Julian Chang, the former Schwarzman Scholars associate dean of student life who joined the program in its inaugural year from the Harvard Kennedy School, also in 2015 became a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank that was founded by the Western Returned Scholars Association—itself officially directed by the United Front. CCG’s founder, Wang Huiyao, describes himself in an online biography as a “member of the expert advisory group of the United Front Work Department.”
Schwarzman himself met with Sun Chunlan, the former national head of the United Front, in April 2018 at Zhongnanhai, the party and government headquarters in Beijing. In July 2018, Schwarzman Scholars co-hosted a conference on Chinese philanthropy with Tsinghua University and the CCG. One of the highlighted speakers was Tan Tianxing, deputy minister of the United Front.
Of course, when operating inside China, engaging with the CCP and its many departments is to some extent inevitable—these are the mechanisms by which institutions are created and sustained. It’s also neither surprising nor nefarious that a party ally like Li was offered a founding position at Schwarzman and appears to have been recognized by the party for his overtures. In a China that is more and more authoritarian, major initiatives such as Schwarzman Scholars are only possible with the assistance of those whom the party trusts—and to create a new program, especially a high-profile one dedicated to a higher calling than profit, its founders must secure the support of the party.
But these kinds of compromises were far easier to accept a decade ago, when a kinder, gentler version of the party ruled.
As Beijing has become more heavy-handed in its approach to academia and civil society, universities have begun applying the brakes to partnerships there. In April 2016, the University of Notre Dame canceled plans for a partnership with Zhejiang University amid concerns about academic and religious freedom. In October 2018, Cornell University announced that it was severing ties with Renmin University after the Chinese institution punished Chinese students for labor-related activism. This year, a Cornell faculty member argued for further distancing from China, citing the country’s detention of more than 1 million Muslim ethnic minorities in mass internment camps in the northwest region of Xinjiang. And Wesleyan University, a private liberal-arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, said in October that it would no longer pursue a joint campus in China. “It became clear that they were less interested in a liberal-arts approach than we initially thought,” a university spokesperson, Lauren Rubenstein, told Wesleyan’s student newspaper.
Several former participants in the Schwarzman Scholars program told me that the academic environment did appear, on the whole, to be free—or as free as one could expect, given that Chinese professors and students at times faced constraints on what they could and could not say. And party sway over admissions seems to extend only to Chinese participants. But such a process gives the lie to China’s assurances that it enters into such partnerships based on open exchange, and out of a desire to deepen mutual understanding.