Exchange program start was an accident

Updated: 2014-08-22 12:22

By Chang Jun and Lian Zi in San Francisco(China Daily USA)

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Exchange program start was an accident

 Exchange program start was an accident

Thomas Fingar, the inaugural Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at the Stanford University, oversees the launching of the first academic exchanges program with China at the univeristy level in 1978. Chang Jun / China Daily

"We started it from zero," said Thomas Fingar, one of the founders involved from the beginning in establishing academic exchange programs between China and the US.

"It was an accident for me to be part of it. I think it was probably based on my Chinese language capability and study interests," Fingar, an inaugural Oksenberg-Rohlen distinguished fellow at Stanford University, explained.

After finishing his PhD program on comparative politics on international relations at Stanford, he was hired by the university to help establish the US-China exchange program in 1975.

The first exchange was an unofficial and university-based program between Stanford and the Chinese Academy of Science in 1978.

"We picked six Chinese scholars who were focused on computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering to come to Stanford," he told China Daily. "They were the best of the best."

"We customized the classes and lab sessions for the program and matched them one on one with Stanford professors based on their academic interests," he said.

It was 1978, just after former leader Deng Xiaoping had unveiled his reform and opening-up policy and Fingar was involved in the official talks with Chinese officials in Washington and signed an agreement on expanding exchange programs from the unofficial to the official level and involving more American universities.

The first Chinese official exchange delegation came to the US in 1979 through Fingar's efforts as co-director. "We wanted to train Chinese talents in US universities and let them have access to technology and capital," said Fingar.

Besides assisting the academic exchange program between the two countries, Fingar also made arrangements for the ping-pong delegation's visit in San Francisco in 1972, which was the first official Chinese sports delegation to come to the US since 1949.

Fingar's interest in China started as an undergraduate at Cornell University. One of his professors, John Lewis, a well-known expert on Chinese politics and US-China relations, triggered his curiosity about China.

"He was obviously interested in China and its international relations. I decided I'd like to know more about a subject that made somebody so excited, so I took an anthropology class about south China. But my reaction was that this is too weird."

But he kept asking himself questions about China. Why do they act in that way? Why do we do it differently? "I was lucky that I asked these questions, and continued to learn about China," said Fingar.

He initially regarded China as a mirror. "I looked at China in order to identify things that I'd like to ask about our own country," he said.

At the suggestion of Prof Lewis, he went to Columbia University to learn Chinese and further practiced it in Taiwan, which offered him a chance to get more in touch with China.

"When the ping-pong delegation came from China, my Chinese had already been well shaped. So, I was selected to assist the delegation's visit," he said.

In the 1980s, since San Francisco was a getaway for foreign delegations to gain access to the US, he received numerous delegations at Stanford University. "'If you have any problem, please call Professor Fingar,'" he said. "They always gave my contact information to new delegations."

"It was out of control," he said with a laugh.

Fingar calls himself a forever moving-forward guy. "The things I am doing about China are now and tomorrow, not about history." He is currently conducting several research projects about China sponsored by Stanford and is a member of the China-US Joint Working Group.

From Fingar's perspective, the relationship between China and the US today is far more cooperative than competitive.

He disagrees with the statement that the bilateral relationship is becoming less stable and more dangerous. He said, "We have more disagreements between two countries than before, because we touch each other in more places and it will not threaten the bilateral relation." The disagreements were not a sign of problems, but a sign of collaboration and interdependence under the international system, he said.

He vividly described the relationship between two countries as a three-legged race where two teammates tie one of their legs together. He explained, "We tie ourselves to China in the three-legged race. If one goes over, we both go over."

Fingar is concerned about some of the current challenges in the bilateral relationship. "We favor a strong China, but we are always mistrusted by the Chinese," he said.

"I am sure that the two highest leaders - Chinese President Xi and US President Obama - understand the importance of cooperation pretty well and know how to work it out. But neither do the senior level politicians in both systems convey the reality of the situation of the bilateral relation. Some of the Chinese officials regard what we provide as traps and candy bullets, but please see what we did do: we involved China in the international system."

He highly praised the meeting between President Xi and President Obama and suggested they communicate more regularly and use more transparency in solving the problem of mutual-mistrust between the two countries.

From his perspective, two giant countries have obligations to get together to tackle the global challenges that infect all of us, including global climate change, proliferation of nuclear weapons, shortage of fresh water, food safety and energy security.

"None of these can be solved if China and the US can't reach a basic agreement, and other countries will not commit their resources to solve them if China or the US says that they won't play," said Fingar, adding that the US needs China to get a good outcome in negotiations for global challenges.

He is also worried about the intense relations between China and its neighbors. He described East Asia as one of the most dynamic but least structured regions, adding that the "market is great for economics, but it is a terrible place for security with all the political differences".

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Exchange program start was an accident

(China Daily USA 08/22/2014 page10)