It was an unusually clear day in Beijing as I stood on the 36th floor of the IFC Tower B, looking out at a city that sprawled until the edges of the horizon. Directly below, tens of thousands of passersby and cars crossed paths in one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods — the Chaoyang central business district, where multinational companies are headquartered and skyscrapers mark the landscape like trees in a forest. Vestiges of the old imperial Beijing — its city walls and Chinese-style drum towers — were outnumbered by the towering steel-and-concrete structures. Modernity flourished and the dreams of a more prosperous and powerful future were palpable in the air. In Beijing, especially in Chaoyang, people looked forward and upward.

The Yale Center Beijing, which occupies the entire floor, shared these aspirations. At the reception, big letters in Yale blue announced the University’s first such center in the world. Inside, the décor was simple but elegant: glass walls, light wood paneling and a few splashes of color; several offices, conference rooms and lecture spaces, all furnished with videoconferencing technology to connect Beijing with New Haven. It was as if the center’s architects took the Yale School of Management and condensed it into a one-floor design.

But the center offered more than just a pretty space in one of Beijing’s most fashionable districts. Only two years since its launch, the center has already hosted a diverse repertoire of events and programs to achieve an ambitious mission: forging a deeper bond between the University and China.

“The center is very much a convening space for showcasing Yale’s 100-plus research collaborations in China and an intellectual hub for gathering thought leaders from all fields to discuss the most important issues facing the world,” Carol Li Rafferty ’00, the center’s managing director, told me during my visit in August. The center serves both as a home base for visiting Yale students and professors as well as a platform for extending Yale’s name to the local Chinese community, she said.

But several Yale students and professors interviewed said they were unaware of the center’s existence or had not visited it during their time in Beijing, mostly because it is located far away from Haidian, the city’s academic district.

“The way I found out more about [the center] is by subscribing to its WeChat page,” said Diego Fernandez-Pages ’18, who was among the 40-plus Yale students studying abroad at the Harvard Beijing Academy this summer on the Richard U. Light Fellowship, which is funding almost 100 Yalies to study in China between summer 2016 and spring 2017. “It was completely by my own impulse. I wanted to find out more about [the center] so I looked it up, but Yale Center Beijing did not do any direct advertisements to Yale students in Beijing.”

Fernandez-Pages visited the center only once during his two-month stay in Beijing, to attend history and American Studies professor Mary Lui’s talk on a Chinatown murder mystery. He saw just two other Yale undergraduates at the event.

Rafferty and other center administrators said they would love to see more Yalies make use of the center and its resources, especially given its relative lack of awareness on campus and among Yalies in Beijing.

The center’s major donors and Yale alumni in Beijing, however, are not so worried. For them, the center is symbolic of a high-level, metaphysical relationship between Yale and Beijing, a brick-and-mortar front connecting one of the leading universities in America with the political and business capital of one of the most powerful countries in Asia. The center is not so much a resting place for students and professors as it is a space for gathering “thought leaders” from different fields to engage in critical conversations. In their eyes, Yale Center Beijing represents something that is larger than the University itself.

In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale College and, for that matter, any American university. When he returned to China, he petitioned the Qing government to launch the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought more Chinese students to study abroad in the United States. Many of these students attended prestigious universities in the Northeast and went on to play important roles in China’s modernization.

But to Yung Wing’s dismay, in 1881, the Chinese government withdrew support for the mission and ordered him and his students back to China when anti-Chinese sentiments flared up in the United States (the Chinese Exclusion Act suspending Chinese immigration was passed just a year later). Still, Yung Wing left an important legacy in American education — especially at Yale. And more than a century later, his alma mater would take advantage of that relationship to launch and nurture its first University center overseas.

“Yale is the American university with the longest history of engagement with China, stretching back almost 150 years, in a time when it was much more difficult to connect with China,” said David Bach, the School of Management’s senior associate dean for the executive MBA and global programs, who oversees the center’s operations from New Haven. “And China today is such a critical country in terms of its size, importance and history, and such an important country for Yale University, that when the question arose as to where it makes sense to have the first center of its kind in the world, it was obvious that [the center] would be in China.”

Yale Center Beijing came to life in October 2014, a bold endeavor championed by former University President Richard Levin during his term and assembled with the support of Yale alumni and friends. Chinese investment fund Sequoia Capital China’s founding and managing partner Neil Shen SOM ’92 led the donation efforts, along with Bob Xu of Zhen Fund and Brad Huang SOM ’90 of Lotus Capital Management. Together, the three gave $16 million to inaugurate the center. The SOM currently handles Yale Center Beijing’s administrative tasks, but the center’s operations depend almost entirely on donations, which have not been difficult to raise because of the center’s popularity among alumni and local Chinese sponsors.

Huang remembered that Levin first approached him with the idea of establishing an independent Yale center in China when the two met for lunch in May 2010. Levin had an international mindset and was deeply interested in China, Huang said. It was during Levin’s term that Yale started a program with China’s Central Party School — an institute of higher learning run by the Chinese Communist Party — which brought future Chinese government leaders to New Haven for an educational exchange.

From the Central Party School program, it seemed natural for Levin to try to expand Yale’s presence in mainland China, so he sought Huang’s help to make the center a reality. Huang then thought of Shen as the “perfect person to lead this project financially,” and Shen in turn brought along his friend Xu, who co-founded China’s largest private educational services company New Oriental and whose son studied at Yale College.

“Yale is in a unique position to offer itself as a centerpiece in the communication and exchange [between the U.S. and China],” Shen told me. “Yale has a really long history in China and is well respected here. It should play a role in bridging the gap between many different areas and subjects — business, culture, academics, social subjects and so on.”

And Yale Center Beijing’s staff took Shen’s words to heart. Through its videoconferencing technology, the center hosted a conversation between Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, and Yu Long, a well-known Chinese conductor. Yale Law School professor Daniel Esty held a talk there with Yale World Fellow Ma Jun on the Paris climate change agreements. And Rafferty’s staff partnered with Philanthropy in Motion, an initiative started by Yale alumni, to train millennial entrepreneurs on how to make impactful social changes. A wall by the front doors of Yale Center Beijing even showcases a timeline of Yale-China relations, beginning with Yung Wing and leading all the way to present-day events.

Huang said since China is the second-largest economy in the world, it is the most important foreign country for any American entity to befriend. “The most critical relationship for Yale to develop is the one with China, so both sides need to understand each other,” he explained. Even though Yale’s various schools already have programs set up with their counterparts in China, the center exists as a hub to facilitate these exchanges and to start conversations beyond the academic world, he said. 

And Xu, who is not a Yale alumnus himself but who built his career on helping Chinese students study abroad, said he donated because he felt a “special emotional attachment to Yale.” In his view, Yale is the American university that gave the first Chinese college student in the United States — Yung Wing — his diploma, and subsequently trained generations of influential figures in China.

“I want to use [the center] to cultivate the next generation of young entrepreneurs and business leaders in China,” Xu said, referring fondly to the center as a startup-embassy blend that is bringing the Yale spirit to his country.

Bach told me that Chinese nationals are the largest non-U.S. student population at the SOM. Not surprisingly, the SOM influence on the center is strong — it is administered by the SOM, supported by well-known SOM alumni and designed with elements borrowed from the SOM’s physical appearance. But Bach and Rafferty stressed that the place aims to serve the entire University.

Shen, Huang and Xu, however, rarely mentioned Yale professors and students during our conversations about the center, and Yale students interviewed seem to disagree with Bach and Rafferty’s characterization. Yale Center Beijing, several said, does not feel like a place for them.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-5-39-27-pm

In real estate, only three things matter: location, location, location.

With Line 1 of the Beijing subway running directly below the building and major highways crisscrossing in the surrounding area, Yale Center Beijing’s lofty nest in Chaoyang is no exception to the rule.

“Given our location [in the Chaoyang district], we have a pulse on everything that’s happening in Beijing,” Rafferty said. She believes the center is able to assemble distinguished speakers, industry leaders and interested attendees more easily than if it were established in the Haidian district, where Chinese universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University as well as most other American university centers are located.

Daniel Murphy, Yale Center Beijing’s program director based in New Haven, explained that the Chaoyang district contains embassies, nonprofit organizations, international and domestic media, as well as Chinese and multinational companies, as opposed to the strictly academic institutions found in Haidian. Individual Yale professors and departments may have partnerships with the universities in Haidian, but under one of Beijing’s most open-minded municipal governments, Murphy said Yale Center Beijing has the independence in Chaoyang to assemble leaders from more diverse walks of life.

“We see this as reimagining education and redefining leadership,” Rafferty said. “You don’t have to be at school to understand all this information. You can come to a talk here [at the center]. It goes into improving the world, and it’s not just about professors in ivory towers coming up with the solutions.”

Yale Center Beijing has hosted over 200 events and programs since its inauguration, and the center’s official WeChat account has close to 15,000 followers, many of whom have no Yale affiliation. In fact, half of all events at the center have been open for the general public to attend. Shen’s fund Sequoia Capital China, for example, will use the center’s space to launch an executive program this October to train leaders of the fastest-growing startup companies in its portfolio. Shen said he chose to host the program at Yale Center Beijing in part because of its ideal location in the central business district.

No wonder Yale Center Beijing is the most active university center among its peers in China, Rafferty said proudly, with the highest number of events and attendees across the board.

Yet while Rafferty and Murphy spoke fondly of the center’s home in Chaoyang’s central business district, Yale students interviewed said the area’s business influence can easily overpower the center’s educational mission.

“People think about business when they see the center. It’s like another SOM in Beijing — it’s very corporate and it doesn’t have a college feel to it,” said Dale Zhong ’19, a native of Beijing who is also the public relations chair of the Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale. “[Yale Center Beijing] is a place where you have official talks and people dress in formal attire. Maybe the location is making it difficult for the center’s staff to build an educational platform.”

Zhong was in charge of organizing a retreat for CUSY over the summer, and he chose not to plan the event at the center. The reason, he said, is because he was looking for a more informal and relaxed atmosphere — and he also managed to secure a different space free of charge.

Others who are visiting Beijing for a short period of time may be simply unaware or uninterested. Not including Fernandez-Pages, five other Light Fellows who spent the past summer abroad in Beijing said they did not visit the center.

“[Yale Center Beijing] didn’t have any events specific to Yale students, for better or for worse,” Fernandez-Pages said. He added that the hourlong commute between Chaoyang and Haidian is not the real problem, given that most of his peers at the Harvard Beijing Academy would take the same amount of time to travel to Sanlitun, another area in Chaoyang that offers popular dining and entertainment options.

Yale Daily News analysis on Yale-NUS that was published last semester described the University’s experiment in Singapore as “an island on an island.” Yale faced many difficulties in starting a liberal arts institution under an authoritarian government, and the article noted that local Singaporeans are still largely unaware of the college’s existence.

Yale Center Beijing, on the other hand, has become a favorite among Beijingers and has hosted events that attract people from provinces as far south as Guangdong. But it, too, is an experiment in Asia that is as exciting as it is challenging. And for Yale Center Beijing, that challenge is fulfilling the most fundamental purpose of providing a physical home to Yale professors and students in Beijing.

“Yale doesn’t have a systematic academic environment,” said Serene Li ’17, another native of Beijing who interned at Yale Center Beijing this past summer. “It’s not quite serving the faculty, staff and students on campus.” But, Li added, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-5-40-55-pm

Yale is hardly alone in its endeavor to create a physical presence in China.

Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania are among the American higher-education institutions that have opened university centers in Beijing over the past eight years. Harvard established its center in Shanghai in 2010, and New York University and Duke even formed ambitious joint ventures with local Chinese universities to launch degree-granting campuses in mainland China.

But according to Rafferty, Yale’s center is neither an extension of the business school with a primary focus on providing executive education like the Penn-Wharton Center, nor is it a full-fledged campus like NYU Shanghai or Duke Kunshan University.

“The center is a way of testing the waters of what the best way is for Yale to engage with China,” Rafferty said. “Every [American university] has different objectives. I would say that for Yale, this [center] has been envisioned as a space to showcase our work rather than to be a traditional education institute.”

The original sum of $16 million, along with subsequent alumni giving, is enough to keep the center afloat for five years. And according to Bach, the Yale administration is likely to call for a structured review of the center near the end of this period.

At that time, Rafferty explained the University will determine what the appropriate size of its footprint in China should be, as well as how the center should be updated to reflect that decision.

“China is a place of dynamic change,” Murphy emphasized. “And we’re a new organization in a fast-changing environment, so that means being flexible, nimble, innovative and continuously engaged in a process of self-introspection to think about what we do and how we can do it better.”

Huang is confident that the center will survive the test — fundraising is a continuous and successful effort, so money should not be a problem. The purpose of facilitating Yale-China relations is also unshakable, he said. Perhaps the only change he can think of is buying a permanent location for the center, as Yale Center Beijing currently rents its space.

The other two donors echoed Huang’s thoughts and said they refuse to see the center perish. Xu even proposed starting a Yale executive program at the center that could generate extra income.

“What I would like to see happen is for the center to expand and evolve into something with a more educational function and a more structured program,” he said, adding that a full-fledged Yale campus in China is “unavoidable” in the next five to 10 years.

But Bach’s assessment of the center and its growth is more conservative — he said it should be more than a representative office for visiting Yale students and professors, but it will not become a joint venture with a local Chinese university any time soon.

“Yale is really nicely in the middle,” Bach said. “It’s broad in scope for the entire University, it’s bigger than just an office with a couple of staff looking out for the interests of the University and its stakeholders, but it’s not anywhere near a full-fledged campus, nor can it become that.”

As part of her internship this summer, Li was tasked with performing a competitive analysis of Yale Center Beijing with other American university centers in China. The results were strongly in favor of the center — it was doing well, especially among the Chinese public. Now, Li wants to take another step forward and improve on the center’s ability to reach more local Chinese by live-streaming events.

“If Yale’s current advantage gets amplified, I would prefer having this advantage over cultivating an academic focus to serve its own campus,” Li said.

Yale students, faculty, administrators and alumni all have different ideas about what shape the center should take and whom it should serve, but those familiar with the center believe that Yale’s effort to reach out to the local Chinese community should continue to be one of its top priorities.

Major donor Neil Shen said he gave money to found the center with the purpose of allowing Chinese people who cannot visit Yale to interact with experts from the University and beyond. The center may have a Yale label, he said, but its presence can benefit those outside of the immediate Yale bubble as well.

“I think all these centers set up by American and European academic institutions in China can give people more exposure to the cultural, economic, academic and various other aspects of the U.S. and Europe.” said Shen, who thinks having more university centers in China is ultimately a good thing. “Collectively, I call them ambassadors serving tomorrow.”