How Would You Spend (the Next) $300 Million on U.S.-China Relations?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Orville Schell:

When Stephen A. Schwarzman announced his new $300 million program aimed at sending foreign scholars to Tsinghua University in Beijing the way Rhodes Scholarship, set up by the businessman and statesman Cecil Rhodes in 1902 began sending American scholars to Oxford, he limned an interesting new piece of the U.S.-China puzzle. With the United States and Chinese Governments responsible for working out the myriad intractable problems that beset our bilateral relations, and with the U.S. government broke and as well as broken and thus seemingly incapable of taking on any sort of meaningful forward-looking new initiatives—even to save its own reputation, much less the country from further erosion —it is increasingly obvious that if any remedy is to be found for the fraught relationship between the two countries, help will have to come from some non-governmental quarter. And, it is here that the Schwarzman Scholars, for which Schwarzman himself has contributed $100 million and is in the process of inveigling another $200 million from other corporate and private donors, presents an interesting alternative scenario for bi-lateral remedy. While this one program will in itself certainly have a salutary effect on our relations - especially by helping to beat back the profound state of ignorance about China that is ever aloft in America, perhaps more importantly, it points a way forward for others to occupy different pieces of the non-governmental real estate to fortify interchange and understanding between the two countries. While the Schwarzman Scholars program is somewhat generic in the sense that it welcomes comers from all fields, one could well imagine similar other efforts consecrated to fields such as science and climate change; culture and performance; diplomacy and disarmament; public health and pandemics, etc.

But there is one obvious lacuna here: while civil society has grown in China, it still exists in something of a legal limbo, and thus deprives a truly scaled-up non-governmental initiative from North America and Europe of strong enough civil society partners (other than GONGO, government organized non-governmental organizations) with which to team-up in China. Indeed, one could even imagine a Schwarzman-like initiative that focused on philanthropy and civil society itself.

So, while this new Schwartzman initiative may itself end up having a significant long-term effect on U.S.-China relations, for me its far grander import is that it sets something of a model that brings governmental scale resources to bear on the problem and which, if matched on the Chinese side by a like-minded effort from China’s new billionaires, could set off a very positive movement that might become as competitive as an arms-race, but it would be a welcome race to the top of the pyramid of virtue, not the bottom.


Orville suggests  that the new program “points a way forward for others to occupy different pieces of the non-governmental real estate to fortify interchange and understanding between the two countries” and Mr. Schwarzman has stated  that “the idea was to deal with this problem in a generational help change future leaders to impact their countries’ and China’s destinies.” Both right on target and both important to the future of U.S.-China relations.  Building on that, we should recognize and take notice of the incredible work already being done in this area by a multitude of organizations, institutions, and universities below the governmental level.  This work  is happening on both the bilateral and multilateral fronts and is both focused and cross-sectoral in nature. While the bilateral piece is truly important, the multilateral/cross-sectoral efforts are equally so.   As China’s importance in the region continues to grow, and as the issues facing China and the United States continue to expand beyond their borders, we too need to think beyond U.S.-China relations in thinking about U.S. China relations.  In that vein, the regional, cross-sectoral work that already exists needs to share in the support of that next $300 million.