Bill Kirby teaching in Shanghai
"Harvard is not retreating from China:" Bill Kirby gives a talk to the Harvard Business School Club in Shanghai

Fairbank Faculty Head Back to China

As narratives darken, “scholarly exchanges are more important than ever:” Meg Rithmire, HBS professor

August 21, 2023 — Fairbank Center faculty and staff returned to China this summer, reconnecting after the long pandemic hiatus. A number of faculty members are eager to resume academic exchanges with their counterparts in China. The Chinese government, meanwhile, eager to promote U.S.-China academic exchange, has been loosening visa restrictions, and several faculty were able to get multiple-entry “fangwen” (访问), or research, visas. Among the faculty trips: 

Bill Kirby meets with Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Jining

Bill Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, traveled to Beijing and Shanghai, where he met with Shanghai Community Party Secretary Chen Jining and gave a talk to the Harvard Business School Club. He also met with several university presidents and government officials in Beijing and Shanghai. 

“This Spring I had the honor of being among the first Harvard colleagues to return to China since the onset of COVID; and this summer I met with academic friends and partners in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing to convey the message that Harvard is not retreating from China but intends to advance our collaboration with our Chinese colleagues,” says Kirby. “This message was warmly received, and I look forward to welcoming Chinese university leaders back to Harvard in the near future.”

Attendees at a CSIS-Peking University conference; Meg Rithmire in second row, fifth from right

Meg Rithmire, F. Warren McFarlan Associate Professor in the Harvard Business School Business, Government, and International Economy Unit, who traveled to Beijing to attend a conference and meet with academic and official contacts, said it was “refreshing” to go back.

“I found Chinese academic colleagues as open and collaborative as ever, but deteriorating U.S.-China relations casts a long shadow,” says Rithmire. “Many interactions that would have been routine and informative many years ago, especially with Chinese government officials, were clouded by suspicion and frustration. It was hard to have conversations about issues in China other than U.S.-China relations. In this context, scholarly exchanges are more important than ever, as narratives in both countries have darkened.”

Winnie Yip, Professor of the Practice of Global Health Policy and Economics in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, met with farmers and doctors in Yunnan and Ningxia.

doctor and Winnie Yip
Winnie yip chats with a doctor in Yunnan
Rowen Flad visits the Neolithic site of Shijiahe, currently being excavated by the Hubei Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage

“It feels great to get back to meeting in person with Chinese health experts, many of whom have become my friends over the years,” says Yip. “It’s so important for us to keep talking. When it comes to healthcare, we have much to learn from each other.”

Rowan Flad, John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology, traveled to the Bronze Age site of Qijiaping in Guanghe County, Gansu, where he conducted research as part of the Tao River Archaeology Project from 2012-2019. He also visited Sanxingdui in Guanghan, Sichuan, at the location of recent excavations of ritual pits, and the Neolithic site of Shijiahe in Hubei, which is being excavated by the Hubei Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage. During his trip, Flad met with archaeologists from Wuhan University to discuss plans to start an archaeological field school at the Bronze Age site of Panlongcheng in Wuhan.

Professor of Government Yuhua Wang gave a lecture at the Quantitative History Summer Workshop at Shanghai Jiaotong University—and visited family in Beijing.

Yuhua Wang gives a lecture at Jiaotong University

Leonard van der Kuijp, Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies and Chair or the Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, resumed a longtime collaboration with Sichuan University this summer. He spent a month teaching a graduate-level intensive Tibetan reading class on the biography of Mchims Nam mkha’ grags, an important lama associated with the Narthang Monastery in the 13th century. He also gave a number of talks on translation of Tibetan texts at Peking University. Van der Kuijp says he experienced no profound changes since his last visit to China a few years ago—except that cash is no longer used anywhere. “The expectation is that one pays with one’s phone via QR codes,” he says. “And this holds for every imaginable transaction. In fact, businesses sometimes seem to scramble when one flashes a 100 RMB bill!”

C. T. James Huang, Professor of Linguistics, traveled to Beijing and gave a lecture on the “gerundive construction” in Old and Modern Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University. He also met with Yuyin He, a Harvard Linguistics PhD, who teaches at BLCU, and Peking University Senior Professors of Chinese Linguistics Ma Zhen, Lu Jianming, and Shen Yang (pictured at right). 

And Fairbank Center Executive Director Dinda Elliott met with scholars, business people, artists, and non-profit executives in Beijing and Shanghai. In Shanghai, she and Harvard China Fund’s Director of Programs and Administration, Lillian Wei, and Emma Fan, Program Manager, met with Fudan professors to plan a 2024 Harvard Summer School program.

Dinda Elliott discusses the Harvard Summer School plan with Xinbo Wu, Director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies

“It was wonderful to ‘normalize’ the experience of being in China again, and to find that the Chinese people are as funny and smart and outspoken as ever—as long as you are speaking privately,” says Elliott. “In China, people always find workarounds in the face of political challenges. But there’s plenty of fear these days, and increased political controls over academic research are seriously affecting scholars across the spectrum.”