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In Philly, Jiang's Former Teacher Talks About His Student

【Business Week Online, November 5, 1997】On the coffee table in the cluttered living room of his apartment on Locust Street in downtown Philadelphia, Ku Yu-hsiu, 95, has a copy of a recent issue of China's leading newspaper, People's Daily. On the front page is a photo of Ku, his wife, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin sitting on Ku's sofa during Jiang's visit to Philadelphia last week. The photograph captures Jiang in the act of eating from a bowl of lotus seeds. "This picture is worth a lot of money," Ku says with a laugh. 

A poet and musical composer as well as a distinguished professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Ku has a unique insight into China's current leader. Jiang was a student of Ku's at Shanghai's Jiaotong University before the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic of China. Ku fled China in 1950 with his family, like many others who held positions in the Kuomintang government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Ku served as both an Education Vice-Minister and as president of National Central College during the '30s and '40s). 

But he has made eight trips back to his homeland since 1973. And he maintains an impressive set of guanxi, or connections, with Chinese leaders. Many of China's ruling class are engineers by training, and a fair number were either Ku's students or, like economic czar Zhu Rongji and Deputy Premier Wu Bangguo, were students of Ku's students. 

These connections allowed Ku to ask a favor after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Ku urged Jiang — then a high-level Chinese government official — to let astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, hiding at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, leave the country for asylum in America. Chinese President Deng Xiaoping suspected Fang of being an American agent who had masterminded the student uprising. Deng had vowed to make the pro-democracy scientist spend the rest of his life holed up in the embassy. But Jiang persuaded Deng to let Fang leave. "It is a measure of Jiang's ability as a leader that he was able to convince Deng to release his anger," says Ku, who received a personal phone call from Jiang advising him in advance of Fang's release. 

Ku himself was beaten as an activist in the May 4 student movement in China in 1919. "I was in that demonstration," he says. "Deng wasn't. He was too young." He argues that whoever was behind the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, the students made the mistake of refusing to negotiate a peaceful departure from the square. 

While confessing that he "can't really recall" having Jiang as a student, Ku claims that this is the Chinese tradition. "In China, professors don't remember their students; student's remember their teachers," he says, his eyes twinkling. And there are, he says, a lot of things he didn't know about his protege. "I didn't know he could swim. Or dance," he says. "Or speak English so well. He's really very versatile." 

While declining to divulge the nature of the conversation he had over dianxin (dimsum) during Jiang's visit to his apartment, Ku says he has big hopes for his former student. "Jiang has a great future," he says.  Jiang is "patient, mature, and level-headed." He adds: "This visit to America was very important for him. The U.S. can't ignore him anymore. He returns in a much better position to lead his country, too, since nobody in China can compare to him in international prestige now." 

The visit may have been important in other ways, too. Ku says Jiang was much aware of the protests that dogged his visit. The Chinese President listened to the demonstrators who tried to disrupt his visit to Harvard. "He knows more about how the U.S. works -- and about how the U.S. Congress works -- and he knows how difficult President Clinton's job is," says Ku. "Now he has to go back to China and reflect on what he has learned." 

Ku has used his student-teacher relationship in other ways over the years in the cause of smoothing Sino-American relations. When President Ronald Reagan wanted to visit China in 1983, Ku claims he counseled Deng to send then-General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to America to make arrangements. 

And the future? "I think that relations between the U.S. and China will get better," Ku believes. On the human rights front, he predicts that prominent imprisoned Chinese dissidents like Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan will be released before too long -- probably for exile in the West. More important, Ku expects freedom to come to China. "Eventually, but slowly," he says, "because that is the Chinese way."

By David Lindorff in Philadelphia

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