China at 70: The First Fulbright Program

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. We spend so much time in school learning about WWII, but very little attention is paid to China and the Pacific Theater in the years that followed–the history curriculum, at least in the US, seems to jump from WWII to the Vietnam War. Beyond knowing who Chairman Mao was, I really didn’t know much about the 1949 revolution before reading a book for my thesis research, Wilma Fairbank’s America’s Cultural Experiment in China, 1942-1949 (Washington: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, 1976).

Histories of US exchange diplomacy often make the Fulbright Program sound like a higher ed version of the Marshall Plan, suggesting it was a post-war effort to rebuild Europe that ultimately turned into a Cold War tool, as well. But although Europe is home to some of the largest exchange programs, the first Fulbright Program was actually with China.

from Fairbank, 1976, p. 155

It took about 7 months of negotiations between the US and China to finally reach an exchange agreement that would establish this first Fulbright Program. Part of the delay was due to disagreements over control (the US insisted on a directing board made up entirely of Americans) and the question of how the new program would differ from existing educational exchanges under the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program. Established in 1908, the program created scholarships for Chinese students to study in the US out of funds that had been paid by China to the US (indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion). The Chinese government had control over that exchange scheme, while Fulbright would be a US-administered activity, with completely different funding arrangements, but the Foreign Minister expressed concerns “that it will be impossible to explain these distinctions to Chinese public opinion.” (p. 156). Economic instability was another challenge–inflation and exchange rates fluctuated and it was difficult for administrators to predict exactly how much a grantee would need for a year’s stay.

Even after the agreement was reached in November 1947, it wasn’t until March 1948 that the program was established enough to actually launch exchanges. The first grantee, Derk Bodde, a Professor of Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania, was contacted by Washington officials, who asked if he would be prepared to go to China as a Fulbright Fellow. “We would like an immediate decision, if possible, so that we can make a press release today to say that the Fulbright Program has been started.” (p. 174). It had been 18 months since the Fulbright Act had been signed, so they were keen to start it and Professor Bodde was, in his words, “tremendously happy to go.” (p. 175)

A total of 27 Americans were able to take up their Fulbright grants to China in that initial cohort, with 18 of them based in Peking by the end of October 1948. 14 other American grantees’ awards were “suspended due to conditions in China” as the conflict developed (p. 178). For those in the country, questions of safety soon arose and it wasn’t clear what should be done to address it.

On November 1, 1948, Mukden fell to the Communists, marking the final defeat of the Nationalist forces in Manchuria. The imminence of the southward advance on Peking was obvious.

This developing crisis demanded some prompt action by the Foundation. Order the Fulbright fellows out of Peking? Send a rescue plane to move them and their few dependents to safety? Perhaps even send them home in view of the increasing hopelessness of the military outlook for the Nationalists? The Fulbright program was, after all, financed by Chinese Government currency which was not only plunging rapidly to new lows but would certainly not be accepted in areas controlled by the Communists.”

Fairbank, 1976, p. 179

The Foundation decided not to terminate the program, and ultimately managed to support all of the grantees who wished to stay in China for the year. This small group of American Fulbrighters was lucky to have the experience, despite the uncertainty and challenges they faced, because China had been largely off-limits for American scholars from 1937 to 1945 (due to the Sino-Japanese war and WWII), and would be again for many years to come. The 1948-49 academic year was, therefore, a unique moment in US-Chinese relations and exchange diplomacy.

American officials maintained some hope for the continuation of the program well into the summer of 1949, despite Communist advances and funding challenges due to the devaluation of the yuan–for example, “the final telegraphic transfer of funds to grantees in Canton had involved losing the equivalent of 87 cents on the dollar” (p. 196)! Cultural Attache George Harris asked the department to “undertake to assure the availability of funds for continued educational exchange activities in China should events render a program possible.” (p. 197).

By August 31st, however, the program was suspended. Funds were exhausted and “Communist policy showed no hope for continuation of the program on the China mainland.” (p. 198). The Fulbright Program in China was resumed with the normalization of US-Chinese relations in 1979, and has continued and grown ever since (apart from a suspension in the 1989-90 academic year, in response to US criticism of China’s violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square)

Several interesting lessons can be taken away from America’s Cultural Experiment in China, and this first Fulbright Program highlights some key points about the nature of exchange diplomacy.

  • There have been attempts to politicise the program from its very beginnings.
    • W. Bradley Connors, Acting Director of USIS in China, suggested that Fulbright professors should “explain our democracy and way of life to their Chinese students, who will take an important interest in explaining to students the fallacies of their anti-American sentiments, making this phase of their work as important as their own courses and lectures. Only in this way can we obtain full value from such exchanges.” (p. 204)
  • Those attempts have been consistently resisted, and academic integrity has been prioritised from the beginning.
    • “Fortunately, the Board of Foreign Scholarships had been established for the express purpose of selecting grantees on their scholarly qualifications, not their usefulness for political ends.” (p. 204)
    • “And in Nanking the personnel of the Board and of the Foundation were wholly devoted to furthering the scholarly aims of the grantees, which could be attained in the circumstances only by their remaining aloof from political involvement.” (p. 204)
  • There’s a discrepancy between what Washington might think happens and what actually happens in the field.
    • “The U.S. Government expenditures for cultural relations programs were justified in Washington for various nationalistic and public relations ends–to make friends abroad, to enhance the American image, to counter Axis propaganda and, in the case of China, to give educational and technical assistance to a wartime ally.” (p. 205)
    • “But in the field, public relations was never the primary aim, and the enhancement of the American image in China occurred only as a byproduct of a job well done. What was actually taking place at the Point of Contact was a transference of ideas, skills, knowledge, understanding, and human feeling from persons of one culture to those of another, directly or through various media.” (p. 205)

Further reading on US-China exchanges:

Fu, M. and Zhao, X. 2017. “Utilizing the Effects of the Fulbright Program in Contemporary China: Motivational Elements in Chinese Scholars’ Post-Fulbright Life” Cambridge Journal of China Studies, 12(3), pp. 1-26.

Li, H. 2008. U.S.-China Educational Exchange: State, Society, and Intercultural Relations, 1905-1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Xu, G. 1999. The Ideological and Political Impact of U.S. Fulbrighters on Chinese Students: 1979–1989. Asian Affairs, 26 (3), pp. 139–157.

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