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Tsinghua University and the Asia-Pacific Dream

Policymakers back in Singapore do not question the rise of China even if they are not sure of the exact timing. Even though we are a small island, we are now the largest foreign investor in China after Japan pulled out of some investments following the Anti-Japanese protests. As most of the ministers and permanent secretaries in Singapore only have degrees from America and the U.K., we might need to consider rebalancing towards China, lest the anglicized side of our heritage overwhelm our Asian values and leave us culturally enervated. Given Singapore’s recent participation in and support of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and our sizable investments in developing countries in Asia such as India, Myanmar and Kazakhstan, we have growing reasons to do so. The UTC +08:00 time-zone is already the most populous time-zone and it is likely that the economic and financial synchronization of this time-zone will be the biggest story in my life-time.

My sense of this is increased every-time I see the large Thai and South Korean contingents (other countries that have also traditionally depended heavily on America) that have gathered at Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management (SEM) for their MBAs and at Tsinghua University more generally. If demographics and debt are destiny as two Singaporean sages once opined, then the relative decline of the West in general is inevitable. Tsinghua University as you my cosmopolitan audience might know is the dream of many Chinese students since they could walk. Throngs of tourists walk through the campus located on a mesmerizingly lush campus which has been voted as one of the world’s top ten most beautiful college campuses and which used to be a Qing Dynasty garden. Ex-Premier Zhu Rongji remains the resident sage at SEM if kowtowing to dead white men is not your cup of tea. The East Asian gardens and school culture may not be your idea of this side of paradise but the twenty cafeteria complexes that are supplied by university food farms and priced at communistic levels put to shame the restaurants and cafeterias of Princeton University, especially you Prospect House. True, I may now be reduced to an unethical all meat spicy hotpot (麻辣火) for 20 RMB with my classmates rather than the 40 USD vegan dinners with the lecturers of the interdisciplinary environmentalism symposium but the overall quality may actually have improved. I think to myself that you know maybe the IMF is really right that China has surpassed the US in purchasing power parity as I take my 30 RMB Uber or DiDi for the same distance in Beijing that would have cost 100 USD in rural New Jersey.   

Nicholas Nassim Taleb theorized that we should look for asymmetric payoffs in life where the potential payoff is larger than the costs. If there is such a thing as a superpower dividend for a country’s prestigious universities, then Tsinghua might one day take its place alongside HYPS and Oxbridge. Of all the MBA programs that are in a top 100 list, this one may have the lowest fees and most generous subsidies. Even HEC Paris which I visited to consider if I should do an exchange or double-degree there suggested that international students might have more luck securing employment in emerging market job fairs than in Europe. Putting aside the high debt-loads and concomitant stress that comes with most top Western MBA programs, there is something deeply self-defeating and perverse about even Harvard’s or HEC Paris’ rankings if there is insufficient governmental and school support for international MBA students in their graduating labor markets. Perhaps I should not be surprised after reading stories of Spanish masters’ graduates cleaning toilets in London, seeing the looks of desperation in the faces of young Europeans from second-tier cities or seeing Ivy League graduates wait tables in Starbucks. This is not to say that the MBA program of Tsinghua is without problems but at least with its recent revamp of its Career Development Office, it does seem to take criticism to heart and actions to reform itself. Tsinghua has caught up a lot in a very short time and perhaps it is that spirit and motto of unceasing self-improvement (自强不息) that will ultimately determine how far it can go. It is the attitude of “not that we have already attained” that can take us higher on this journey. There is no end to history or perfect universal system in this fallen world except in the corrupt fantasies of the utterly depraved. 

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