8 Questions for Peter Geithner, China Hand (Part 2)

Our interview with Peter Geithner went a little long so we’ve broken it up into two parts. At the end of part one, Peter was talking about the Tiananmen Square protests and how the Ford Foundation office in New York was considering shutting the fledgling Beijing office down.

So the New York office wanted to pull out at that point but you convinced them to stay?

Yes, they thought we were at personal risk. I came back to New York in August for a meeting and was asked to speak. I thought I was going to be tarred and feathered because my understanding of what had occurred was so totally at odds with the impressions conveyed by the prevailing Western media at the time. It was a fascinating education. But as to what we were talking about—the importance of mutual access and understanding—this was a perfect example.

What do you think about U.S. media coverage of China nowadays?

I think you have a full spectrum—the China-is-a-threat school and on the other extreme, China is the darling of the developing world. I think you have a gradually broadening base of more informed access and understanding which is in the interest of both countries and is reciprocal. You have the division in China the same way you have here.

There are certain websites, like the National Committee on US-China Relations, which try and be more objective and comprehensive in their coverage, but inevitably there will be an incident that will get a flash of coverage that is not contextually grounded, which leads to misperceptions.

I’d like to talk a bit more about the Ford Foundation. How do you decide what to fund, whom to give money to, what to research?

Since 1951, when the Ford Foundation first began to fund nationally and internationally, it has operated on the premise that it would delegate the responsibility for deciding what to support, whom to support and how to support them to the field officers established in those countries the Foundation sought to be active in. Those groups in those countries should be consistent with the broader range of the Foundation’s overall concerns—the three or four main themes that the Ford Foundation is pursuing at any one time—but the actual decisions about how, what and whom are delegated.

Despite changes in the Foundation’s leadership since 1950, that basic operating principle has been upheld. Every time there’s a new president, there’s some fear that they will want to run it from New York, but the trustees have helped ensure that the decentralized decision making structure has sustained.

So you’re sitting in Beijing or Delhi or elsewhere, and you try to become as informed as you can about the local environment—who’s doing what to whom, who has the capacity to do what they’re seeking funds to do. You want to be as knowledgeable as you can, so being on the ground you are certainly in a much better position to do so than if you were in New York. When someone comes in the door asking for money to do something, they’re often surprised that they can almost get an immediate answer. If the program officer in concern is doing their job, they already have a sense of what the needs and opportunities are and who has the capacity to be effective.

What do you think about the state of philanthropy in China right now?

I think the growth of private philanthropy in China is one of the encouraging elements of the process of moving from the all-embracing party state to a more deconcentrated, decentralized authority that can be more responsive to local needs and opportunities. That has coincided with the rapid increase of high net worth individuals. They are now at the point where they feel an obligation to give back to the society that enabled them to achieve such impressive wealth. They are in the throes of figuring out how to do so.

They tend to have a bias toward direct giving rather than grant making and there are two reasons for that. One is that they are used to the way the government does everything from the top down. They figure they can do it better than the government so they’ll do it the same way by giving money to their own pet projects or programs.

The second, more charitable explanation is because there are still few transparent, accountable NGOs to give to. My hope is that foundations, over the next five to ten years, will see the importance of strengthening and facilitating the growth of transparent and accountable independent NGOs that they could give money to and support their worthwhile activities. Now some of that is going on and there is a joint effort by the US-China Foundation to support the growth of the non-governmental sector.

So you’re pretty optimistic about the future development of philanthropy?

I’m optimistic about the trends that we are seeing increasing evidence of, but you still have a leadership that, while committed to reform, has a desire to keep control over the process. That leads to these alternating periods of relaxation and restriction, vis-à-vis the development of the non-profit sector and philanthropy.

This next question is more about your personal life. Your son, Secretary Geithner, studied in China. Did you instill that interest in him or did he make that decision himself?

This story goes back a while. From 1962 to 1964, I was in what was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. While we were there, the federation broke up and southern Rhodesia became Rhodesia and northern Rhodesia became Zambia and Nyasaland became Malawi. So we actually lived eight months in Salzburg, and then sixteen months in Osaka.

Tim was a year old when we landed in Salzburg; our daughter Sarah was born in Osaka, and the twins were born once we got back to America. Then we were given the opportunity to join the Ford Foundation and go to New Delhi where we lived for five years, ‘68 to ‘73, and the kids all went to the international school there.

It was a very educational experience because we had the privilege of annual leave. The kids would come back in the summer with my wife for a month or so, and then get back on the plane to Delhi as if they were going to Chicago or Baltimore.

In Delhi, we were working with the Ford Foundation to support local institutions and actors so our social life was based on contact with scholarly and academic communities in India. Our social life was not at the embassy with the diplomatic circle but with the Indian professional community. Therefore, the guests at home the kids met were Indian families.

At the international school, they didn’t fall into the extremes that many other foreign students did—they didn’t become more Indian than the Indians, or totally reject anything to do with India and isolate themselves within the Western community.

Tim went off to college a year before we came back. He was in Hanover, New Hampshire and China was just beginning to become interesting for Western observers. There was Susan Blater, a Chinese language instructor at Dartmouth who had this incredible ability to motivate people to take the language. Tim had to take a language requirement, and since Thai wasn’t taught—the rest of the family was still in Bangkok—he opted to take Chinese, largely because Susan was such an effective motivator.

He went to Beijing for two summers, learned crosstalk and enough Chinese to get by. When he graduated, he went to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies as I had gone and he took Chinese there. After he got his master’s, he joined the Treasury as a junior civil servant and was sent to Tokyo. In Tokyo he studied Japanese and was there for two years before he came back.

Japan was the flavor of the month in the early 80s so he got a lot of attention from the Treasury in Washington, more so than he would’ve ordinarily because in the two years while he was in Tokyo, the attaché position was vacant, and Tim as the assistant attaché got much more exposure to senior levels as a result.

So he went back to Washington and went up through special assistant to assistant secretary to undersecretary and ultimately became secretary. We always laugh because Wang Qishan told Tim at the Strategic and Economic Dialogues that Tim has to call him uncle because Wang Qishan and I used to be counterparts at the Strategic and Economic Dialogues. I funded Wang’s graduate studies in the early 80s and then he became mayor of Beijing. I saw him recently and it’s nice to see that continuity within the family.

Last question. You have traveled extensively in China, what was one of your favorite places?

Rural development was one of the areas of concentration in the first decade for the Ford Foundation in China and Yunnan was the focus for that so I am quite attached to Yunnan, Lijiang and elsewhere.

I bet it’s changed a lot since you first went there.

I came through Burma last year and came out through Chengdu and couldn’t believe the change that has happened there. Back in the day, Chengdu was a small, quiet, almost village-like rural town and now it’s just skyscrapers and flyovers. It’s really incredible.

Transcription by Mariah Deters and Huizhong Wu.