8 Questions for Peter Geithner, China Hand (Part 1)

Peter Geithner spent 28 years with the Ford Foundation and, in addition to being the Foundation’s first representative in China, served as the Director of Asia Programs. He is currently an advisor to the Harvard University Asia Center and consults for the China Medical Board. He kindly sat down with us and shared some of the incredible experiences in his decades of work with China.

Our interview with Peter Geithner went a little long so we’ve broken it up into two parts. You can read part two here.

When and why did you first come to China?

I had been the Ford Foundation representative in Southeast Asia for five years from 1977 to 1981. I came back to the New York office to be the program officer in charge of developing countries.

When I got back to New York, I learned that the Ford Foundation trustees, with considerable reluctance, had approved, two months before, a special appropriation of $200,000 to explore whether there was anything the Ford Foundation could do in this Communist dictatorship of the People’s Republic.

I took a bit of that $200,000 so that I could do a minimum amount of grant making and that led me to make my first visit to Beijing to explore the prospects for foundation work there.

That led me to have great faith in the fact that timing is everything in life, because when I first went to China in the early 80s, reforms were just beginning, the opportunities in China were growing and the foundation’s ability financially to respond was growing. I was just fortunate enough to be in the position to take advantage of that combination of factors.

At the time, why was the Ford Foundation looking at China?

I think it was a response to the reform and opening and, since the Ford Foundation was active in major developing countries, it was appropriate to at least explore whether or not the reforms were genuine enough for the Foundation to be constructively involved. Given the size and importance of China, it seemed obvious to me that the Foundation should at least see whether there was anything useful we could do there. But at the time, foundations, especially foreign foundations, were suspect in China. There was the fear that they were seeking to overthrow the Communist government.

The first year, my visits were largely just to get a better sense of what the environment was like. I was focused on mutual access and understanding and trying to learn about China and help China learn about private foundations.

It was quickly apparent that we could work there with as much flexibility as we had in India since 1950. Over the next year or two, we decided to concentrate our efforts in three areas which were seemingly timely and relevant to the emerging reforms in China. Those were economics, education research, law and legal reform and international relations.

So you were with the Ford Foundation for 28 years. What kinds of projects are you working on now?

Well I’m doing primarily private philanthropy and promotion, particularly in China and working with the East-West Center, with a group called China-U.S. Strategic Philanthropy (CUSP).

I’m doing a lot of consulting for the China Medical Board, a private American foundation active in China. I go back and forth between China and America. I’m on several boards as well, so that keeps me engaged.

How has working in China influenced you?

You have to know where a country is coming from in order to understand where it’s heading and how it’s getting there. What was so obvious to me so quickly was that China had been an all-embracing party state, top down for centuries in management and government.

The U.S. started with individual settlers coming from Europe to a virgin territory so to speak, operating at the local level and only ceding authority to higher levels of administration when it became essential to do so, and often with great reluctance.

China was just the opposite. Here you had four centuries of top-down administration. So many people were coming to China in those days thinking that China was just like us, and it couldn’t have been more different, where it was coming from. Going back and forth from China made that so painfully clear and I found myself trying constantly to disabuse visiting Americans who saw China as just like the U.S.

There was very little understanding about China at the time.

What do you think about the level of understanding about China now?

Well it’s growing all the time, in both directions. The degree of mutual access and understanding has been steadily increasing to the benefit of both countries. It’s a work in progress but certainly one in which the level of access and understanding is continuing to increase, and the necessity of that is becoming increasingly obvious from the U.S. side as we appreciate the growing importance of China internationally.

How do you think we can promote mutual understanding? What are some things we can do?

Support the study of China in U.S. universities; support efforts to promote public interest and awareness through seminars, workshops, exchange visits to facilitate dialogue. That all has been very important over the last couple of decades and continues to be important.

What do you think is currently one of the biggest misconceptions about China?

Well there’s the school of thought that China is a threat, and in China there’s a similar perception that the U.S. is seeking to thwart China’s legitimate increasing influence and impact in the global arena. Both sides have those who are enamored of China and tend to overlook the problems it faces, just like those in China overlook the issues that the U.S. has to make progress in resolving. So you have extremes on each side but the center is growing more informed, fortunately.

What was the most memorable experience in your time here?

Well I think being there at the time of Tiananmen was extraordinarily educational, if you will. I was living in Beijing at the time and going back and forth from Taiyuan. It was one of those tragedies that shouldn’t have happened and was so terribly distorted in terms of the Western media coverage.

The problems began in January when fears of inflation led the Chinese government to clamp down on growth and that produced growing levels of urban unemployment. At the same time, you had the students beginning their peaceful marches from Haidian to the Square and you had the Goddess of Democracy which was a symbol that the student radicals appreciated the international value of.

They occupied the square to call attention to abuses but it was a propaganda gesture that was overplayed. The media, the foreign press coverage was just totally uninformed. The irony was that during the six-month period leading up to Tiananmen each side threatened, took some action that ratcheted up the level of uncertainty and unrest, so the other side responded in kind and that led to this escalation of tension and broadening of dissatisfaction.

With Zhao Ziyang, there was, for the first time, dissention and disagreement in the leadership. Up to that point, the agreement, the uniformity of position, meant that the situation was containable. By June, I think the leadership was faced with either capitulating and turning leadership over to some undefined public body or to reassert central control, and that led to the decision to move troops which had been surrounding the city and interacting positively with the local population. The order was given to reoccupy, to remove protestors from the square, and troops began to move in from the various quadrants.

They were met by a hostile public which resisted their entry, often by force. The irony is that some of the protestors were the ones who initiated the use of force against the military moving in, rather than the reverse. That led to this exchange of violence and of course the square was evacuated peacefully.

Nicholas Kristof deserves a lot of credit because he was the one foreign journalist who had been there and understood the evolution of the incident and the misinformation that was so widely propagated in the Western media about the nature of it. He actually was reporting from the top of the Great Hall of the People. The extent of the violence was grossly exaggerated in the Western media.

I went to a meeting in Hong Kong several days later that had already been scheduled and was met by the dean of Nankai University who was in tears because he’d heard that 10,000 Tianjin students had been massacred in Tiananmen Square. The actual verified casualties were somewhere between 300 and 1,000.

Also, I was so grateful to be there because I got a call at midnight from the Ford Foundation in New York suggesting we close the office and come home, because the media coverage they were being exposed to suggested we were at great risk. Having gone back and forth to the square during that period leading up to the incident, it was clear to me that foreigners were not the target and that the incident was not intended to reverse the reforms but instead to regain control so they could go forward.

That was clearly verified when more students and scholars left China to go abroad in the fall of ’89 than in the fall of ’88, contrary to the Western interpretation that this was the end of the reforms, that Tiananmen represented the squelching of the reform process. We were able both to maintain a Ford Foundation office in Beijing and to convince the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China that they should continue to function, not give up, because there were some in the U.S. who were calling for the end of the committee to get back at the government for massacring these students at Tiananmen Square.

To do so, to cut off scholarly communication, would have heightened the insecurity that was most potently felt by the scholars in China who had been participating in exchange programs with the U.S. and other Western countries. It was very important that those contacts continued as a way of giving them some sense that they were not being discarded.

It was a fascinating time, no question about it. I was so irritated and frustrated by the distortion in the Western media that I wanted to fund a study of the media coverage to demonstrate how misguided and unhelpful it was. We asked the Associated Press and they did a study. If you read it carefully with an understanding of what actually took place, you can find appropriate criticism of the distortion of the Western media, but of course it was shrouded in a lot of self-congratulatory praise. More importantly, when Bucharest blew up in the fall of ’89, the media was much more cautious, so it did have an impact on future coverage of such events, fortunately.

Our interview with Peter Geithner went a little long so we’ve broken it up into two parts. You can read part two here.

Transcription by Mariah Deters and Huizhong Wu.