Slate Asks Why Harvard Is Training The Next Generation Of Chinese Communist Party Leaders. Answer: Why Not?

By Gregory K. Shapiro

Last month, Bo Guagua brought some rather unwelcome attention to Harvard, managing in one fell swoop to both draw further ridicule to himself and to affirm every popular stereotype of Harvard students as arrogant, out-of-touch elitists. Perhaps unintentionally, he’s also drawn attention to an ongoing practice by Harvard of welcoming top leaders and their children — from China and other countries — to study. I refer you to today’s article in Slate titled “The East Is Crimson” — and I eagerly await, if I may say so, for Slate’s followups, “The East Is Columbia Blue” and “Oh Yeah, It’s Also Orange And Black.”

Harvard’s practice of accepting the leaders of tomorrow has been going on for at least over a decade, and was readily visible during my time as an undergraduate in the mid-2000s. I counted among my classmates the grandson of a former Chinese head of state and the son of the head of the Iraq’s Kurdish resistance movement during the Saddam years. (They kept low profiles.) I have no doubt that children of other foreign leaders were on campus but simply never entered my social circle. Certainly each of these students gained acceptance to Harvard on their own merits, and it’s not hard to see why Harvard would perceive these exceptional individuals as valuable additions to the school’s academic community. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that they also bring a very different set of expectations to campus with them. From their first day of class, they already possess the professional and personal relationships needed to ensure lofty careers once they exit the school. Certainly the Harvard degree is valuable for them, if only for the brand name, but they don’t have nearly as much to gain from it as your typical whitebread suburban student.

The princelings I knew at Harvard were incredibly smart and capable, but academics was often a decidedly secondary priority for them. Those that I knew were also busy pursuing side projects, or stayed involved with affairs back home, or were off racking up guanxi whenever the opportunity allowed. Sure, they went to class, sometimes; but usually just enough to make sure that the Harvard stamp of approval would be there waiting for them at the end of four years.

As embarrassing as Bo Guagua’s existence has become for everyone, I can’t imagine Harvard will suddenly start to resist the allure of opening its gates to the children of foreign leaders. However, even if Xi Jinping’s daughter — currently an undergraduate at Harvard — and the next crop of Chinese princelings manage to earn their Harvard pedigree with fewer drunk photos, Harvard still shouldn’t expect them to always integrate seamlessly into the community. Most of them have enough common sense and personal drive to spend their time in more productive ways than Bo Guagua does. But even if they show up to class, or stay out of the New York Times, they’ll certainly also be pursuing agendas of their own.

Our contributor is a Harvard alumnus currently working in Beijing.

6 Responses to “Slate Asks Why Harvard Is Training The Next Generation Of Chinese Communist Party Leaders. Answer: Why Not?”

  1. A

    Sure, why shouldn’t Harvard and other elite schools in the US accept the next generation of the Chinese Communist Party leaders?

    But I think part of the question which has been asked of late (but not necessarily by Slate in this post) and which no-one has yet answered articulately is, how are these next generation and their families affording the tuition? We all know that it’s not cheap to attend school in the US for a Chinese person, let alone for a state politician who — in theory — draws a salary from the Chinese government to send his child overseas to study. It’s not just the case of 1 or 2 politicians either. Washington Post and Slate have all listed a number of students of politicians currently and in the past who have been educated overseas. Who’s paying for this education? Is it the Chinese government itself? If not, is Harvard and other elite universities accepting these students and providing some sort of financial aid or scholarship? If its the latter, than there’s another whole set of questions such as should this financial aid or scholarship be given to other students who deserve it more? And if it’s neither, how are these politicians themselves affording the tuition?

    And then of course there is another question that comes to mind, why are so many children of Chinese leaders being educated overseas? China has some prestigious universities that produce top-notch students. Cultural exchanges of course are important, and yes Western pedagogy does emphasize creativity and innovation more than Chinese pedagogy, but one can still wonder – do Chinese leaders have faith in their own education system?

    Reply
    • D

      China may have some prestigious universities.

      Whether or not these universities can actually produce “top-notch students” is another matter entirely.

      Reply
  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    Hes a bit late making observations over Chinese leaders being edcuated overseas – its being going on since the early 1980′s. And as you rightly say “Why not?”. Why not indeed. Its a welcome effect of globalisation and will ultimately breed greater respect amongst us all; our differences and similarities. – CDE

    Reply
  3. Michael

    “Certainly each of these students gained acceptance to Harvard on their own merits,”

    Didn’t Bo Guagua get suspended for a while from Oxford because his academic performance was dreadful?

    Reply
  4. Grace

    It doesn’t matter. All elite universities have been training world leaders since the 50s. If you ever look at any of the world presidents, cabinets and see where they are educated, almost all of them are from Ivy Leagues, the sisters, or Stanford. They pay tuition. Unless you are exceptionally gifted, you rarely get merit scholarships at Ivies unless you fall under an income threshold or sports scholarship or ‘other’ considersation. Stanford and Harvard offered me no scholarship while USC offered a 20k scholarship. People in my hall at Stanford were from all over the world and it was interesting to note how many of those who were poli sci majors ended up in high levels of government in their own countries. They saw themselves leading their countries. Most were from wealthy families but a few had their tuition paid by the government with the stipulation that they would promise to work for the government for a set period (Singapore for example).

    Reply

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