Vincent Chang: Leaving a Trail Where There’s No Path

Author’s Note: I look up to Prof. Vincent Chang, former Associate Vice President of my university. He’s intelligent, down to earth, and visionary. I wrote a biography featuring him for my nonfiction writing class. In this post, the pictures are provided by Vincent.

Vincent H. Chang’s résumé is eye-catching. He holds two doctorates, one in engineering and another in social science. In the West, he spent his career first in engineering at Silicon Valley, and then in investment banking at Wall Street. In the East, he created an international school of business from scratch for a prestigious Chinese university. In the Middle East, he was the founding president of a joint venture university between Oman and the U.S. Vincent would refer to himself as an explorer who would go where there’s no path and leave a trail.

Vincent

To Be or Not to Be

When Vincent was born in Taiwan, the island’s prospering economy had hardly benefited his family. He spent his childhood in a fishing village “materially poor and spiritually depressing.” His father, a fisherman, faced perils of the sea “like lobstermen of Maine.” Vincent grew up hearing news that fishermen went missing at sea. “I prepare for the worst news every day,” he recalled.

Father regretted about his zero schooling, but instead of complaining about it, he believed in his children’s education. Vincent had high exam grades and no adolescent rebellion. His teacher described him as Shao-nian-lao-cheng, which could mean “accomplished though young” or “lacking youthful vigor”. His excellent grades earned him a place at National Taiwan University, the best of its kind in Taiwan. As the eldest son, he was deeply concerned about his family. He contacted his family everyday by public telephone. To save money, he only phoned for one second. If his mother said nothing in that moment, it meant that father was safe. Luckily, he could always hang up in one second.

By then, Vincent had found emotional refuge in literature. Reading literature would be his lifelong hobby. Many years later, he boarded a flight and found another man on his Seat 3B. That man apologized to him in British accent, “Oh yes, sir, it’s yours, mine is 2B. I’m sorry.”

Vincent leaned over the man’s shoulder, “2B or not 2B, that’s the problem.” The man looked confused, but he nodded.

Later, the man turned around. “Sir, I think my problem is not 2B, but 2C!”

“Is your heart with you?” Vincent laughed. “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly. What’s essential is invisible to the eye. Little Prince.”

Then they both laughed out loud.

Did Vincent major in literature – something that he loved – at college? No, he didn’t. Instead, he studied electrical engineering, a subject that he was uninterested in. He needed a well-paid job like electrical engineer to bring his family out of poverty. Fortunately, he managed to pursue his interest by taking minor in arts. He also joined a student society that focused on mainland-China-and-Taiwan issue, and wrote many articles on Cultural Revolution literature for the society’s journal. When he read about mainland China’s “sent-down youth”, who were forced into agricultural labor in the countryside by the Chinese Communist Party, he saw endurance, resoluteness, and courage. “I wish we could fight shoulder by shoulder together,” he wrote. Decades later, this experience would lead his career path to mainland China.

Towards graduation from college, Vincent felt little interest in electrical engineering, and he wanted to study abroad. Considering his family’s poor financial situation, he never dared to discuss it with his parents. In Vincent’s memory, his mother brought up the subject first. “Others say that you’ve got talent and should go studying overseas. Just go if you want, but we cannot afford any money.”

NTU
Graduation Photo in Taiwan

Only a full scholarship with stipend could fulfill his dream. If he applied for a master’s or a field different from his undergraduate major, full funding would be unlikely. The only way, it seemed, was doing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. University of California at Berkeley granted him what he wanted. A friend’s parents financed his air ticket to the U.S. The amount of money was the largest he had ever seen, and the flight was the first one in his life. As the plane flew over the East China Sea, he thought, “Dad’s fishing boat is there.” In the U.S., he lived on a tight budget, but he always managed to send money back home.

At Berkeley, he chose an economics course to explore his interests. He soon found economics more interesting than electrical engineering. He would get up early on the days of economics lecture, and regularly go to the professor’s office hour. The professor wondered why he became interested in economics. He said that he studied engineering and processed data, but economics was more than data. At the time, a one percent rise in unemployment rate would leave about one million people jobless, most of whom were the only source of income of a family. Considering their families, four million people would be affected. Employment was a matter of self-esteem; losing employment would pose social problems such as failed marriages. The professor said that she had never heard of such an opinion.

Vincent learned economics quickly. At first, he bombarded the professor with entry-level questions, and she always answered patiently. His questions turned more advanced. Once, he came to a question independently. Another economist had studied it and had won the Nobel Prize for that, said the professor. She regarded Vincent as the single best student in all the introductory economics courses she had taught in twenty years. After he finished his doctoral thesis, she recommended him to pursue another Ph.D. in economics with full scholarship. Her husband, also an economist at Berkeley, would be Vincent’s adviser.

He declined the offer. He couldn’t have imaged that his economics professor, Janet Yellen, would one day become Chair of the Federal Reserve. She was probably influenced by Vincent; during her tenure as the Fed’s chairwoman, she strove to reduce unemployment. She said:

We know that those long spells of unemployment are particularly painful for households, impose great hardships and costs on those without work, on the marriages of those who suffer these long unemployment spells and on their families.

Her husband, George Akerlof, would win the Nobel Prize in Economics. But even if Vincent had known all these, he might make the same choice. As the eldest and most-educated son in the family, he bore the responsibility to lead his family out of poverty. Doing another Ph.D., however, would take too much time. He entered the industry after getting his doctorate.

With Jellen
When Student and Professor Meet Again – With Janet Yellen at the Fed

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It

Vincent designed ultrasound healthcare machines for Acuson (now a subsidiary of Siemens) in the thriving Silicon Valley. In eight years, Google would be founded a block away from where he worked. He intended to try this career for a year or two, but the first project of him lasted for five years. As the chief engineer in digital signal processing, he designed two crucial parts of the integrated circuit in a brand new ultrasonic scanner. The parts were as important as human’s heart and brain. This product, called the Sequoia, became a bestseller. (A few years later, Vincent and Pearl Chang would visit a major teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School for an ultrasound scan of their first baby. The scanner would be an Acuson Sequoia.) His parents proudly talked about him. Despite the high salary and bright outlook, he often asked himself, “If I continue with my current job, would I regret it when I retire?”

News came that Yellen took office as Chair of Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton. The news encouraged Vincent to quit his engineering job to pursue an economics-related career. All his friends were opposed to his idea. After resignation, he kept it as secret to his parents for six months. They wouldn’t understand his decision for a long time. Vincent decided to return to school, but he still thought that doctoral study was time-consuming. He completed two masters – an MBA at Yale, and one in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School – to take a glance at economics.

Harvard 1
At Harvard

The former electrical engineer turned into an investment banker – a rising star in JPMorgan. The firm needed a person to build up a new department of fixed income investment of the emerging market. Its businesses would cover “New Zealand and Australia in the east to India in the west, and from Indonesia in the south to as far north as the Chinese-Russian border.” Fixed income trading required quantitative analysis, which Vincent could handle well due to his engineering training. He grasped the opportunity: “This is it, this is my career, my life.” After working in Manhattan’s World Trade Center for a while, he was instructed to relocate to Singapore. He terminated his lease of house, shipped his belongings, and sold his car. Pearl was to visit her in-laws in Taiwan and then meet him in Singapore, so she left the U.S. before him. A new life was about to begin.

The relocation was cancelled at the last moment. Asian financial crisis unexpectedly hit the world’s emerging markets, where currencies collapsed, government bonds plummeted, and businesses went bankrupt. Asia ceased to be the Promised Land for investment bankers. At four p.m. on the day before Vincent’s departure, JPMorgan held an emergency meeting, “We must reconsider our strategy of the emerging market!” Vincent rented another place, bought another car, and abandoned some belongings that were on the way to Singapore. “My golden opportunity and assignment evaporated,” he recalled years later. “I wasn’t fired, but I was completely lost. My dream was broken.”

Vincent rediscovered his dream in entrepreneurship. In 2001, he joined a startup in e-commerce. It built a product recommendation engine using what would be called “big data” in the future. The startup’s management and shareholders were prominent figures, but it still made a mistake – outsourcing the call center to India. There, the operational costs were much cheaper, and customer service representatives were good English speakers. But the cultural difference made it hard to build trust between the Indian representatives and the Western clients. That was the Achilles’ heel of the startup – its success rate of transactions via call center was much lower than expected. On the other hand, Vincent thought that they started e-commerce too early. The story would have been different if they had done it five years later. Entrepreneurship brought uncertainty more than once. Soon, something unexpected happened to him.

In 2001, ExxonMobil invited him to conduct a project to map out the pathway of energy economics in the whole 21st century. He felt surprised – He was neither an energy expert, nor an economic specialist, nor a native speaker. The oil giant explained that it was seeking someone experienced in three fields: engineering, finance, and entrepreneurship. His atypical career path had prepared him for the post. He didn’t take the offer at first. The firm waited him for two years: “It’s a project of one hundred years, so we can wait for you.”

ExxonMobil proposed to pay him to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, if he would write a thesis on energy economics for the firm. At the time, Akerlof had received the Nobel Prize in Economics. Vincent remembered that Yellen wanted to recommend him to be Akerlof’s doctoral student. Now he would be paid for doctoral studies in economics. Why not try it? He accepted the company’s offer and moved to Boston for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ph.D. program in economics.

In the following years, he would ask himself again and again, “Is this worth it?” Every other week, he needed to report his work to ExxonMobil Research, which was 300 miles away in New Jersey. Because he didn’t want to miss classes, such a trip required him to get up at four a.m. to catch the earliest flight from Boston to Newark. He traveled on this route so frequently that a cashier at Newark Airport recognized him every time. “Her greetings refreshed my long, tiring day,” he recalled. By “long and tiring”, he meant more than twenty hours without sleep.

On the week that he didn’t need to meet his employer, he returned to his Los Angeles home, which was 3,000 miles away. To save time, he often traveled on red-eye flight. His wife, Pearl, had sacrificed her ambitions to take care of their two active preteens. The daughter Catherine was a born Bostonian, who would go to bed wearing her Red Sox cap and saying that her dad was the best in the world. The son Arthur was a born New Yorker, who dreamed of playing for the Yankees and looked forward to playing baseball with his dad. He also supported Dodgers but his sister Angels. “My life would be awfully dull without their sibling bond and rivalry,” Vincent later wrote. “I ought to be there for her auditions and his little league games…”

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With Catherine and Arthur

Vincent’s parents lived even further. A few months before Vincent entered MIT, his father passed away. “The ocean was his data set, with which he had tested his theory of living a life,” Vincent later wrote, “to the extent that he could have written many…doctoral theses in philosophy.” Mother lived 8,000 miles away alone in Taiwan, the only place where she felt comfortable. Her health was deteriorating.

Being away from home, Vincent stayed in a Marriott Residence Inn and felt grateful for the staff’s caring. He remembered the names of sixteen of them. If he came back from school way past midnight, the receptionists would point to the clock reminding him of the time. If he returned much earlier, however, they would “command” him go back to the library. When he had finished all his doctoral courses and passed his General Exams, they bought him a special gift with their own money.

Vincent graduated in three years and a half, while his fellow students usually studied for at least five years. They were required to complete three papers, but he only wrote the one required by ExxonMobil. It was outstanding, so his adviser greenlighted his early graduation. In his dissertation’s acknowledgement, he wrote, “My ultimate study of economics at the age of 40 something is not totally out of [the] blue. Rather, it has been a winding but poetic journey”, as a Chinese poem had described:

What on earth is a life’s journey like?
Perhaps like a goose’s prints on snow;
The trails are unintentionally left,
But he may have flown east, or west.

He planned to stay in the U.S. industry after graduation, but he ended up in the Chinese academia.

Of Energy and the Economy Theory and Evidence for their Functional Relationship_1.jpg
Vincent’s Doctoral Thesis at MIT

He May Have Flown East or West

At an academic conference, Vincent met Hai Wen, the vice president of Peking University (PKU), a prestigious Beijing-based university. In their youth, the former had read much Cultural Revolution literature, while the latter had been a “sent-down youth” for nine years. They talked a lot. PKU had built a new graduate-level business school called PHBS in Shenzhen, an economic boom town about 1,200 miles south to Beijing. The School was planned to be localized. Vincent argued that it should be international. Shenzhen to China was like San Francisco Bay to the U.S. a century ago. At the time, California’s higher education lagged far behind the East Coast. The state invested heavily in higher education and information technology, and they brought out the best in each other. Shenzhen also needed international universities to sustain its rapid growth. Vincent’s unique background and vision impressed Hai Wen, and he recommended him to PKU.

Despite his limited academic experience, PKU appointed Vincent to be PHBS’s Executive Dean in 2007. With the mission of educating China’s future business leaders to be citizens with global perspective, he endeavored to internationalize the School. This was a task that no other public universities in China had attempted. He announced that English, instead of Chinese, would be the School’s language of instruction. Doubt and opposition arose among students and teachers: “We’re Chinese, and we’re living in our motherland. Why can’t we use our mother tongue?” Even the Ministry of Education was suspicious. But Vincent stood firm on this issue, because English was the language of the business world. He often flew abroad for faculty recruitment, foreign students’ admission, and other School affairs. From 2008 to 2012, he traveled for over a million miles, which equaled “one trip to the moon every year.” His mileage exceeded that of Secretary Hillary Clinton made in the same period.

Vincent’s flight mileage also included his commute to home. The kids would often complain about his absence –

“Dad, why do you have to travel such a long distance to educate somebody else’s kids,” Catherine would ask, “while you can stay at home educating your own?”

“Dad, can you stay at home teaching us?” Arthur would say. “I promise I won’t make any trouble.”

One day in 2009, Vincent received three phone calls in class. He never checked his mobile when he lectured. During the break, he found that the calls came from Pearl in the U.S. He called back and found her voice shaky. A wind-fueled forest fire had raged out of control and approached their community. Police had ordered residents to evacuate immediately.

“I was calling to ask you what to bring…” she said, as the siren blared in the background. “I can see the fire closing in to our backyard. It’s as scary as the movies…”

“So what’re you bringing with you?”

“Pictures, only pictures [of the family] and nothing else. Not enough time. We’re still in the garage. I’ve started the car. Police is urging us to leave…”

Suddenly, Arthur grabbed the phone: “Dad, will we see our home again?”

Vincent was speechless. According to Los Angeles Times’ website, over twenty thousand residents fled the Anaheim Hills Fire that destroyed or damaged more than six hundred homes. Vincent later said, “I regret I wasn’t there for my family when they needed me the most…”

Family 1
Pictures Rescued from the Anaheim Hills Fire

When he spent his 50th birthday in PHBS in Shenzhen, Catherine messaged him: “Dad, I have good news and bad news. Bad news is you are 50 years old. Good news is I am not. Hahaha.”

“You’re right,” he texted back. “But to me, this is the 21st anniversary of my 29th birthday.” He believed that age was a state of mind, and his mind was as sharp as a 29-year-old. Next year, he received a birthday card from her: “Happy 29th birthday, Dad.”

In the first few years, PHBS’s living conditions were unsatisfying. The development zone where the campus stood was largely under construction. “When I exited the office building at night,” Vincent recalled, “it was pitch dark, so dark that you couldn’t see your fingers.”

It wasn’t easy for foreign faculty members to adapt to life in Shenzhen. On a new teacher’s arrival, he hailed a taxi to his hotel. He probably had a good city tour as the taxi traveled nonstop for an hour. The hotel, however, was only a thousand feet away from where the trip started. His colleagues also got ripped off often by taxi drivers. Another example was that in China, “toilet” might not equal “washroom”. Imagine that a professor suddenly had an attack of diarrhea. She rushed into a public washroom, locked the cubicle, and lowered her trousers. Wait, where was the toilet? There was only an oval ceramic hole on the ground, over which people squatted down to do the business. (At least the hole could flush.)

Using the “squat toilet” proved a formidable task for Westerners. “The first time I went to a squat toilet,” a faculty member complained, “I couldn’t stand up after I finish.”

“Then how did you manage to get out?” Vincent asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

Vincent had toilets installed in all the restrooms on campus. He called it his “greatest achievement in the first two PHBS years.” He also had toilet paper rolls ready, but they were always found stolen the next morning after installation. (The thief is still unidentified.)

PHBS Speech
Dean’s Speech

An “Iron Man” Who Is Gentle

Vincent’s educational philosophy was that personal quality precedes technical knowledge. “Always make the right choice, even at difficult times,” he often said. On casual meeting with students, he told many stories (including the theft of toilet paper) to stress the value of integrity. In China, this quality wasn’t as common as it should be. A long-serving faculty member observed that in China,

laws/rules/norms are simply ignored…[The] enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common but telling the truth revolutionary.

Around the country, it wasn’t uncommon for students to copy from existing sources without citation, hire a ghostwriter to write essays or even the dissertation, or fake a doctor’s statement to request leave of absence.

How did Vincent promote integrity at PHBS? Once, someone requested a sick leave with doctor’s statement saying that he needed rest due to leg injury. Vincent phoned the hospital, only to find that the doctor didn’t exist. He warned this student not to repeat the same mistake. Another time, the academic committee judged that a PHBS graduate had severely plagiarized in her thesis. The School had repeatedly informed students of plagiarism. In accordance with school regulations, Vincent revoked her degree. (PKU hadn’t imposed such a penalty for decades.)

Those honest students, however, made Vincent proud. One of them enrolled in the joint degree program between PHBS and University of Hong Kong. In her application for Ph.D. studies, she stated that she would graduate with a dual degree. A major U.S. university awarded her full scholarship. Later, she failed a course in the partner institution and couldn’t gain the additional degree. Should she inform the graduate school in the U.S. risking her admission being withdrawn? She consulted Vincent, and after a long silence, he told her, “Do the right thing, as I always said.” “I’ve already done that.” She chose honesty and integrity, even if she may lose her admission and scholarship.

Vincent won students’ respect:

“[He’s] almost fifty, but he’s youthful and vigorous, [and he] can do almost anything!”

“[He’s] a good comrade. [He has] two doctorates [and] two masters, knows both social science and engineering, and is capable of both research and administration. Where else can you find such a great man?”

PHBS Trip
With PHBS Students on the Beach

Faculty members also felt satisfied about PHBS, including several critics of the Chinese government. One reason was that the School enjoyed a liberal atmosphere. Once, an outspoken and limelight-seeking professor criticized a major state-owned enterprise harshly in Bloomberg. He had already been reminded by Vincent about the risks several times. This time, that company’s top leader – the equal of a deputy cabinet minister in China’s political hierarchy – came to PHBS from Beijing and demanded the critic’s resignation. Vincent resisted this pressure in defense of academic freedom. He later said, “I use the same standard to protect every faculty member, be it Chinese, American, Korean, German, or Italian.”

At PHBS, Vincent was nicknamed “iron man” because of his hectic schedule. He said, “Often, I arrive back at Hong Kong Airport between five and six a.m. after thirteen to sixteen hours of flight…Then [I] take a shower at the Hong Kong Airport, arrive back on campus at about eight, and then hold a staff meeting at nine, afterwards I go to teach a class at ten thirty.”

The “iron man” was also affable. At PHBS, people called him by his name. In the hierarchical East Asian culture, the proper addressing should be “Mr. Dean” or “Professor Chang”. He often opened the door and poured tea for his assistants, but seldom let them do so for him. Not until a new dean succeeded Vincent did the assistants realize that dean and assistant were created unequal.

Vincent developed a recruiting system covering things from salaries to qualifications for international talents. The system worked well; most professors held a Ph.D. from a famous Western university. Vincent’s secret of attracting talent was simple: just telling it as it is and giving outlook. Some other Chinese universities imitated PHBS’s recruiting system, but none did better. One year, PHBS and its competitor –PKU’s well-established Guanghua School of Management – were hiring finance faculty with an overseas degree. PHBS recruited six, Guanghua zero. A top university in Hong Kong felt surprised: Why would talents choose Shenzhen, the less-developed neighbor of Hong Kong? That university wanted to headhunt him, but he rejected the offer. He needed more time to achieve his vision for PHBS.

PHBS Class 3
Vincent’s Lecture

Faculty recruitment would create another regret for Vincent. In 2011, his mother fell terminally ill, and he flew to Taiwan every weekend to see her. At the time, he had already scheduled an important event – hiring teachers at an academic conference in Denver. The departure date approached, and he hesitated over the trip. Finally, he decided to go. The interviews went smoothly. The candidates didn’t know that after the interviews, Vincent hid into his hotel room and burst into a good cry – on the last morning of the trip, his mother passed away. “This is my regret,” he later said. “I regret I wasn’t by my Mom’s side in the last moment.”

One morning in 2014, Vincent returned to PHBS from a cross-continental flight as usual. He almost collapsed, and an ambulance took him to the emergency room. Nobody had called him “iron man” ever since. A colleague said to Vincent, “Oh, you’re human after all.” “Of course, I’m human,” said Vincent when he announced his decision to take a sabbatical leave starting that fall.

At the time, the School was already successful and almost on autopilot mode. It had qualified one of the three major accreditations for business school and was close to the second. About one out of five students came from foreign countries. Eighty institutional partners spread out all continents. New faculty members could quickly adapt to life in Shenzhen, which had become a “first-tier city of China” and ranked only after Beijing and Shanghai. “…I believe I’ve done my share…” Vincent said in his speech. “Perhaps, I’ve done more than my share.” Later, he said that building up PHBS was “as challenging as flying to the moon.”

He excerpted a poem by T.S. Elliot before leaving PHBS:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

The School followed the path set by Vincent. In 2018, it opened a campus in the U.K. and advertised itself in Times Square.

PHBS Faculty Students Grad
With PHBS Graduates and Faculty

I Came like Water, and like Wind I Go

Vincent adopted a comfortable lifestyle. With Janet Yellen’s help, he joined the Fed as a visiting economist. After work, he often walked from the Fed to the Kennedy Center to watch performances. But this period of calm didn’t last long.

In 2015, University of Business and Technology (UBT) in the Gulf country of Oman invited Vincent to be its founding president. The institution was a joint venture between the Omani government and Virginia Tech. Vincent had never visited Oman, nor did he know anyone there. Should he do it? He spent many evenings wandering on the roof level of Kennedy Center to ponder the question. The Potomac River underneath was calm, but his heart wasn’t. To him, the PHBS project was “a successful Moon landing.” He could’ve retired. The UBT project would be much more challenging: like going to Mars, perhaps. The Moon landing wasn’t the final accomplishment of NASA; it was just the beginning. Why shouldn’t Vincent continue exploring? He accepted the challenge and moved to Muscat, Oman’s capital.

Vincent used to think that Arabians were conservative, but soon his stereotype was dispelled. His secretary was an Arab woman, young and unattached. He saw no difference between her and any young lady of New York or London regarding dream, hope, and inspiration. One day, she took him to a city tour. When they arrived at the Royal Opera House, an appealing performance would soon begin. Vincent would never miss such an event. “I want to see this performance,” he told her, “and I’d like to invite you. But is it appropriate?” He then mentioned his fellow expatriates’ warning: never go out alone with any single Arab woman. “Who told you that?” She asked. “It’s ridiculous.”

Only the first-row seats were available. Vincent asked her, “Shall we sit in the very front?”

“Why not?”

“Because everyone would notice you sitting with me. What if your father or brothers hear about it? They wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all. Why would they?”

In tribute of a Spanish poem, Vincent wrote a few lines for those who worked with him:

Walker, there is no walk; the walk is made in the walking.
Walker, there is no walk; the walk is in the beating along the Mississippi.
Walker, there is no walk; it’s the Moon and Mars over the rocky edges.
Walker, there is no walk; only stars across the Arabian seas.

UBT architects_cr
With UBT’s Architects

He drafted a detailed ten-year plan for UBT: adopting the collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge, developing cutting-edge curriculum, educating students to be like Platonic philosophy king, and so on. He even listed the background music for UBT’s opening ceremony in his mind. He presented the plan on a conference to the Omani government officials, Virginia Tech’s representatives, and Western countries’ diplomats. Everybody thought highly of his plan. Soon, he rose to fame in Oman. According to the plan, UBT would admit the first class of students on September 2018. The government granted five hundred acres of land to UBT and commissioned a world-class architecture firm to design its campus. The computer-generated picture of the campus impressed everybody. Construction was about to begin.

Just then, it was found that the land given to UBT had a disputed ownership between two government departments. While they negotiated, the project was paused. An order from the Sultan could resolve the dispute, but he didn’t intervene directly. The lengthy negotiation reached no conclusion, but the government granted UBT another piece of land. Workers fenced the site, marked the foundation, and then unexpectedly paused the work. This time, the government put the project on hold due to financial pressure arising from long-lasting low oil price. Would the project be resumed someday? Nobody knew. Vincent’s Omani work visa would soon expire, and he decided not to renew it.

After the halt of his project, Vincent went to dinner with a friend in Muscat. Far away, above the boundless mountains, the sun was setting, and stars were appearing. One star shone more brightly than any other.

Vincent pointed at it. “What’s that?”

The friend checked the sky map on his phone. “Guess what? It’s Mars!”

That was Vincent’s first encounter with Mars. He saw it where he had dedicated to a task “as adventurous as going to Mars”: building up UBT. The University’s prospect was uncertain, but Mars was real. He said excitedly, “Thank you for finding Mars for me!” “I didn’t find it,” replied his friend. “Mars is always there for you!”

Before his departure, the local media interviewed Vincent. He quoted a poem by Omar Khayyam, with slight modifications:

With them the seed of wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labored it to grow
And this was all the harvest that I reaped –
“I came like water, and like wind I go.”

Leaving a Trail Where There’s No Path

Back in 2014, when Vincent had just left Shenzhen, the city saw the opening of a joint venture university between Hong Kong and mainland China – The Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen). Three years later, he returned from Oman and joined this young institution. He resumed his former mission: to educate China’s top students to be citizens with global vision. He connected this new university with overseas ones, flying for 200,000 miles on 160 flights in one year. When he stayed on campus, he held town hall meetings for students to share his philosophy of life: follow your heart and dare to be different. Do the right thing even at hard times…

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With CUHK-Shenzhen Students

In early 2019, Vincent moves to Bangladesh to lead Brac University, a top private institution in this emerging economy. He says that his new task will be “a deep-sea exploration”, harder than all his previous projects: “Moon and Mars are visible to the eye. But the deep sea? It’s pitch dark, only a few feet into.” He’ll have to navigate in complete darkness, not knowing what he’ll run into. He has no idea when he can reach the bottom, if there’s one.

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Message to Brac University’s Stakeholders

What inspires Vincent to devote himself to unprecedented tasks, or as he puts it, “Leave a trail where there’s no path”? Is it an ambitious goal? Actually, he has never set a specific goal like becoming a special adviser to a multinational firm or the founder of a higher educational institution. “My life is more like fishing,” he says. “In fishing, you don’t really know what you will catch or if you will catch any. And sometimes, the best catch is the one that gets away.” A life without a specific goal doesn’t mean aimlessness. Vincent’s life is the pursuit of “something bigger than life.” He tells a story: The great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He answered, “Because it is there.” Mallory strove for “something bigger than life,” says Vincent. “If you try hard enough, you can also find…something bigger than life…that’s worth of your life’s pursuit. Because it is there!”

Geese and Trail
Vincent’s Trail

Reconciling Posthumanism with Confucianism

Posthumanism holds that in the near future, we could use science and technology to improve current human nature, namely our health-span, cognition, and emotion. Does this radical proposal have anything to do with China’s Confucianism, a long-held intellectual tradition that stresses cultivation of virtue and harmony in human relations? My answer is that these two goals of Confucianism can be better achieved with posthuman capacities of improved cognition and enhanced emotion.

According to Bostrom, a prominent advocate for posthumanism, a major feature of a posthuman is better emotional capability. This is attractive, as we may want to reduce negative emotions like hate, contempt, and fear as well as to enhance positive ones like empathy, composure, and courage. Many of us strive for life to ennoble our sentiments and to refine our character. These kinds of goal are reflected in emotional capability. Bostrom believes that we not only can fine-tune and balance the various emotions we already possess, but also can explore brand new emotions. The human species has not yet evolved the neurological machinery to experience these emotions, some of which might be invaluable to us. A posthuman would then enjoy much better emotional capacity than any current human being could achieve (“Be a Posthuman” 226).

Enhanced emotional capacity will enable people to love, care, and respect others better, resulting in harmonious human relations. Ames points out that the most fundamental human relationship in Confucianism is found within the family where parents and children love, care, and respect each other (167). This is still the natural affection that fails to distinguish human from animals. We then accept new roles and form new relationships that extend beyond natural affections. We can be a producer or a consumer, a student or a teacher, a ruler or a subject, and so on (Ames 168). In these new roles and relations, we should keep the sense of loving, caring, and respecting found in the parent-child relations (Ames 165). “To love people” characterizes human-heartedness, the highest virtue in Confucianism.

Enhanced emotional capacity will also contribute to harmony of human emotions. Ni states that in the Confucian ideal, an individual should harmoniously coexist with “the whole”, which can be one’s own body-and-mind, family, society, and even the cosmos (55). Such harmony is seen by The Doctrine of the Mean as a pillar of the world’s flourishing:

The condition when the feelings of joy and anger, grief and pleasure have…arisen, [and] that these feelings are then coordinated and brought into proper measure is called harmony…[H]armony then is the advancing of the proper way in the world. When…harmony is fully realized, the heavens and the earth maintain their proper places and all things flourish in the world (as cited in Ames 170).

In other words, when we express human feelings harmoniously, we advance human-heartedness, and everything in the world will flourish (Ames 170). We will find it easier to achieve this goal when our emotional capacity is enhanced.

Apart from enhanced emotional capacity, a posthuman also has improved cognitive ability. This is desirable as the society invests much resources to education. Education not only conveys knowledge to students, but also develops their cognitive abilities like critical reasoning and problem solving. All these functions of education benefit the society. In private life, we may also want to develop narration, humor, or spirituality. We drink coffee to be more alert and focused. These types of goal are incorporated in the cognitive ability. A posthuman would then be more cognitively capable than any human being of the present (Bostrom, “Be a Posthuman” 224).

Improved cognitive ability will allow people learn better, which is important to the cultivation of Confucian virtue. Ames shows that in the Confucian sense, “learning” is a process of personal growth and self-transformation that lays the foundation for virtuousness. Learning concerns not only knowledge, but also the understanding and practice of moral principles (162). As stated before, the Confucian virtue focuses on the affective aspect of loving, caring, and respecting; it also properly manifests emotions and attitudes (Ni 38). Each kind of virtue will turn into its own attendant vice if it is not cultivated by learning, such as uprightness becoming rudeness (Ames 161).

Learning comes together with thinking. On the one hand, if we only learn without reflection, then the more we learn, the more we feel confused, considering all those conflicting ways of life and beliefs in the world. On the other hand, if we only think without learning, then the lack of proper guidance will lead us astray (Ni 71). When our thinking and learning are facilitated by the improved cognitive ability, we are more likely to become virtuous.

One concern remains to be resolved: would the relations between posthuman and normal human deteriorate? It is possible that the former views the latter as inferior suitable for slavery, or even savages fit for elimination. The normal human, however, may find posthuman threatening and pre-emptively fight against them (Annas 254-255). This scenario is against the Confucian harmony of human relationships. Bostrom himself agrees that “Inequity, discrimination, and stigmatization – against, or on behalf of, modified people – could become serious issues”. His solution of “fostering a climate of tolerance and acceptance towards those who are different from ourselves” starting from now (“Posthuman Dignity”, 208) is unconvincing.

To conclude, Posthumanism can still be reconciled with the Confucian harmony, despite  the potential conflict between posthuman and normal human. A posthuman has enhanced emotional capacity and improved cognitive ability. The former leads to harmony in human relations by fostering human-heartedness, namely love, care, and respect for others. The latter results in better ability of learning and thinking, which in turn contributes to virtue-cultivation.

Works Cited

Ames, Roger T. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011. Document.

Annas, George J. “The Man on the Moon.” Science fiction and philosophy: from time travel to superintelligence. Ed. Susan Schneider. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016. 245-259. Document.

Bostrom, Nick. “IN DEFENSE OF POSTHUMAN DIGNITY.” Bioethics (2005): 202-214. Document.

Bostrom, Nick. “Why I want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up.” Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Ed. Ronald Sandler. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014. 218-234. Document.

Ni, Peimin. Understanding the Analects of Confucius: a new translation of Lunyu with annotations. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017. Document.

 

Women’s Day Is Not Shopping Day

Essay for English for Business Communications. Revised March 2019.

On International Women’s Day, women all over the world are hosting workshops, assemblies and parties to celebrate the women’s movement and call for gender equality. In China, however, the day is dominated by major sales campaigns. According to a Reuters’s report, “online retailers offer coupons and discounts on clothing, cosmetics and healthcare to get women to spend more, dubbing the day Queens’ Day and Goddesses’ Day” (Shepherd & Qiu, 2018). We should reclaim the original meaning of Women’s Day to raise public awareness on prevailing gender inequality that may hinder China’s development.

We should take notice of educational bias against girls. Although within the free compulsory education covering primary and secondary schools, gender inequality has almost been eliminated, it is still commonplace beyond compulsory level in rural regions. Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program reports that in China, rural girls are “still significantly less likely to matriculate to senior high school than are boys, and they are less represented in higher education”. The rural female population—especially those attending high school and above—“face the greatest obstacles to enrollment in schools” (Zeng, Pang, Zhang, Medina, & Rozelle, 2013, p. 484). Better educated women mean a better future generation. The 2012 World Development Report states that women’s education positively correlates with health benefits for children, including higher immunization rates, better nutrition and lower child mortality. Mothers’ (and fathers’) schooling is positively linked to children’s educational attainment across a broad set of countries (World Bank, pp. 5-6).

We should also pay attention to discrimination against women in China’s labor market. Women’s labor is too often underused or misallocated, because discriminatory markets or social institutions prevents them from receiving adequate education, choosing certain occupations and earning equal wages. Sociologists He and Wu discover that in China’s urban job markets, women are disadvantaged in earnings; the overall hourly wage for women was 21.2 percent lower than for men (2018, p. 11). Other things being equal, women on average earn 5.0 percent, 8.7 percent, and 12.1 percent less than men do in government agencies, state-owned enterprises and private firms, respectively (2017, p. 103). The World Development Report of 2012 states that women’s skills and talents in the labor market grows the economy. Eliminating the barriers mentioned above would reduce the gender productivity gap by one-third to one-half and increase output per worker by three percent to twenty-five percent across a range of countries. China should encourage women’s participation in the labor force to counteract shrinking working-age population (World Bank, pp. 16-19).

Some people think that gender inequality will automatically decline as China becomes richer. Although research has indicated a link between a prefecture’s GDP per capita and equality in gender earnings (He & Wu, 2018, p.14), this view may be overly optimistic. Sex discrimination against women is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. As demography scholars Jiang, Li and Feldman (2011) put it, traditional Chinese culture stresses the family line’s continuity, leading to the preference for male descendants. They enjoy dominant status in household affairs like inheriting property, living arrangements and family power structure. Women must rely on men within the family. The entrenched tradition of “favoring sons and discriminating against daughters,” combined with the One Child Policy, gives rise to the problem of “missing” girls at birth (p.621-622): China’s sex ratio at birth rose from 109 males per hundred females in 1982 to 118 in 2005 (UNICEF, 2015). During this period, the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of nearly ten percent annually (World Bank, 2017). Despite China’s economic growth, women are still discriminated against men.

“The mainstream of Chinese society has not talked about real women’s rights issues on International Women’s Day for a long time,” says a famous Chinese feminist activist  (Shepherd & Qiu, 2018). This should not be the case, considering China’s persistent gender inequality in education and labor market is likely to impede the country’s development. On Women’s Day, instead of shopping, we should reflect on gender inequality and take actions to combat the issues. In other words, we should restore the original meaning of Women’s Day.

 

References

He, G., & Wu, X. (2017). Marketization, occupational segregation, and gender earnings inequality in urban China. Social Science Research, 96-111.

He, G., & Wu, X. (2018). Dynamics of the Gender Earnings: Inequality in Reform-Era Urban China. Work, Employment and Society, 1-21.

Jiang, Q., Li, S., & Feldman, M. W. (2011). Demographic Consequences of Gender Discrimination in China: Simulation Analysis of Policy Options. Population Research and Policy Review, 30(4), 619–638.

Shepherd, C., & Qiu, S. (2018, March 3). In China, retailers cash in on ‘she’ economy for Women’s Day. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-womens-day-china/in-china-retailers-cash-in-on-she-economy-for-womens-day-idUSKCN1GK0OS

UNICEF. (2015, February 4). Children in China: An Atlas of Social Indicators 2014. Retrieved from UNICEF China: http://www.unicef.cn/en/atlas/population/777.html

World Bank. (2011). World Development Report 2012 Gender Equality and Development: Overview. Washington DC: The World Bank.

World Bank. (2017, March 28). The World Bank In China: Overview. Retrieved from World Bank: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview

Zeng, J., Pang, X., Zhang, L., Medina, A., & Rozelle, S. (2013). Gender Inequality in Education in China: A Meta-Regression Analysis. Contemporary Economic Policy, 32, 474-491.

 

A Brief Comparision of Confucius’ and Zhuangzi’s Political Views

Reflective journal for In Dialogue with Humanity.

Confucius and Zhuangzi are waiting for the prince, the prince wants to offer both of them a position as prime minister. How would they react? Explain why by comparing the two philosophers’ political views using examples from the texts of the Analects and Zhuangzi. Whose actions would you follow? Why?

Suppose that both Confucius and Zhuangzi were offered the occupation as prime minister of a prince. By comparing their political views, I argue that Confucius would take office only if the prince is virtuous, and then promote ren (humaneness) and li (ritual) in the country, while Zhuangzi would decline the offer because he longed for freedom.

Confucius would first examine the prince’s virtue in order to decide if he should take office. He said that if he owned a piece of beautiful jade, he would sell it when there was the right buyer (9:13). Slingerland explains that the metaphor of a treasure describes the unused talent or virtue. In this sense, a junzi (gentleman) should enter public life in order to share his virtue with the world, but only under a virtuous prince who approaches him in accordance with li. Confucius thus waited for a ritually- and morally-cultivated prince to recognize his virtue (91).

After taking office, Confucius would restore li. At the time, the aristocracies were largely extravagant and arrogant, exceeding the limits of li. Consequently, social order was falling apart, as evidenced by war, poverty and injustice. Confucius thought that only the restoration of li can reverse this trend (Slingerland xxiv). He claimed that the ruler should guide the common people with virtue and ritual instead of punitive measures (2:3). The order and harmony of a state depends on li, rather than coercive force.

Confucius would also promote ren, which forms the basis of li. He told Yan Yuan that restraining oneself and restoring li constitute ren: “If for one day you managed to restrain yourself and restore li, in this way you could lead the entire world back to ren.” (12:1) In other words, if a ruler deviates from ren, acting extravagantly and arrogantly, the people may disobey his order. Then he would have to resort to force; should they resist violence with violence, chaos would erput. In order to be a virtuous leader and create a harmonious society, one must possess ren to a substantial degree.

When it comes to Zhuangzi, he would refuse the offer because he sought freedom from conventional standards of judgment. Watson notes that in Zhuangzi’s view, while the ordinary people struggle for wealth, fame and power, the Perfect Person would cease to do so, because he views being without them no less desirable than holding them. Thus, he is free from man-made sufferings, the product of human’s purposeful and value-ridden actions (ix-x).

To illustrate his point, Zhuangzi told the story of the huge bird Peng. When Peng flied towards the southern darkness, he ascended to a height of nine thousand li (distance unit). The cicada, the dove and the quail could only fly as high as a tree, but they considered that as “the best kind of flying” and laughed at Peng arrogantly. Zhuangzi argued that ordinary people, no matter those well behaved in a community or those capable of governing a state, have the same kind of self-pride as those little creatures. The Perfect Person, in contrast, has no self, merit or fame (“Free and Easy Wandering”, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, 38-40).

Another example is in the Autumn Water. Two officials on behalf of the King of Chu offered Zhuangzi a top government post. Zhuangzi replied that instead of being like the sacred dead tortoise kept in Chu’s ancestral temple, he would rather be like an alive one dragging its tail in the mud. (“Autumn Water”, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, 137) The former kind of tortoise refers to the distiguished people trapped in conventional values of judgement. The latter one refers to the Perfect Person.

In conclusion, Confucius thought that a junzi should take public office under a virtuous ruler, and promote ren and li. Zhuangzi thought that the Perfect Person discards conventional values of judgement and thus gains freedom. I would follow Confucius’ actions, which would transform the society for the better and benefit the vast majority. Zhuangzi, however, only sought freedom on individual level.

Works Cited

Slingerland, Edward. Confucius Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. Document.

Watson, Burton. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Document.

The Analects, Professor Thomas, and the Supply Chain Major’s Interview

“Professor Thomas! We discussed the Analects the last time we met, at the supply chain program’s interview.” I said. The Global Supply Chain and Logistics Management program had a limited quota. I was among the applicants, who must attend the faculty’s interview. Hugh Thomas, a finance professor from the U.S., was one of the interviewers.

I still remember my speech to introduce myself at the interview on May 16, 2017. I mentioned my advantages, which included passion for liberal arts. Although it was a prepared speech, the interviewers could hear my nervousness. What they could not hear was that my philosophical knowledge was just passing. Prof. Thomas asked the first question: What was the most useful or impressive thing that you had learnt in university? I answered, “The university motto: Through learning and temperance to excellence.” (The last word should be virtue.)

I know the motto by heart, partly because I once quoted it to praise a girl. It was on December 2016, near the fall semester’s end. I was sounding her out on Wechat when she texted me, “Go for the finals. Don’t think of hitting on girls.” I replied that the first half showed learning and the second half temperance. “Through your short but wise words, I can see your profound insight.” Now, she’s dating with another guy. Of course, I did not tell this story. Prof. Thomas then asked me where does the motto come from (“The Analects.”) and who translated it (“James Legge.”) I boasted that after comparing three different translations, I found a better one: Erudition and Scrupulousness.

I thought the discussion on the Analects would end here, but it did not. Prof. Thomas asked about my remark on Legge’s translation. He caught me unprepared. “Er, well…” I said, “It was a good attempt…He didn’t know as much as the Chinese scholars, but anyway he tried, and introduced Chinese classics to the West.” “Do you know any criticism on his translation?” “Er, well…Since he didn’t know as much as the Chinese scholars, his translation had some mistakes.” “Can you give any example?” This time, the “Er, well” was followed by silence.

Prof. Thomas broke the silence: “It seems we’re off topic. Next question…” The discussion on the Analects seemed finished, but it was not. At the end of the interview, Prof. Thomas told me that Legge’s translation was too wordy. He then added, “I like your idea, but you know, it’s unlikely that the university will change the English motto.” It was also unlikely that I could enroll in the program. The faculty select applicants based on their GPA and interview performance, which count 80% and 20%, respectively. Only a GPA higher than 3.5 could guarantee a place in the program, while mine was only 3.1.

I did not meet Prof. Thomas until September 1, 2017. On the day, he delivered a speech at Shaw College’s orientation in Chinese. I happened to be the event’s volunteer. He was happy to see me: “I think I gave you high grade for the interview! Did you get in?” “Nope. I knew my GPA wasn’t high enough. I signed up because it was a good chance to meet the professors!” I told him that I studied economics, which was my first choice. He asked, “Which field of economics are you interested in?” He caught me unprepared again. I choose this mainstream major as it keeps many doors open. This is particularly important to me, because like most of my fellow students, I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.

Did we discuss the Analects? Certainly yes! Regarding the translation, I heard him saying, “Only a poet could get the feelings right.” I knew what he meant, and replied, “Ezra Pound.” Before saying goodbye, I told him my name. He switched to Chinese, “你贵姓?”“姓顾,照顾的顾。”Then I added, “健康成长的健成。”

 

 

Institution’s Impact on Economic Development: A “Review” of Why Nations Fail

Based on Intermediate Macroeconomics’ course project presented on July 27, 2017.

Why are some nations rich and others poor? Why are they divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine? Is it simply because of geography, culture, or capability of leaders? Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in their book Why Nations Fail that, man-made political and economic institutions underlie economic success or failure. To achieve prosperity, a state must reach some degree of centralization to maintain law and order, and impose inclusive institutions.

why-nations-fail

What does inclusive refer to? Imagine that you are a successful entrepreneur planning to invest abroad. You will surely find a country where order and law prevail. Particularly, property rights must be secure, and political power must be constrained. Otherwise the government may seize your investment at any time. There must be functional markets. Inclusive institutions satisfy all the above.

Inclusive institutions promote economic growth. They encourage investment, as property rights are protected. They allow the market to function well, so that resources are well-allocated. They offer new businesses easy entrance to the market and financial help, so more efficient firms can enter. They provide people with equal opportunity in education, industry, and etc. All these facilitate technological innovation. New technology leads to creative destruction, that is, the superior new replacing the old. Thus, the economy grows. This is a familiar episode—an increase in natural level of output.

The opposite of inclusive institutions are extractive ones, designed to extract wealth from one subset of the society (the masses) to another (the elites). They remove incentives for innovation, and even for production. Growth under extractive institutions is unsustainable. Despite this, the temptation to keep extractive institutions are too huge for the elites. They will make every effort to reconcile them.

The example of two sub-Saharan African countries, Sierra Leone and Botswana, can illustrate the institutional impact. In Sierra Leone, the British colonizers forced farmers to sell goods to the Marketing Board at exceptionally low prices. They established a diamond monopoly. They created the Chieftaincy system, where each hereditary chief rules a particular region. The Chiefs enjoyed considerable powers, and had no need to seek popular support or legitimacy.

Did the people of Sierra Leone win liberty after the country gained independence? In 1967, Siaka Stevens came to power. He eventually established a violent dictatorship. He took over many colonial institutions: He used the Marketing Board more intensively to expropriate farmers. He nationalized the diamond monopoly, whose revenue went to the pockets of the elites. He relied on Chiefs to rule the interior. He also had an important railway pulled up, even though it was a major source of export income. The reason was that the railway connected the support bases of Stevens’s political opponents. He wanted to weaken those places in order to consolidate his power. This is another familiar episode—a decrease in capital stock.

One year before Stevens took power, Botswana declared independence. At the time, it was a poor country with GDP per capita of 70 dollars, 12 kilometers of paved roads, 22 college graduates and 100 secondary school graduate. But in the following years, Botswana would remain a stable democracy, experience rapid growth, and reach the highest income level in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, it’s already an upper middle income country. Botswana’s success lies in inclusive institutions: Secure property rights, stable macroeconomic policies, investment in education and infrastructure, and democracy with checks and balances.

Picture1

The GDP per capita of these two countries tells a lot. In the 1960s, they were in the same low level. But Sierra Leone has remained poor, while Botswana has gone all the way up.

The idea of institutional impact echoes the Chinese classic The Great Learning. “Where wealth is concentrated [in the hands of the elite], the people disperse. Where wealth is dispersed [among the people], the people concentrate.” “The state does not benefit from making profits. It benefits from equity.” Inclusive institutions help ensure that rulers act on equity, instead of profiting themselves.