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The Fairbank Center Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration, Remarks by Harvard University Lawrence H. Summers

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Roderick MacFarquhar, thank you very much for that generous introduction. It is great to be here at the Fairbank Center to celebrate this terrific occasion. Let me first, Rod, thank you for your leadership at the Fairbank Center, both in the past and this year. We are very lucky to have you at Harvard. I also want to thank Jim and Ginnie Welch and John and Polly Guth for all that they have done over the years to support this center and to bring it to this point. Thank you for everything you have done for the Fairbank Center.

I also want to acknowledge someone who played a large role in your discussion this afternoon, the Dean of the Faculty, Bill Kirby, whose expertise on all matters Chinese has made great contributions to all the faculty’s work here. Bill and I are here today to discuss whether Harvard should remain an American university or whether it should become a Chinese university. So far I am prevailing on that question, but the power of economies are moving in the opposite direction.

I want to begin by saying how important the Fairbank Center has been as a model for the University. As I read its history last night, I thought about how much the Fairbank Center embodies the features we describe as being important for the University. We emphasize the importance of looking to the whole world and looking beyond Europe, something the Fairbank Center has been doing for 50 years, not just because it is important, but because there is a great deal that happens in all parts of the world that is intellectually significant.

We emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives, of bringing together the kind of perspectives that come from history, from political science, from economics, from sociology, from anthropology, from the various professions, and the Fairbank Center has been doing that for a very long time. Indeed, it was one of John Fairbank’s many bits of genius to recognize that in studying the evolution of a part of the world it was important to have the proper historical perspective, but also to look to the various perspectives of the different social sciences and humanities. It is one of the things that has contributed to the great strength of this center over its 50 years.

A third feature we emphasize is also something that the Fairbank Center has embodied since its founding. That is the importance of cooperation between Harvard and all of the universities in this area. We believe that Harvard contributes greatly to the academic strength, and the strength more generally, of the Boston area. But it is also true that we derive enormous benefits from the opportunities to work with colleagues in our sister institutions, and certainly that is the case here. I want to emphasize in particular the contributions of Paul Cohen and Merle Goldman to the great strength of the Fairbank Center. I believe that the greatest universities will make their contributions by serving as hubs of networks that involve scholars from many different institutions. It is a point that was brought out to me very powerfully just in the last few minutes as Rod introduced me to a number of people who come from many, many different places to this hub of study.

I also would suggest to you that, given the importance of the Fairbank Center over the past half-century, there is every reason to expect that its work is going to be even more important in the next half-century. Here are some observations just from my discipline of economics:

  • The Chinese interstate highway system will be larger than the American interstate highway system in 15 years.

  • The United States graduated 70,000 engineers last year; China graduated 500,000 engineers.

  • There is no period in American history when living standards increased by a factor of more than six between the time when the average person was born and died, if that person lived a full lifespan. At current growth rates, living standards in China will rise fifty-fold within a single human life span, something that has never before been seen in the history of the world.

  • We are the largest debtor nation in the world, and no small part of its financing is coming from China, currently the largest buyer of the debt Treasury bills that finance the U.S. government deficit.

I could go on with the economics here, but that is not our subject today. Those with other varied expertise could talk about the growing and increasingly pervasive influence of China in many different spheres as well.

The most important questions that will define the way the political history of the next century is written will be: How does China define its greatness over the next century? How does the United States define its greatness over the next century? And how do those two questions interrelate? There are no more important questions than those when considering the foreign policy of the United States over the coming years. There are no more important questions for those going forth from the United States to seek their fortune in the global economy. There is nothing more important for those seeking to understand the way global society is changing than an understanding of the forces that have shaped China for a millennium, and the forces that are going to shape China going forward.

That is why the scholarship that takes place here, whether it is my old friend Dwight Perkins’ work understanding the processes of economic reform in China; whether it is Phil Kuhn’s understanding the deeper historical roots of the evolution of China; whether it is Professor Perry’s work understanding the patterns of rebellions that arise and the extent to which those rebellions endure and have a lasting impact; whether it is Professor MacFarquhar’s work illuminating how cataclysm can come to a society; or whether it is the work of many others here, and many others who cannot be here but who are affiliated with this center.

It is not true of very many areas of study, but it is true that the study of China will be very hard for any great university to overdo. The risks are all on the side of not understanding enough, of not building enough bridges, of not doing enough. That is why the scholarly work of the Fairbank Center will continue to be so profoundly important in the years ahead, because that work contributes directly to our understanding of China, and contributes with enormous leverage.

I say enormous leverage because of the students that the center trains. After all, if you look at the China field, and you look at those who have led it over the last quarter-century, you can see in so many ways the direct impact of those who studied here; the second-generation impact of those who studied here and then trained others; the third- generation impact, and so forth. You can see, and I see it as I travel and as I meet people, the enormous impact on those who had a chance to spend a year here, as a post doc or as a visitor, the impact that this opportunity has on their careers and on all the people that they touch.

So I am flattered and honored by that kind introduction, Rod, and even more flattered and honored by the opportunity to join you in celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of something that has made such a great contribution to Harvard and to the world. I have every expectation that when we all come together – though I do not expect to be in my present position – for the Hundredth Anniversary of the Fairbank Center, that there will be exponentially more to celebrate.