Harvard’s program has been in place long enough to already boast an impressive list of alumni. Li Jiange is now the chairman of the China International Capital Corporation, something akin to China’s first investment bank. Zhao Zhengyong is the governor of Shaanxi Province, and Chen Deming is the minister of commerce. No one has risen higher than Li Yuanchao. Li is the first Harvard-trained member of the Politburo. Today, he heads the Central Organization Department, the very body that vets those officials who go abroad for study. Later this year, during the upcoming leadership shuffle, Li is expected to rise once more, joining the Politburo Standing Committee. Li will then be one of the nine most powerful men in China.
Some people will find something sinister in Harvard giving a generation of Chinese leaders tips on how to govern. They have a point. Because, no matter how thinly you slice it, Harvard is helping to hone, polish, and professionalize an authoritarian regime that systematically commits human rights abuses on a nearly unparalleled scale. Harvard isn’t teaching anyone how to interrogate a human rights activist—the Chinese authorities need no lessons there—but they are arguably helping to perpetuate the dominance of a party that has no reservations about brutalizing those who do nothing beyond questioning its right to rule. That said, there is more than one way to encourage reform and political opening. If a classroom in Cambridge can open a Chinese bureaucrat’s eyes to governing in a different way, that could be worth much more than barring them admission. International exchanges are generally something to be applauded. If we feel differently in this case, it’s because we can’t be sure what precisely these Chinese pupils are taking from their lessons. “We are hopeful that these programs contribute to a better understanding of global governance around the world,” says Julian Chang, an executive director at the Ash Center.
What matters more is what these programs say about China. Among authoritarian governments, China is the most broad-minded about borrowing or adapting foreign forms of governance for its own use. In recent years, it has experimented with elections, public hearings, polling, live-streaming municipal meetings, and a host of other typically democratic mechanisms to improve its governance. You never saw scores of officials from Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe enrolling in top Western universities. If dictatorships do set up educational programs in the West, it is usually part of military-to-military exchanges like the ones Indonesia had with the U.S. military under Suharto or Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. Chinese officials are enrolling in courses on environmental policy and sustainability. Admittedly, it is good governance in the name of keeping the party on top, but it’s good governance all the same.
A couple days before I met Lu Mai, I had spoken to a Chinese official and Communist Party member named Yu Keping. Yu is a leading voice encouraging greater democratic experimentation within the Chinese political system. He has also studied at Harvard. Speaking of the Arab Spring, which was only a few weeks old at the time, Yu said, “The lesson we can learn from the chaos in the Middle Eastern countries is the need for better public service and people’s participation—transparency, accountability, and social justice.” He may not have learned that at Harvard, but it’s nice to think he did.