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.
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.”
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.