Being Lectured in Tsinghua

On Oct 21 it was the first day that felt like autumn in Beijing – air crisp, leaves yellow, hands dry, cheeks rosy, jackets on. Elaine Chao, former U.S. secretary of labor was revisiting Tsinghua University for the first time in ten years. She came with her loving father and younger sister to discuss the importance of East and West Cultural Exchange.

It was a full house. More than 300 students from Tsinghua registered for the event days in advance. Today many of them arrived more than 30 minutes early. Chao and her party were 45 minutes late. No apology. This seems to be a thing in China, in the lectures that I’ve attended, the keynote speaker arrives at least 30 minutes late and go at least thirty minutes over time.

This is the second lecture by American bigshots I’ve attended at Tsinghua. I have to say I am thoroughly disappointed once again (the first lecture I attended here was given by Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO). If I was a student at Tsinghua I’d think Americans are full of hot air. American speakers lecture at the audience as though they were twelve year olds getting lockers to decorate for the first time.

Prior to the lecture, we were asked not to quote or publish the content of the speech so I’ll focus on style. For a good 25 minutes, Chao listed eight stereotypical bullet points about Americans that felt like they was ripped off a subpar BuzzFeed-esque listicle online (BuzzFeed can be pretty good). Perhaps this was to compensate for the language barrier, but I would be insulted if someone believed my English comprehension was so elementary in this setting.

And I stayed. I stayed through the entire lecture to see if things got better.

The Q and A session began. I remember one of the audience members clearly. She was an ethnically Chinese student from Europe attending Tsinghua for graduate school. She stood up proudly; her voice quivered with emotion as she passionately asked her question – only to find it dodged.

I stayed for three more questions.

Each were masterfully dodged.

As a student at Tsinghua University face-to-face with a prominent representative of the U.S., how would this encounter effect the way you view the States?

There was a point Chao made that had some substance.

She mentioned the news coverage of a conversation between the President Bush and Wu Yi, China’s then vice premier, during a photo session that was mistaken as an argument by mainstream American media during her time serving as the Secretary of Labor. I wish she could have expanded on that experience and the greater impactions of it.

Since this content was supposedly already published, I thought it couldn’t hurt to look into it a little more and write about it.

I went online to do a quick LexisNexis and a google news search of the keywords “Bush” and “Wu Yi” on the days that they met in 2006 and 2007, unfortunately I was unable to find any news report that mentioned anything of the sort that Chao described. I wouldn’t think an article like that would be so hard to find. But then again, it wasn’t a deep search for the articles, and that’s not the origin of my disappointment.

I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if the title of the lecture matched the content and if the lecturers here took the students here seriously.

I recall the lectures I attended in Madison. They’re usually quite an intimate setting, and speakers are pretty candid. Or perhaps this is another aspect of cultural barriers? Maybe it was only me the American minded individual that thought this lecture was off.

I wish I could have stayed to ask questions to the students there. And I have to remember again her positions, Elaine Chao, is a politician her husband, Mitch McConnell is still serving I suppose anything she says might hurt his image.

But I can’t help but view this odd behavior towards the students here as a form of self-censorship – whether consciously or unconsciously — is the “soft” power of China.