England.

"New King of Wall Street" --  Schwarzman on the cover FORTUNE magazine, March 2006.

‘New King of Wall Street’ – Schwarzman on the cover FORTUNE magazine, March 2006

China specialists may pooh-pooh the sincerity of this study in China. They may question the need for a special program in English, instead of allowing students to enrol in a normal masters degree. And they may question why the program should only be for one year.

These criticisms miss the point: Schwarzman’s goal – and he’s explicit about this – is not to create a cadre of trained China specialists. Nor, it appears, is he trying to simply stamp his scholars as ‘China experts’. Rather, this is a program to identify future talent and cast it in his own mould. Schwarzman undoubtedly wants, like Rhodes, to bring about something akin to world peace, and to bring people together in the interests of fostering brotherhood among all. The idea is that his scholars will be able to do that with China once they become President.

Curiously, I would argue that – should it succeed – Schwarzman’s program would be a wonderful thing for China scholars. Schwarzman is, in essence, creating a market for genuine China expertise and engagement. The more our high-level leaders know of China, the more likely they are to ask the sorts of questions that require us to know more about the country – and the less likely they are to fall for simple stereotypes or characterisations.

And, to be clear, I think part of the resistance to this program is due to its China focus. It’s hard to imagine similar reactions should these scholarships be to France and this in itself is yet another indication of the global shift of power.

The poignant symbolism of the best students from the West coming to China would not have escaped Chinese leaders. The idea of one’s best students going away to study in a more ‘modern’ foreign land and then coming back to lead reforms is central to recent Chinese history – quick examples include the English-educated Yan Fu 严复 and his contribution to the Hundred Day Reform Movement (1898) 戊戌变法, the French and Russian studies of Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 and Zhou Enlai周恩来 among others or the Russian-educated Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇.

But why does this matter? I’d argue that much of our problem is with the moral element of what we think a scholarship involves. If we send our best and our brightest to China, what are we saying about our own society? Are the values of modern China really what we want our leaders of tomorrow to be learning? As the eminent Australian sinologist John Fitzgerald was recently quoted saying: ‘Why would I want to be associated … with a university that does not allow free and open critical inquiry in the humanities and social sciences?’

I’d argue that we want to be associated with this program not for the values of the Chinese university per se (nor the Communist Party that enforces them) but for the values of the students.

As Fitzgerald, a historian of the Chinese Republic, knows well, we’re not going to see ‘free and open critical inquiry’ into all topics in Chinese universities without a change in the Chinese political system. There will always be verboten topics for the Chinese Communist Party. But dare I say it: this is well beyond the realms of our control. The Party shows no intention of going anywhere soon and it regularly (and shamefully) ensures that there is no vocal or organised opposition to it, in order that everything can change but their leadership remains.

Sending our best and brightest to China doesn’t mean that we accede to this. We need to show that we aren’t afraid of Party crackdowns and oppression. We need to show that we can do things in China other than go to make money, that we don’t need to simply agree with the novelist Yu Hua’s 余华 view that ‘to make money in China, they (we) need to learn how to defer to our government and ingratiate themselves with our officials’.

For the record, I have absolutely no amity with nor sympathy for the Chinese Communist Party.  But – and this is the central point for me – going to China doesn’t indicate that you support the Party. China is not the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP may rule China presently but it is not China. There is much beyond this simple dichotomy: it is an entire world that I think we need to engage with – the many different groups, cultures and ideas that comprise, to my mind, the Chinese equivalent of Rhodes’ ‘union of English speaking people’.


Photo: West gate of Tsinghua University

And Tsinghua University is undoubtedly a part of this imaginary ‘union’. It is indeed the alma mater of many of the Party’s senior leaders but it is also, along with being possibly the most difficult university to gain entry to in the world, the home of many of China’s top minds. In many cases, students and faculty at Tsinghua University are, literally, one in a million intellects. I’d argue that these are precisely the people that we should be engaging with – no matter that they attend institutions controlled with values we don’t support.

This is part of the dilemma we face in Australia – not one of choosing between the US and China, like kids choosing a sports team, but rather a choice between engaging with China as it is and engaging with China as we think it should be. I don’t think we can engage with China as we want it to be. It is already an engine of economic and, increasingly, intellectual growth that we must engage with in order to assure our own economic and intellectual growth. Mei banfa.

But if we accept that we need to engage, we should engage on fields of our choosing. Universities are these fields. Many of the individuals in these universities possess the sorts of values that I think we would all be happy to see inculcated in any future leaders of tomorrow.

Maybe this is only my lonely eleven-year-old self speaking here but I found an enormous amount to admire in people in elite Chinese institutions. Most of these students and scholars are incredibly driven, disciplined, humble, hard-working, polite, respectful and filled with hope that they can improve things. Many of them are also cynical and jaded observers of Chinese politics and society. I’d say that these are exactly the types of people I’d like to see future leaders of my society exposed to.

I think there’s still much to be done with the Schwarzman scholarships. I’d like to see far more focus on how scholars can gain yet further exposure to everyday Chinese experience and not just those of elite students. An idea raised by many people I’ve spoken to is the introduction of internship or visitation programs to ensure that Schwarzman scholars would spend more time in local or rural areas working alongside Chinese people, or be involved with Chinese local government or business.

But I’m quibbling over how to make the Schwarzman program more effective. There’s no reason that activities like the ones I’ve mentioned above can’t be developed as an adjunct to or outside the Schwarzman program.

Personally, no matter its potential efficacy, I support any program that helps ‘beat back the profound state of ignorance about China’, as Orville Schell puts it. I’m not sure that Schwarzman has any explicit values he wants to inculcate in his students other than that they are successful and better able to do whatever they need to do in China, or in partnership with China. While it would be great to see Schwarzman scholars contribute to a broader goal or public good, he’s made clear that he thinks that their future success would be in and of itself enough of a public good and he’s devoted US$300 million of private money to this end. Brilliant. The only question I have is how to encourage this sort of thing to happen more often.