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Harvard scholar feels the pulse of China
By Qu Yingpu, Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-09-03 09:44

Of the world's China scholars, Anthony Saich, 51, has had some unique experiences that the others have not.

As a result, he has a rare perspective of China, which has given him special insight into the nation and the changes it has undergone in the past 25 years.

Saich, professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F, Kennedy School of Government, is faculty chair of Kennedy School's Asia programmes and China's public policy programme.

Saich lived in the Chinese mainland between 1975 and 1977, when most of the world's China scholars studied about and/or lived in Taiwan Province.

Saich, as an exchange student between China and the United Kingdom, was able to witness the political and social dramas that unfolded in those years.

"I arrived in China at a fascinating time then," he recently told China Daily.

It was 1975. He got off the train in Hong Kong at Luohu Bridge. He walked across the bridge to a small fishing village, which has grown into today's modern city of Shenzhen.

Saich said, as a child, he was interested in history and ancient cultures.

After finishing his undergraduate studies, he wanted to focus on Portuguese Africa during his graduate studies, but his professor, David Goodman, suggested he should focus on China.

Goodman currently is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sidney, in Australia.

"He said China 'would be the biggest story in our lifetime'," Saich recalled. "He said not enough people were thinking about it; hardly anyone was working on it; and no one understood it."

As China was closed to the world, "no one really knew what was happening in China," Saich said.

Chinese were generally frustrated in those days, as they had no choice but to stand back and watch the country's economy near the brink of collapse.

Saich was able to use Chinese when referring to the few political movements he had experienced in those days. The interview was punctuated with the buzzwords, in Chinese, that came to be associated with the changes of the times.

Like their Chinese peers, Saich and other international students worked in the factories, as part of the "re-education," and, on Saturdays, they performed physical labour on campus, such as moving bricks.

"We were supposed to be building our revolutionary spirit," he recalled.

When he finished his language course in Beijing, Saich studied Chinese history at Nanjing University, in the capital of East China's Jiangsu Province.

"Despite the very strong control (of the society) at that time, they taught very interestingly about the Opium War, about Hong Xiuquan and many other things," he said.

Saich and the other international students also experienced difficult times in China.

"It was almost impossible to have a personal relationship with a Chinese," he said.

Saich said he was lucky. At Nanjing University, he joined the school's soccer team, and played forward.

"It was really the only (access to a) natural personal relationship I could have with the people," he said.

"In a soccer game, people eventually forgot I was a foreigner ... I was just another member of the team. I joined the discussions with the coach and others.

"It was important hearing them talking about their lives. It showed to me how devastating the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) had been."

It also revealed just how closed China was at that time. For example, whenever he and the other international students walked Nanjing's streets, the locals were always surprised to see them. The residents often followed the foreigners around.

"I became very depressed, in the sense that it wasn't what I expected. People wouldn't talk to us. It was such a closed society," Saich said.

As a result, "I was able to appreciate, quite early on, just how problematic the 'cultural revolution' would be, and how distressed the Chinese people were at that time. Even though I couldn't talk with the people very much at that time, I could feel the atmosphere."

And there were the days of national sorrow when the three top founders of New China died. Saich remembers visiting the Great Hall of the People to pay his respects as Mao Zedong lay in state.

Saich did share some good times and triumphs with the Chinese; notably, he attended the rally to cheer after the downfall of the Gang of Four, including Mao's wife, that caused much, if not all, of the political, social and economic turmoil during the "cultural revolution."

"We were here when Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated," he said.

Witness to change

"So, basically I watched the reforms from then on," Saich said.

He noted he often thought about doing something else. "Then something happened in China that made it interesting to watch it a bit longer," he said.

He taught at universities in England and the Netherlands, and eventually became director of the Sinological Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

He met his wife Zeng Yinyin at Beijing Hotel in 1984. At that time, she was a teacher at the Central Academy of Drama. She eventually moved to the Netherlands to study, and later began teaching at the Sinological Institute.

She and Saich fell in love, and they married in 1993.

From 1994 to July 1999, Saich was representative for the China Office of the Ford Foundation.

"It's hard to imagine a better job for a foreigner in China," Saich said.

"I was privileged to meet an extraordinary range of people, from government departments, from universities, from fledgling non-governmental organizations that were beginning to start at the women's conference in Beijing, to the people living in villages."

Saich said most foreigners in China tend to live in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

"They come back either amazed at the growth of China or ... worried about the power of China. But I should say China is, in many ways, very complex, and, in many ways, a very poor country, with a lot of different Chinas, that require different solutions."

Saich said the job with the Ford Foundation also provided him with an opportunity "to do something ... useful for China, which provided the groundwork so people could think about more reforms and alleviating poverty, both within and outside the government."

When Saich left the Ford Foundation, he joined Harvard's faculty.

"It helped me become involved in China in a much more practical way," he said.

The school now offers numerous programmes with China. Several Chinese officials participate in short-term courses at the Kennedy School every year.

Saich said several of the school's faculty members have become interested in China. "The faculty knew little about China," he said. "But they work on similar issues in other countries. And I also think they have something useful to say.

"A number of my colleagues are now doing collaborative research projects, on environmental issues, traffic control issues, pollution issues and so on. So it is fun," he said.

Saich said "people interested in development are really becoming interested in China... China would like to tell you how different it is, but for those of us who've worked some time in China, that is not really true. They'd tell you what they do in China, and that's exactly like what they did in Japan, in India, and somewhere else.

"From my day, you've got a different set of people now working on China. These people are bringing interesting ideas to China, because they've worked in a number of different countries.

"They might not know a lot about China, but they might know the microfunding scheme, and that is what makes it work. So, China is starting to follow the ways of other countries."

The exciting thing is "no matter where you work now, you are tackling unprecedented experiments in China," he said.

"Say you are some kind of agent, working on pension reform, this is one of the most interesting social laboratories in the world."

And the other "great thing" Saich is happy about is the number of Chinese colleagues with whom he works nowadays.

He said China was not a "very sophisticated place in terms of thinking about economic and social policies" 20 years ago.

"Now, you have fabulous research centres. People with the Centre for Economics Research at Peking University, or the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, are first-rate scholars," Saich said. "You know, my colleagues come here now and they immediately sit down and have great discussions about policies... If you try this, it might work or might not work. So, it is a much more fascinating community."

Some of Saich's colleagues teach the public policy programme at Tsinghua.

"They are just stunned by how smart the participants are. They are very quick at getting to the core of the problems. And it is extremely encouraging," he said.

Now, 30 years later, Saich said Goodman "made the right choice for me."

"Think of the last 30 years. It is hard to think of anything more interesting," he said. "All the ups and downs; the bad times and the good times. It is hard to think of a more exciting thing to be watching."

He and his wife have a son and a daughter, both of whom grew up in China during Saich's tenure with the Ford Foundation.

Saich said they will return to China later this year so their children can attend Tsinghua.

"Obviously, it would be nice if they'd keep some connections to China, but you can't force kids to do things. They have to make their own choices," he said.

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