On the first full day of the Yale 100’s trip to China, the group was confronted with a packed schedule: an alumni breakfast event, smaller meetings with Chinese government officials, a lunch with Chinese students and visits to the Forbidden City, a Peking duck restaurant and the Beijing Opera.

Alumni breakfast

The Yalies were up bright and early Thursday for a breakfast hosted by the Yale Club of Beijing, which featured an address by U.S. Ambassador to China Clark “Sandy” Randt ’68.

Sandy Randt1

U.S. Ambassador to China Clark Randt ’68 addresses the Yale delegation. (Michael Blank/YDN)

In a brief discussion of the U.S.-China relationship, Randt discussed the Strategic Economic Dialogue, North Korea, human rights and religious freedom, and the environment. He also answered students’ questions about cultural exchange, economics and the environment.

While Randt was largely optimistic about relations between the two countries, he was less conclusive about the possibility of change on the issue of human rights in China. While it is a “daily area of discussion,” he said, China’s deemphasis of human rights stems from its cultural tradition.

“Our tradition is focused on the individual and rights, and … here society as a whole is valued over the individual, and harmony is key,” Randt said.

Also in attendance was a descendant of Yung Wing, class of 1854 — the first Chinese recipient of an American college degree — and descendants of the “China 120,” a group of 120 Chinese students sent to America to study in a Yale-affiliated program in the 19th century, five of whom eventually earned Yale degrees.

At the breakfast, Wen He Education — a company focused on improving the teaching and testing of spoken English in China — announced a donation of RMB 88,000, or about $12,500, to the Yale Club of Beijing’s Project Kick Start. The project supports needy Chinese students from rural areas during their first year of college in the city.

Meetings with Chinese government officials

After breakfast, the delegation broke into three groups for meetings with senior Chinese officials. I was in the “Blue” group, headed by Levin, which met with Jiang Zhenghua, the chairman of the Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party. The party is one of several “democratic parties” that play an advisory role in the Chinese government, which is still controlled by the Communist Party.

Blue Group

Jiang Zhenghua, center, the chairman of the Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party meets with Yale President Richard Levin and some of the students and faculty. (Courtesy Erica Smith)

Jiang said his party works in “close contact and cooperation with the Communist Party.” The party also conducts policy research and acts in a “supervisory role” toward government activities, he said.

As part of its supervisory activities, Jiang said, Peasants’ and Workers’ Party officials will share “direct criticism or direct opinions” in regular meetings with Communist Party leaders.

But before we went into the meeting, Levin warned us that while the existence of the minority “democratic parties” is often touted as an example of democratization in China, the power of the parties is still minimal.

In response to a question about the recent promotion of several non-Communist Party members to positions of power, Jiang acknowledged that the political power of the democratic parties remains relatively small. He attributed this to the Cultural Revolution, which crushed dissent in China in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and said the parties are currently in a rebuilding phase.

“There are going to be more democratic party members assuming government positions,” he said.

Jiang himself is vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

While the “Blue” group’s discussion with Jiang focused mainly on domestic political issues — including health care, urbanization and women’s participation — the “Green” group met with He Yafei, assistant minister of foreign affairs. Their discussion of China’s role in the world was wide ranging, from the U.S.-China relationship to the ongoing genocide in Sudan. The “Red” group met with Wang E Xiang, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court of China.

Green Group

He Yafei, right, and Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs, meet Thursday in Beijing. (Michael Blank/YDN)

Lunch with local college students

After the official meetings, about 30 of us were invited to a luncheon with Chinese college students, organized by China Campus magazine.

The magazine is partially student-written and student-run, and Levin joked that it was the first — and to date the only — magazine to have ever put his face on the cover. China Campus editors had invited a number of students from around Beijing to meet with Yalies at the lunch.

In a schedule so far filled with official meetings and speeches, the lunch was the first opportunity to really meet people from China, and the Yale students in attendance were enthusiastic about the event.


Two Yale students, center and right, talk to a Chinese college student. (Michael Blank/YDN)

Over the course of an hour, I met — among others — two students who are planning to come to the U.S. next fall to study, one at Georgia Tech and the other at Johns Hopkins, and another who works as a reporter for China Daily while she is a student. It was striking, however, that all of the Chinese students that I met were majoring in a science or social science field. The idea of being a history major with hopes of a career in journalism, as I am, seemed unheard of. One woman said the last time she had studied history was in high school.

While these exchanges suggested that the liberal arts have yet to take full root in the Chinese education system, the same student was curious about Yale’s mandatory distribution requirements, and she expressed enthusiasm for her “interest classes” — what we would call electives — including one on Chinese dance.

Outside the classroom, the common cultural touchstones at my table were “Friends” and “Prison Break.”

To the surprise of at least this Yalie, Levin was treated like a rock star by the Chinese students. They lined up to have their pictures taken with him one-on-one, and he also had interviews scheduled with student publications.

Tourism: The Forbidden City, Peking Duck and Beijing Opera

After the morning’s string of speeches and meetings, the afternoon was devoted to tourism, beginning with a visit to the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City2

(Michael Blank/YDN)

Forbidden City1

(Michael Blank/YDN)

Despite my best efforts to get completely and utterly lost in the narrow and apparently identical streets of the palace complex, the buses left on time for a dinner of Peking duck. The most impressive part of this dish is the nifty knifework needed to remove the meat from the bone, which is treated as a performance in a restaurant. The duck is then served wrapped in thin pancakes with scallions and duck sauce.

Dinner was followed by a brief performance by the Beijing Opera of “Havoc in the Dragon’s Palace.” There, we learned that Chinese opera, which features traditional instruments, singing, dancing and even occasional acrobatics, really bears resemblance to Western opera in name only.

Levin at Opera

A waiter serves tea to President Richard Levin, center, and Jane Levin in a dramatic fashion. (Michael Blank/YDN)

Opera Mask

An actor applies makeup in preparation for a Beijing Opera performance. (Michael Blank/YDN)

Opera Show

The show goes on. (Michael Blank/YDN)