October 13, 2005

C.U. Celebrates New Asia-Pacific Major

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Students, faculty and administrators packed McGraw 165 to the brim yesterday to celebrate Cornell’s new undergraduate major in China and Asia-Pacific Studies (CAPS). The event began with an explanation of the CAPS major and the dedication of the Michael J. Zak Chair of History for U.S.-China Relations, and culminated in a lecture by the first person to fill that chair, Prof. Chen Jian. The CAPS major, offering its first courses this fall, blends an academic exploration of the policy, history, politics and culture of China with a unique focus on intensive language learning and off-campus experiences. As such, CAPS majors are required to take three years of Chinese before their senior year. Students also spend two semesters abroad – one in Washington and one in Beijing – where they continue with language training and coursework while also working in an externship with a China-oriented agency or institution.

President Hunter R. Rawlings III, who has supported the CAPS program from the beginning and spoke at the event yesterday, emphasized the importance of the “on-the-ground education” provided in the major, and said the program “would carry a serious authority for those who major in it.”

G. Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, called CAPS “one of the most rigorous majors in the college.”

Although the CAPS major is only now becoming available to freshmen and sophomores, the idea for the major has been in the works for years – some might even say it started when Michael Zak ’75, who initially proposed the idea for CAPS and donated $5 million to the program, took two years of Chinese language courses as a Cornell engineering undergraduate. Although Zak went on to a career as a venture capitalist, he carried with him a passion for East Asian studies.

It was after Zak heard of the incident in April, 2001 when a U.S. naval patrol aircraft on a routine surveillance mission collided with a Chinese fighter that had been shadowing it that he truly began to question routes to improving U.S.-China relations. As he put it, after the plane collision, “anybody has to ask how these things happen and how we can keep these things from happening.”

For Zak, the answer lies in education and leadership development. It was his concern for providing the necessary tools for creating leaders in U.S.-China relations that brought Zak back to his alma mater, where he worked to create the CAPS program with CAPS Director Sherman Cochran, as well as Peter Katzenstein, government, Walter LaFeber, history,and Theodore Lowi, government.

In addition to celebrating the vision of Zak and the launch of the CAPS major, yesterday’s event also dedicated the Michael J. Zak Chair of History for U.S.-China Relations to Chen Jian, a preeminent scholar who Cochran describes as “the best U.S.-China policy scholar who is writing today – in any language.”

Jian delivered a speech entitled “The ‘China Challenge’ in the 21st Century: A Historic Perspective.”

He argued against the China Threat Thesis – the idea that China’s rapid economic growth in the past three decades is a threat to the United States. Instead, Jian said, countries should join together with China to address the problems created by China’s recent development through mutual respect and understanding.

Jian also warned that the China Threat Thesis runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If China is not a threat, but we continue to treat them as though they are, Jian argued, then China will feel more threatened and buy more weapons, thus creating the threat that previously didn’t exist.

In an optimistic conclusion, Jian stressed the role that CAPS students can play in this challenge of understanding China’s economic growth, and expressed his dream of eventually seeing one of his CAPS students playing a critical role in U.S.-China relations.

At the end of his talk, Jian noted that some audience members seemed to think he was being too idealistic. His response was that historians have the advantage of being permitted more idealism than political scientists, to which he added that he will “always believe we historians are more capable than most political scientists.”

Of course, idealism is not the only quality Jian brings to Cornell. According to Rawlings, “he plays a mean game of ping-pong,” to which Jian responded, “I’m not a mean person. I’m just good at it.”

Archived article by Samantha Henig
Sun Contributor