Since officially settling at the University of Hong Kong in July this year, Li Cheng has entered a fast-paced work rhythm, covering all over the world, especially frequent travel to and from Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. On December 7, the Centre for China and the World at the University of Hong Kong, of which he is the founding director, held an inauguration ceremony. "Governance issues have never been more of a global concern than they are today," and "Hong Kong today is more than ever an international hub for studying governance issues in China and the world," the research centre's profile states. "More importantly, Hong Kong will also play a subtle but profound role in shaping the international public opinion environment." In addition, according to Li Cheng, the center will focus on five major areas at the beginning of its establishment: scientific and technological change, climate change and new energy, economic and financial reform, political elite and generational change, and Sino-US relations and geopolitical games.


Prior to settling at HKU, Li Cheng studied Xi and worked in the United States for 38 years. In 1985, he went to the United States to study for a master's degree and a doctorate, joined the Brookings Institution, a well-known think tank in the United States, in 2006, and became the first Chinese-American director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in 2014. A few days ago, Li Cheng was interviewed by "Hong Kong 01", covering Sino-US relations, technocrats, middle class, etc., which are all areas of Li Cheng's special research, and they are also major propositions related to the present and the future. This is the first of five interviews.


Hong Kong 01: You left the United States to join the University of Hong Kong in July this year, and the outside world is curious why you left the Brookings Institution where you have been in the Brookings Institution for 7 years and chose Hong Kong? Let's start by talking about the process.

Li Cheng: Leaving the U.S. and coming to Hong Kong was indeed the biggest choice in my life. From 1985, he went to the United States to study for a master's degree and a doctorate, and studied and worked in the United States for 38 years Xi. Among them, 17 years at the Brookings Institution, the No. 2006 think tank in the United States and the No. 2014 think tank in the world, was an extraordinary experience. In <>, the Brookings Institution established the John L. Thornton China Center, which I joined from the beginning, and in <> became the first and longest-serving director of the John L. Thornton China Center. At the Brookings Institution, we have a lot of research, and the foreign policy team comes from all over the world, and the Center for China Studies includes very senior scholars such as Bader, David Du, Kenneth Lieberthal, Brittle Brown, Wadner, Jonathan Pollack, He Shili, etc., and Baker and David Du have recently passed away, and there are many young scholars, including Ryan Ho, who succeeded me as director.

Li Cheng, Founding Director of the Centre for China and the World at the University of Hong Kong. (HK01)

So I have a lot of affection for the Brookings Institution, because I've been there for many years. But I chose to leave because there has been a lot of change in recent years, when I joined the Brookings Institution 17 years ago, the status of a Chinese-American scholar was a positive asset (or considered wealth), but in the later stage it became a negative asset (or burden). Because some people in the U.S. decision-makers don't believe in Chinese Americans, don't want to get in touch with China, and think more about getting rid of China, of course, there are elements of racism and racial discrimination here, and there is indeed McCarthyism in Washington, and American politics and society are tearing apart at a very fast pace, which is also surprising to me. At the same time, it is also a common phenomenon that American experts on the Zhihua faction have also been excluded and marginalized, including the recently deceased Dr. Kissinger, who we are most familiar with, the former Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick who first proposed that China should be a responsible stakeholder, and the very respected Professor Lampton, who was once named the top of the Zhihua faction, and the US government has rarely consulted them now.

In the face of such a situation, for me personally, although I am still in the peak of academics, I can actually do nothing in Washington, D.C., and I think that maybe I can continue to work for a few years in a different environment. Of course, there is also an overall assessment of China-US relations behind this, that is, I believe that the relationship between China and the United States cannot be reversed in a short period of time. Although I disagree with the "Thucydides Trap", the great historian and thinker of ancient Greece once said something that struck me deeply more than 2000,<> years ago, I remember when I was a PhD student at Princeton, and in his book "History of the Peloponnesian War", he talked about the "troika" that drives the antagonism between nations: Greed, Honor, and Fear. The most important of these is fear.

I think that fear in the world today may be a key factor in the strategic miscalculation between China and the United States, and the downward spiral of bilateral relations. In particular, the fear of the United States as a conservative power will not be easily dispelled. That's why I came to the other side of the Pacific, to learn more and work to get rid of my fears. Most U.S.-China experts predict that it may take 10 years or more for China-US relations to improve, which will be a long process, and I can't wait for more than 10 years in Washington, but I want to play a positive role in Hong Kong's academic circles and think tanks in the next few years.

Xi Meeting, Xi Jinping, Biden, China-US Relations: On November 2023, 11 local time, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden held a China-US summit at Firoli Manor. This is after the talks, Biden personally sent Xi Jinping to the boarding place to say goodbye. (Xinhua News Agency)

Of course, the choice to come to Hong Kong is not mainly the external push factor, but the internal pull factor, we know that the world's political and economic map has undergone profound changes in the past few decades, some Chinese scholars discuss "rising in the east and falling in the west", and some people put forward different views. Judging from the data, there is indeed a rise in the east and a fall in the west. For example, the United States' GDP is actually down 1960% today compared to the 50s, while China has gone from a relatively weak developing country to the world's second-largest economy. This is even more pronounced when the eastward rise and westward descent are placed in Asia as a whole compared to North America or Europe in the traditional sense. According to the World Bank, by 2030, four of the world's five largest middle-class countries will be in Asia, including China, India, Japan, Indonesia, and the only one outside of Asia is the United States. This also shows that the political and economic map of the whole world, especially the economic map, has undergone fundamental changes.

When I decided to return to Asia, I was initially offered a job position at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, and I was appointed Director of the Institute. In the process, the University of Hong Kong also offered me a position, the job in Singapore is very good, the research atmosphere is also very good, and the team is mature, but the University of Hong Kong is relatively more attractive to me. On the one hand, researchers in Singapore are ready-made, but to come to the University of Hong Kong, you need to build a research platform from scratch. On the other hand, at a time of fierce geopolitical turmoil in the world today, it is a rare opportunity given to me by the times, as well as an opportunity given to Hong Kong by history and the times, to be employed by the star-studded University of Hong Kong and the talent-rich Guangdong Greater Bay Area, and to devote myself to building a world-class public policy and international relations think tank in the international metropolis of Hong Kong.

The University of Hong Kong. (File photo)

This opportunity can be observed from many aspects, but for the sake of time, I would like to highlight two points: First, Hong Kong society is currently stabilizing. Just as any business is keen to invest in a socially and politically stable place, individuals also want to live and work in a safe and politically stable city. Hong Kong has experienced a very volatile period over the past few years. Stability is hard-won and costly. It's worth noting, looking at the world today, where are the stables? In Europe, the Russian-Ukrainian war is endless. In the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has once again plunged into the abyss. Within the United States, political parties are fighting viciously and society is torn apart.

Second, the introduction of talents from all over the world has gradually become a new growth point and breakthrough point for Hong Kong in the future, and the Centre for Contemporary China and the World at the University of Hong Kong came into being at a critical juncture for the international community. Today, more than ever, Hong Kong is well placed to become an international hub for studying issues of governance in China and the world. Hong Kong is not only an international metropolis and a global financial centre, but also a link for cultural exchanges, a melting pot of traditions, and a special case of historical evolution, and will continue to be a bridge between China's Greater Bay Area and the world. More importantly, Hong Kong will also play a subtle but profound role in shaping the international public opinion environment.

HONG KONG 01: In the context of the "new Cold War" between China and the United States, your departure is considered to be a microcosm and exacerbates the "talent deprivation" between China and the United States. What do you think about this? Has China and the United States really reached the point of "talent deprivation"? What does this mean for China-US relations in the long run?

Li Cheng: Our personal cross-border mobility is not so important, and the impact is not so fast, especially for those who study liberal arts and social sciences. But if it reflects the changes and trends of the times, it is very important. We know that the United States is a nation of immigrants and a gathering place of the world's talents, which is one of the reasons why the United States is so strong. In the history of the United States, the largest number of PhD students have come from China, India, Russia, Iran, and Israel. That said, the U.S. used to benefit from these people's contributions to a considerable extent, but now for a variety of reasons, the U.S. is closed to international students from several of these countries in at least some subject areas, or, in your words, talent decoupling.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 1400,<> scientists of Chinese descent left the United States last year and the year before that, and it is estimated that more will be this year and next. Because the U.S. executive branch decided to impose export controls on Chinese companies in three areas, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, earlier this year, many scientists of Chinese or Asian descent working in these fields, many of whom will face unemployment. Not only that, but the U.S. Congress has repeatedly demanded that U.S. universities stop cooperating with Chinese universities and take sides, or they will not approve federal funding or research projects from the Departments of Defense and the Department of Energy.

On September 2017, 9 local time, in Washington, USA, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong attended the China-US Innovation-Driven Development Symposium at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and delivered a keynote speech. (File photo)

This is a very bad situation, which is not conducive to academic exchanges and scientific and technological development in the whole world, and it is also to the detriment of the sharing of research results by all mankind. In fact, during the new crown epidemic, the cooperation between the medical and scientific communities of China and the United States is very frequent, including in the field of artificial intelligence, and the proportion of cooperation between scientists of the two countries is much higher than that of some other countries, but unfortunately these cooperation will be very deeply affected due to political reasons.

Especially in the later years of Trump, the FBI's "China Project" has a strong racial profiling of Chinese scientists, and these measures have caused thousands of Chinese scientists to leave the United States, most of them to work in the mainland, Hong Kong, and Singapore. My good friend He Dayi, a well-known immunological disease expert, once said that the FBI has achieved "what the Thousand Talents Program and the Ten Thousand Talents Program of the Organization Department of the Central Committee of China wanted to do but could not do." The exclusion of a large number of Chinese scholars who have become U.S. citizens and green card holders has caused a lot of losses, and of course it may take some time for the United States to realize the huge losses to American educational and research institutions and the scientific and technological fields.

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