Why is Harvard Training the Next Generation of Chinese Communist Party Leaders?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 23 2012 5:46 PM

The East Is Crimson

Why is Harvard training the next generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders?

Bo Xilai.
Communist Party figure Bo Xilai stepped down in April. His son attended Harvard at the time.

Photograph by Feng Li/Getty Images.

Harvard and China have one thing in common: They both consider themselves to be the center of the world. So, it was always inevitable that when the scandal that brought down Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai broke, the repercussions would be felt, somehow, in Cambridge. The connection, it turned out, was Bo Guagua, the son of the disgraced Communist official. The younger Bo was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In April, he stopped attending classes and was seen leaving his off-campus apartment with what appeared to be a security detail.

William  J.  Dobson William J. Dobson

William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

The fact that Bo Guagua was a couple months from his Harvard degree has sparked interest in the number of so-called princelings—the offspring of powerful Chinese Communist Party officials—attending elite U.S. universities. It’s actually not very rare. Xi Jinping, China’s vice president, is expected to become China’s top leader this fall. His daughter is a Harvard undergrad. Two recent top party leaders—Zhao Ziyang and Jiang Zemin—had grandchildren who attended Harvard. Jia Qinglin , one of China’s most senior officials, has a granddaughter at Stanford. In fact, according to Andrew Higgins and Maureen Fan, at least five of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, have children or grandchildren who have studied in the United States.

But there are people far more important than the children of Chinese party leaders attending Harvard and other elite U.S. universities: Chinese leaders themselves.


A little more than 10 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party embarked on an ambitious effort to give its public officials the training, skills, and expertise they need to govern in the increasingly complex situations that test an authoritarian regime’s resilience. Carefully vetted officials—a selection of some of the regime’s rising stars—were sent abroad to study in specially designed programs at some of the world’s finest universities. The first crop was sent to Harvard. Today, Chinese authorities have expanded the program to include Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Tokyo, and others. A year ago I met with Lu Mai, the head of the China Development Research Foundation, who oversees the program. “This was a big decision,” he told me. “We have already sent more than 4,000 [officials]. I don’t know any other country that sends on that scale.”

The Harvard curriculum, specially designed for this program, resembles a midcareer executive course. Housed at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center—the same graduate school Bo Xilai’s son attended—Harvard faculty teach Chinese officials leadership, strategy, and public management. Some of the lectures are given by big-name Harvard professors, including Roger Porter and Joseph Nye. Although the classes are restricted to Chinese officials, these party members have ample opportunity to mix with the school’s faculty and general student body. Borrowing from the case-study method made famous at the university’s business school, the coursework zeroes in on specific topics such as U.S. policy and government, how the media operates, negotiation strategy, and even social media. The classroom work is supplemented by site visits to places like the Massachusetts State House, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and larger institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations. Besides its main leadership program, which lasts eight weeks, Harvard runs more tailored courses, too. One is focused on crisis management. Another is entirely devoted to the Shanghai municipal government. A new energy program will bring together executives from the China Southern Grid Power Corporation. “The goal is to help the Chinese government work in this environment of globalization,” says Lu. “To catch up.”

Harvard may be a competitive institution, but it’s nothing compared to being selected by the party’s Central Organization Department—the highly secretive body that is in charge of making all party appointments across China and chooses the handful of officials sent abroad to study each year. (The department’s work is done almost entirely in secret. It is housed in an unmarked building less than a mile from Tiananmen Square. A phone call from the Organization Department shows up on your phone as a string of zeroes.) The officials selected can vary: They include municipal officers, mayors, provincial governors, all the way up to central government vice ministers. It’s worth remembering that in a country as populous as China, even a very junior official can have a portfolio that affects millions of people. What they all have in common is that they distinguished themselves as comers. Lu sits proudly when he tells me more than half of the officials sent to Harvard receive a promotion not long after they return to their duties at home, although he admits, “We don’t know if it’s because of the training or because they are already so good. But we try to claim it is because of the training.”


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