Daniel Weisfield ’08 thought he was leaving Yale thousands of miles behind when he traveled to China last year to study Mandarin in Beijing. But the humanities major soon discovered that he was far from being the only Yalie in the bustling city.

He bumped into fellow Elis at bars and restaurants; he saw Yale’s insignia engraved on a giant plaque at the National Library of China; and whenever he told a local he was a Yalie, they would say, with familiarity, “Ah, Yelu daxue,” or “Yale University!”

“Within Beijing, I sometimes felt I couldn’t go out without running into a Yalie,” Weisfield said. “Yalies are all over the place in a way that students from Princeton and Harvard are not.”

The growing number of Yale students flocking to booming metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai surprises few observers, given the wide range of programs for students to visit East Asia, not to mention Yale President Richard Levin’s efforts to forge ties to the Chinese government and universities.

The recent announcement that Chinese President Hu Jintao would deliver a major policy address at Yale sandwiched between a meeting with President Bush at the White House and the opening of the United Nations General Assembly was viewed by the Yale administration as validation of its efforts.

“I think that many universities are trying to strengthen those relations with China, but I think we’re doing very well,” Levin said. “The fact that we were chosen by the president of China to be the site for his only campus visit does reinforce the sense that Yale is more deeply committed than any of our peer institutions.”

But Levin’s courtship of government officials like Hu — the head of an authoritarian communist regime that has been accused of human rights violations — has left some students and faculty wondering exactly what role the University wants to play in China.

China has long been the centerpiece of Levin’s broader goal to transform Yale into a global institution, and the University hopes to benefit strategically from its exchanges with the world’s most populous nation as it emerges as a global superpower.

“In my opinion, it’s likely to be one of the world’s two great powers 15 or 20 years down the road,” Levin said. “I think that to have a strong footprint there, a strong set of connections, will be very good for Yale.”

Indeed, Yale is leaving its footprints throughout the Far East. Within the last six years, the University has formed partnerships between Yale and universities in China. The number of undergraduates studying in China under the Richard U. Light Fellowship has increased five times over since the program was launched eight years ago. The Law School in 1999 opened the China Law Center to influence human rights policy and help reform the country’s legal system. And the century-old Yale-China Association continues along its missionary path in China, now focusing on training health workers and teaching English.

A curricular evolution

Jun Ding ’09, who grew up in Beijing, said she has been hearing Yale’s name since elementary school, when a common greeting exchanged between classmates was “See you at Yale” or “See you at Harvard.”

“Those are the symbols of academic success in China,” Ding said.

Yale has been particularly active in utilizing its strong reputation in China to promote higher education reform in the country. Levin and other administrators have visited China four times in the last four years, and in 2003 Levin was awarded an honorary degree from Peking University.

Levin, who returned last weekend from a trip to China with Yale Secretary Linda Lorimer, said in China he endures 18-hour days touring colleges and meeting with senior government officials and scholars. He has also discovered that he is a bit of a celebrity in China, where he has appeared on “21@21” — China’s equivalent of “60 Minutes” — to discuss the differences between Chinese and American universities.

“I’ve talked to quite a number of students on campus who said they first heard of Yale seeing me on television,” Levin said. “This kind of television exposure, we know from the past, actually has a major benefit in terms of attracting students to Yale.”

Despite the infringement on human rights under China’s communist rule, Levin says he never feels the need to hold his tongue. The Chinese government does not restrict his access to the country or censor his comments during the visits, he said.

“They value their partnership with Yale,” Levin said. “They know it would be completely upsetting to our good relationship if they were to try and constrain our free expression.”

Some students and faculty expressed concerns about Yale’s closeness to the Chinese government and the uncertainty surrounding the relationship’s future trajectory.

“What would happen if there were another Tiananmen?” professor Mimi Hall Yiengrpraksawan, chair of the Council on East Asian Studies, said in reference to the massive student riots in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Where would Yale stand?”

Still, Yale and China continue their mutual courtship. The University has also hosted senior administrators from major Chinese universities during the last two summers through the University Leadership Program, which was co-sponsored by Yale and the Chinese government.

“What Levin is doing, which is really savvy and smart, is he’s blending this sort of aspiration and admiration that exists in China, and then he’s sort of really surgically going to people who actually have the power to change things there and putting them on a plane to New Haven for two weeks to see how things are done here,” said Thomas Melcher ’85, coordinator of Yale’s Bulldogs-in-Beijing program, which started last year.

The Chinese government has recently become more open about reforming its educational system as a means of making Chinese universities competitive with their American and European counterparts, said Jeffrey Bader ’67, director of the Brookings Institution’s China Initiative.

“The Chinese are very receptive and very open to foreign ideas in many domains, including education,” Bader said. “Chinese traditional education had a big focus on rote memorization. The Chinese understand that they have to adopt more Socratic forms of thinking, become less timid, less passive, more interactive.”

Already, there are signs that China’s higher education system is improving. Two years ago, the Chinese government launched an overhaul of the curriculum of the top 20 universities in the country, mandating that it be restructured along American lines. The result has been the emergence of a liberal arts education in which students are able to choose their own major; historically, the government mandated students’ majors.

This year, Fudan University began offering a course in gay and lesbian studies, the first of its kind to be offered at a Chinese institution. The introduction of the course marks a loosening up of the Chinese educational system, which was formerly focused primarily on science, engineering and medicine.

“There’s definitely some kind of evolution in curriculum,” Levin said. “I wouldn’t say we caused it. They came to us to learn about it. It was their own choice.”

An early mission

Yale is far from the only American university with a growing presence in China. Harvard also has burgeoning alumni clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, and Princeton’s summer language institute in Beijing was the first of a host of similar institutes to be launched on Chinese soil.

Yale is also not the only school to have received top Chinese government officials and university administrators. In 2003, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke at Harvard during a trip to the United States, and schools like Princeton and Columbia have regular exchanges with Chinese faculty and administrators.

But Yale’s storied history in China, which began nearly 200 years ago, and its early interest in Chinese language and cultural education have set the University apart from its peers. In 1854, Yale entered the record books as the first American university to grant a diploma to a Chinese student, Yung Wing.

“I think it’s public knowledge that Yale has stronger ties,” said Teng Kuan Ng, who coordinates Princeton’s Beijing language program. “I think a lot of this has to do with one particular guy in the late 19th century [Yung] … Yale and Harvard are more well-received in Beijing than Princeton, because their names just ring more easily in the Chinese ear, and especially because Yale has a long history in China.”

Yale’s ties to China were forged in the mid-19th century with America’s Second Great Awakening, which inspired many Christian missionaries from Yale — at the time a religious school — to seek converts in China’s vast, uncharted lands.

At the turn of the century, Yale formalized its missionary involvement in China through the creation of the Yale Foreign Ministry Society, a private non-governmental organization that today is known as the Yale-China Association. In 1906, members of the society opened the Yali Academy, which was later known as the Yali Middle School, in the city of Changsha. The school, which exists to this day, was initially run by Yale graduates, who instructed students on a variety of Western and Chinese subjects.

The society retained a presence in China throughout the first half of the 20th century, founding Hsiang-Ya Hospital, Medical College and Nursing School and Huachung University in Wuhan.

But, with the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Yale’s involvement in China came to an end. By 1951, most of Yale-in-China’s staff had been evacuated from the country.

For the next three decades, Yale, like the rest of the western world, observed China from the outside. It was not until 1980, after China had reopened its doors to the West, that Yale-China returned to the country. The exchange between China and the West took off after then-President Deng Xiaoping’s created an initiative to send Chinese students abroad to learn the ways of the West.

The Chinese looked to America’s foremost universities to educate some of China’s most gifted students, Bader said.

“The Chinese in those days were pretty much fixated on the pop universities,” he said. “They knew about Yale; they knew about Harvard; they knew about MIT, and little else.”

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, large numbers of American students did not initially take advantage of open access to China. It was not until the early 1990s, when China’s economy began to take off, that students began showing an interest in learning Chinese and studying abroad, Bader said.

A move east

Melcher, the 1980s Yale graduate who now heads the Bulldogs-in-Beijing program, was one of the students who jumped on the bandwagon early. He studied Chinese as an undergraduate and went on to work for IBM in China for two years.

“Back in 1985, China was a really strange, remote place,” Melcher said. “I had studied Chinese at Yale since freshman year, and everyone thought I was crazy. They said I should study Japanese.”

Interest in China steadily increased, leading to the creation of a host of programs to encourage students to learn more about the growing Asian power.

In 1996, Yale launched the Light Fellowship Program to provide a large number of students each year with the opportunity to study Japanese, Korean or Chinese in Asia. The fellowship — which awards a total of $1 million annually — was the brainchild of philanthropist Timothy Light ’60, the son of Richard Light ’24, who was known for flying around the world and visiting China during the 1930s.

Kelly McLaughlin, the fellowship’s director, said the program aims to eliminate language barriers between nations, which Timothy Light thinks are the cause of misunderstandings in global affairs.

“We know that Yalies go on to be decision-makers in a wide variety of fields. We hope that … they’ll go overseas, and not just have their assumptions challenged, but have their assumptions challenged at the daily, grass-roots level of East Asia,” McLaughlin said. “To do that you really need to talk to locals and really hear and understand what they’re saying. Maybe one day we’ll have a president in office who actually spent hard-core time studying a language in East Asia.”

Almost a decade after its inception, the Light Program has sent nearly 400 students abroad, and the number of applicants to the program has risen steadily each year. In its first year, only 13 students received awards to study Chinese, while 65 won the fellowship in 2004..

Nathaniel Puksta ’07, who spent the summer after his freshman year in China, seems to be the kind of student Light had in mind.

“I’m obsessed with China,” Puksta said. “I’m basically studying it now because I love the language and culture and literature.”

No other American university has a comparable pool of money specifically for language study in Asia, McLaughlin said. Harvard also provides grants and fellowships to study in East Asia — sending 40 students to China last summer — but the university does not have as many resources for such study as Yale, said Jane Edwards, director of Harvard’s Office of International Programs.

Just three years after the Light Fellowship was created, Yale Law School professor Paul Gewirtz — an expert in contemporary Chinese law who proposed and led the U.S.-China Legal Cooperation Initiative for President Clinton’s administration — created the China Law Center to assist the legal reform process within the country and to promote an understanding of China’s legal system beyond its borders.

Chinese government officials have been mostly cooperative with the China Law Center’s efforts thus far because they believe law reform is a crucial part of their economic development, Gewirtz said.

“The society is more open and aware of what other countries do, and they’re developing their own expectations about things,” Gewirtz said.

The center has helped reduce administrative licensing laws and has also worked to reduce the long prison terms China has typically given to convicted criminals. The center has also delved into food safety issues.

Still, there are numerous obstacles slowing down reform in China.

“Certain kinds of legal reforms are seen as excessively limiting the powers of government officials or the party,” Gewirtz said. “There are obstacles from tradition and history.”

Stanford professor of public policy and management Henry Rowen, who is also a scholar at Stanford’s Asian/Pacific Research Center, said he doubts Yale’s China Law Center has made a noticeable impact on its own.

A push for reform

Naoko Kozuki ’06, who spent one summer honing her knowledge of Mandarin Chinese in Beijing, decided to venture outside of China’s capitol city to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, a “hippy-esque” area north of Vietnam that has been largely uninfluenced by the West.

Kozuki had received a fellowship to work with recovering drug addicts at China’s first voluntary rehabilitation center.

Like the China Law Center, the Yale-China Association has historically taken an indirect approach to implementing reforms in the country, said Yale-China executive director Nancy Chapman.

“We have no intention of creating an island of America in China,” Chapman said. “To this day we continue to encounter other institutions without a long history in China, and they attempt to create an American-style institution in China. It just isn’t sustainable.”

The Yale-China Association does not currently run any institutions in China, but it has sought to identify issues and problems that the United Sates has encountered and has expertise in, Chapman said. For example, in 1996, the Yale-China Association launched an HIV and AIDS initiative to train healthcare personnel to deal with the disease. And when SARS broke out in 2002, Yale moved swiftly to help China deal with the health crisis.

“What happened was really astonishing,” Yiengraksawan said. “We brought people from all over, and a contingent from China. We got a group of people to sit together from really divergent perspectives in a neutral setting: Yale.”

But Kozuki said the changes she observed last summer — such as a growing awareness that criminality is not innate — were the result of a growing liberalism among the public, and are not necessarily tied to the efforts of any Western institutions working in China.

“I think this kind of one-on-one interaction that Yale is trying to administer, and other programs that China is trying to administer, is definitely one way of opening up China, but it’s kind of hard to say the level of impact it has,” she said.

Chapman too said she sees Yale’s overall impact as minimal. Schools like Stanford, Oberlin, Princeton and Harvard have non-governmental organizations in China that provide English language instruction as well as economic and legal advice, so Chapman said she does not consider Yale’s efforts to be “that unique.”

“I think it’s very important for Americans to remember that reform in China is Chinese-driven,” Chapman said. “We’re there to be supportive.”

An economy booms

William Zhou, a Chinese language professor at Yale, can recall a time not too long ago in China when basic personal items like watches and telephones were rare, and cars were rarer still. Now, the country is developing so rapidly that Zhou said he cannot give directions to taxi drivers because all the landmark buildings he remembers have been replaced.

“Just about 15 years ago when I was making plans to come to America, we didn’t have private phones,” Zhou said. “Now if you go to Beijing, everybody has a cell phone … Those cell phones I’ve never seen in America, they’re so fancy. People’s living standards are improving so much.”

Though large swaths of China’s rural interior remain underdeveloped, the country’s prospects for future growth look good, Bader said.

“China’s been growing at 9.5 percent [gross domestic product] per year since 1978. Now China’s behavior moves markets,” he said. “The price of gasoline is affected by Chinese growth; the Chinese own over $200 billion of the U.S. Treasury. China’s now a major economic player, our second biggest trading partner in the world.”

But some experts believe China’s communist government is an obstacle in the country’s modernization and development. Rowen said he thinks the country’s current government can only retain control by sparking economic growth.

“It’s a Leninist system, it is one-party ruled, and that’s inherently not stable,” Rowen said. “The party depends very much for its own sustaining, its dominance, its monopoly of power, on continuing to produce economic benefits.”

Rowen said he thinks continued economic progress over time will invariably lead to democracy in China, perhaps as early as 2015, because the economic developments in the country have led to a growth of civic freedoms.

“If you take the civic freedoms side — freedom of the press, freedom of employment, freedom of religion — there’s actually been a big advance in China … over the last 10 years,” Rowen said. “If you look at the political side, it’s basically frozen. So there’s a built-in tension there between growing personal liberties and changing political liberties. Well, if this goes on for a long time, something’s going to give.”

For Chinese natives, the question of freedom and democracy in China seems somewhat different. Xin Ma ’06, a native of Shanghai, said she thinks the Chinese government is doing a good job of addressing economic development before moving toward democracy.

“I’m very proud of the dynamics of everything in my country,” Ma said. “Economic-wise it’s going very fast right now, but definitely there are problems with this really fast development … By and large they’re doing a pretty good job keeping the country stable.”

Yiengpraksawan said she thinks Levin’s focus on building ties to cultural and educational institutions in China, as well as his broader goal of forging ties with other Asian countries such as India and Japan, will ensure that Yale’s influence in East Asia will continue.

“I can see that if we build these ties in a cultural and educational context, that whatever happens with the government, there will still be people who want to continue these ties,” Yiengpraksawan said. “I think we have to be cautious in dealing with China, but … China is really interested in us; it’s mutual. In terms of having any impact, [Levin] will be successful because he’s familiar with Japan, Korea … It’s China in the context of its East Asian neighbors.”

As the quality of life improves in China, growing numbers of Chinese students who chose to attend college in the United States are returning to their homeland after graduation, Rowen said.

Jun Ding will likely be one of these students. Although she plans to work in the United States for a few years after graduation to bolster her work experience, she eventually hopes to return home to Beijing, where she expects to reap the benefits of China’s growing economy.

“If I go to Beijing after a few years, I can live a really good life, eat wherever I want, get massages, go to spas,” Ding said. “But if I lived in the U.S., I’d be a normal college graduate, paying rent, buying a car.”