(published in the South China Morning Post, February 2001)
by Philip Cunningham
Mao Zedong once said that he’d like to be remembered as a teacher. I think it’s an appropriate way to remember Michel Oksenberg, one of America’s leading China specialists who passed away in Atherton, California on February 22, 2001. Oksenberg was a key architect in the normalization of US-China relations as the China expert on President Carter’s National Security Council, he served as the President of the East-West Center, he acted as consultant for top US firms trying to negotiate the China market and he wrote numerous articles and books about China. But first and foremost, he was a teacher.
Oksenberg was a big man on campus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he spent most of his career training hundreds of men and women in the art of interpreting Chinese politics. His rigorous year-long graduate seminar on the Politburo required weekly reports and tons of reading, but the toughest part was fielding his questions in class. Woe be to the unprepared among a dozen of us who sat around a table in his line of fire.
To help us understand the brute realities of politburo politics in the Maoist years both viscerally and in terms of human psychology, Oksenberg had each of his students assume the role of a key leader (Liu Shaoqi in my case) and then proceeded to browbeat us all into submission in his role as Mao. From that I learned that being "first among equals" has nothing to do with equality, and everything to do with being first. As our teacher, and by extension Mao, he operated on an entirely different plane from everyone else.
As Oksenberg’s graduate teaching assistant, I watched him work his charm on undergraduate students, employing a mix of high-powered intellect and corny gags, such as showing up for class in the traditional Mandarins robe and cap. He was a busy man who answered every letter and phone call, a highly paid consultant for business and government who liked to shoot the breeze with students for hours on end. Several times he corraled me into taking a ride to an airport in another city so that we could continue to talk about whatever it was we were talking about. He was not one to let work get in the way of friendship or family life, both of which he treasured. When a particularly bright fellow student was stricken with AIDS, Oksenberg arranged to accelerate his PhD program so that the young man would leave behind a body of intellectual work.
For many, Oksenberg’s intellectual influence is evident in the choice of China-oriented careers in academia and government. For some of us, the sense of mission he imparted, that of trying to learn as much as possible about China, led away from a career in America to China itself, to be there immersed in the culture, to better understand things first hand.
In 1987 while still living the student life on a campus in Beijing, I was invited to meet Oksenberg at the Jianguo Hotel. There with him in a small dining room at a chamber of commerce gathering was Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Bette Bao Lord and one of my classmates. The mood was festive, reflecting the fine state of US-China relations.
Beijing’s harsh crackdown on the student protests two years later at Tiananmen was a turning point that forced many optimistic China watchers to challenge previous assumptions. The tenth anniversary of US-China relations was depressing, especially those who had dedicated their lives to creating and enhancing bilateral ties. Oksenberg and I had a very public argument on live television in a 1989 ABC Nightline program about the Tiananmen crackdown and the deteriorating state of US-China relations. Always a good sport when it came to tough questions and contrary opinion, Oksenberg not only did not take offence, but insisted on inviting me to speak at the University of Michigan and attend a football game with him and his family.
When he visited China after the June 4 watershed as a high level emmisary to get things back on track, he admitted he was loath to shake hands with leaders involved with the killing, but made a point of saying that China had many areas of common interest with the US, not to mention a huge nuclear arsenal, and should not be isolated or contained.
In 1996 I obtained a copy of Wei Jingsheng's prison correspondence smuggled into Japan which I broke as a news story in Asahi Shimbun, AP and the New York Times on the same day. That night I was woken up by a surprise call. It was Mike Oksenberg calling from Stanford to offer some “avuncular advice" to "get out of town for a while" as he thought I was being tagged by Chinese agents in Japan.
Shortly after that I visited him at Stanford, where he confided that he was finding it harder and harder to tell if Beijing scholars who came to see him had friendly intentions. How things had changed from the first flush of US-China amity in the early 1980s, when he had endless patience and good humor with the never-ending flow of Chinese scholars anxious to meet him.
The US bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy was a rude shock to US-China relations, an inauspicious turn of events on the twentieth anniversary of normalization. Shortly after the still-disputed event, I queried China analyst Ezra Vogel at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he had been invited to speak by Professor David Zweig, another former Oksenberg student. I then wrote an article, with Vogel’s permission, that suggested the embassy may have been automatically targeted because of unusual electronic communications activity. A sensational headline on the topic caught the eye of my former professor who wrote to say he thought the bombing was truly accidental, and was deeply distressed about what the incident was doing to bilateral relations.
Among the many wonderful Chinese works of art and books in his Chinese-furnished living room, Oksenberg once showed me a book of calligraphy that Zhou Enlai had given to Nixon and Nixon had in turn given to him. In it the US president wrote a “Dear Mike” note on what he took to be the front page--actually the last page of the book--with all the calligraphy upside down. We both smiled, as that pretty much summed up the challenges of US-China relations.
During the last days of his illness Professor Oksenberg declared his desire to emerge triumphant no matter what happened. While death spares no one in the end, I think he defeated fear, leaving life as he lived it, full of passion, intelligence and dignity.