Like many college professors, every fall I enjoy reading the latest edition of Beloit College’s “Mindset List,” which offers a benchmark for what the incoming freshmen have and have not experienced. For the Class of 2019, the Daily Show has always been a leading source of news; Bill Gates has always been the wealthiest man in the U.S., and women have always played professional basketball. China doesn’t usually make the list, but it’s interesting to think about what a China version of the “Mindset List” might look like. For the Class of 2019, Hong Kong has always been part of China; China has never had a particularly charismatic leader, and Shenzhen has always been the place where iPhones and iPads are made. One of my freshman advisees last year told me he first became interested in China after watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For him, China has always been a confident, ambitious, globally engaged and modern nation.
None of these characteristics was even imaginable when I took my first course in Chinese history thirty years ago. At that time China was emerging hesitantly from the Maoist era under a new slogan “Opening Up and Reform,” to which we devoted a week or two at the end of the semester. Like many of you, my professional career has coincided with the extraordinary transformations brought about by the pursuit of that slogan.
The textbook for that first course was John King Fairbank’s The United States and China. I recall being very impressed that one of the students in the course had actually seen Fairbank speak (this was before YouTube, remember). I never would have imagined that I might one day have the honor of serving as director of the research center that he founded and that now bears his name.
I’m especially grateful to be taking over as director at a time when, thanks to the work of my predecessors, our faculty, and the staff, the Fairbank Center is a well-run, collegial and, most important, intellectually vibrant place where students and scholars from around the world want to be.
In the coming months we will begin planning for the 60th anniversary of the Fairbank Center. It will be a celebration of our history but also an opportunity to think about our future. China has never mattered more to Harvard and to the world in which we live. The number of people working on China at Harvard has never been larger. Our exchanges with Chinese colleagues have never been more extensive. As the study of China becomes normalized across every school and department of the University, we face the challenge of building a new and broader community and facilitating collaboration in new areas. I hope you will not only join us for the events associated with the anniversary – I can promise they will be excellent – but also for the conversations we will be having about the future directions of the Fairbank Center and the study of China at Harvard.Michael A. Szonyi