BEIJING — Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush joined Cornell University’s Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III at the Beijing Forum opening ceremonies yesterday in a speech where the former expressed his “unabashed optimism” for the future of the Asia-Pacific region.
“As long as China continues to emerge as a strong and respected power, it is committed to a peaceful rising, I will remain an optimist about Asia and our common future,” Bush said. “We have a historic opportunity at hand … to leave behind the tired baggage of ancient animosities and work together for a common future marked by human rights and opportunities for all.”
Rawlings took the opportunity to speak on what he believed constituted a “modern research university” in the context of strengthening ties between American and Chinese institutions of higher education.
“Today … higher education is playing a significant role in China’s aspirations for the future, and the scale of the endeavor has expanded exponentially,” he said. “In 1910, Hu Shih [’14] was one of 70 Chinese students to come to the United States on a scholarship. Today, approximately 20,000 Chinese students study at American colleges and universities each year.”
Bush began his speech by acknowledging a few participants of the forum, including the Cornell delegation.
“I also want to salute one of our great universities in the United States: Cornell University,” Bush said. “To have the president of Cornell here you can see that President Rawlings brought [several] people with him and they’re all clapping for him out there. We salute you sir, and we’re just delighted you’re participating in this forum.”
Yesterday marked the start of the second year of the Beijing Forum, which is essentially a summit of academic, intellectual and other influential leaders from around the world. The opening ceremonies saw approximately 800 people situated in the Great Hall of the People as dignitaries such as Bush, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Joseph Verner Reed, and the Chinese vice minister of education Qidi Wu, welcomed its participants.
In speaking about improving U.S.-China relations, Rawlings repeatedly quoted Hu Shih, one of Cornell’s alumni who went on to begin what many call a Chinese literary renaissance in the early 20th century.
“Hu Shih observed, ‘Contact with strange civilizations brings new standards of value with which the native culture is re-examined and re-evaluated, and conscious reformation and regeneration are the natural outcome of such transvaluation of values,’” Rawlings said. “That remains true today, for America as much as for China.”
Rawlings is in China this week not only to attend this forum but also to play a part in this U.S.-China exchange that the forum is helping to encourage. On Tuesday, he signed the China and Asia-Pacific Studies (CAPS) Program agreement with Peking University, and today, he will visit Tsinghua University to attend the first of several Cornell-Tsinghua Computer Science Workshops in an effort to strengthen both schools’ research and study in engineering and its related fields.
“I believe that China, as it moves forward to claim its place in the knowledge economy, can benefit from the experiences of other nations and that it can also provide perspectives that will be valuable elsewhere, including at universities in the United States,” Rawlings said during his speech at the forum. “I believe that a pattern of two-way exchange of information and people is in the best interests of Chinese and American universities. And in a larger sense, it is also in the interests of promoting peace, prosperity and harmony in an increasingly interconnected world.”
To go with Rawlings’ theme of the “two-way street,” there has also been significant discussion about bringing Peking University students to Cornell for a semester or a year, in order to reciprocate the CAPS majors who will spend a semester in Beijing. While there has been no conclusive agreement, the Peking and Cornell administrations promised to work on such a program in the future.
Rawlings also visited the Ministry of Education yesterday afternoon to speak with Ji Zhou, the Chinese minister of education. Rawlings and Zhou spoke about a number of new Chinese government-sponsored initiatives, including a plan to open up 10,000 more vocational schools in rural areas. Rawlings also discussed the CAPS major and Cornell’s increasing relations with institutions such as Peking and Tsinghua Universities.
“It is a high priority for China to have more interaction and collaboration with … overseas universities,” Rawlings said after the meeting. “The minister was very pleased about the closer ties between Cornell and Peking and Tsinghua.”
Rawlings and Prof. Chen Jian, history, also took the opportunity to discuss a fungi collection currently housed at Cornell. According to Rawlings, the collection was originally arranged in China by a Cornell alumnus in the 1930s. When World War II broke out, the alumnus feared for the safety of the collection, and at first moved it to Japan, but eventually sent it to Cornell for safekeeping. The collection consists of over 200 different species of fungi, and reportedly has several rare kinds of fungi that scientists do not otherwise have access to.
Rawlings indicated after the meeting that Cornell plans to repatriate the collection to China, and told this news to Zhou. The plan, according to Rawlings, is to ask a Chinese leader to attend a formal repatriation ceremony at Cornell so the fungi collection can be returned. While no agreements were made, both parties agreed to work on making such an event possible.
Rawlings will spend this morning at Tsinghua University playing pingpong with Tsinghua University President Binglin Gu and attending the joint computer science workshop. He will then fly to Shanghai later this afternoon to meet with city officials.
The Sun’s coverage of President Rawlings’ trip to China has been co-sponsored by Cornell University.