Trustee Gao builds Duke's China ties

A Duke School of Law alumnus transformed modern U.S. foreign policy toward China in 1972. But the law school's most prominent Chinese graduate is just glad that his countrymen learned how to spell "Duke."

Since President Richard Nixon, Law '37, held his historic meeting with Premier Chou En-lai and Chairman Mao Tse-tung to normalize U.S. relations with China, the University has struggled to establish its own bond with the world's most populous country.

The July 1 appointment of Gao Xiqing, Law '86, to the Board of Trustees is a development that could greatly aid Duke's effort. Gao, whom Esquire magazine called "one of the most powerful men in the world," was the first Chinese citizen to pass the New York State Bar Exam. He was a Richard Nixon Scholar in the School of Law and he worked for Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Ferdon in New York-the law firm where Nixon worked.

Gao is now the general manager and chief investment officer of the China Investment Corp.-a sovereign wealth fund worth $200 billion launched in September 2007. He arrived in Durham Thursday to attend his first Board of Trustees meeting this weekend.

The University's reputation in China is "much better" than when he graduated from the School of Law in 1986, Gao said.

"When I first went back very few people had heard of Duke, they all knew Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton," he said. "There were times when I received letters addressed to 'Duck.'"

Making global connections

China has moved from being a place of interest to being the University's top international priority, said Gilbert Merkx, vice provost for international affairs. He said top administrators have become more focused on the country in the past three years, but added that Gao's selection was not merely to boost the University's reputation in China.

"He's clearly on the Board not because he's a Chinese government official, but because he's a successful business man," he said. "Gradually it will become an international board rather than a national board-that would be my prediction."

Negative publicity from incidents like last year's Grace Wang episode-when the Chinese sophomore became the center of an international controversy after some believed her attempt to mediate a Tibet protest was a move against China-do not accurately measure Duke's reputation in the country, Merkx said.

"Our stock in China goes up as our rating in Newsweek goes up," he noted.

As a successful business person, Gao fits the typical profile of a Board member, Merkx said. The only difference is that Gao is a Chinese citizen and the University's first Asian Trustee.

Even if Gao was not chosen for his nationality, his appointment as a Trustee still means that the man who manages China's foreign exchange reserves will be making important decisions about the University. Gao said making global connections is a valuable objective for Duke.

"It's important for every educational institution, but especially important with China," he said.

If Duke wants to catch up with other universities that are investing heavily in China, the appointment of an alumnus like Gao makes sense, said Ralph Litzinger, director of the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute.

"It's a win-win for the Chinese government, and it's a win-win for Duke," he said.

Concerns over Gao's appointment

Kristin Butler, Trinity '08, and Ed Rickards, Trinity '63, criticized Gao's appointment in a September column published in The Chronicle. They questioned the Board's judgment in appointing a Chinese government official, citing the Chinese government's historical disregard for human rights.

Butler, however, said the column's criticism was not specifically about China.

"The problems we see in Gao's appointment have more to do with the clandestine manner in which he was selected, the self-perpetuating nature of the Board itself," she wrote in an e-mail. "There's a very plausible argument to be made in favor of engagement with China. But let's have that debate in The Chronicle and on the quad, not behind closed doors."

Those familiar with Gao's reputation in China said they were outraged by what they called unfair criticism: Gao is an investor, not a politician, they said. He is a capitalist who was instrumental in the founding of a Chinese stock exchange in Shanghai.

Scott Savitt, Trinity '85, said in a September interview that Gao was a valuable addition to the Board, particularly because of his experience.

"He is a solid member of the reformist branch of the Chinese government," said Savitt, who worked as a journalist in Beijing for more than 15 years. "He knows Chinese society from the bottom up. He's worked on factories, he's worked on farms. I don't think there are too many American politicians who have had the same background," he said.

But there is still some possibility for controversy surrounding Gao's appointment because of the emergence of sovereign wealth funds as a heated topic on Wall Street, said Connel Fullenkamp, associate professor of economics.

"It's somewhat controversial sure, the fact that there is potential for political influences on sovereign wealth fund managers," he said. "It really depends whether we see any of those political influences brought to bear."

Giving back to Duke

Gao's journey to Duke took several interesting turns. He was part of a wave of Chinese students who earned Duke law degrees in the 1980s. Gao, who was living in California at the time, drove across the country in a yellow 1979 Ford Pinto to enroll at Duke.

"People tried to wave me down, thinking that I was a cab," he said.

Gao was the second Chinese student to enroll during the tenure of Paul Carrington, former dean at the School of Law. Several other Chinese students followed him.

"It was a mixed bag, some of them didn't do very well," Carrington said of the students. "Gao, of course, was the star of the group."

And Gao said he is committed to his alma mater.

"It's part of a culture here to give back to the university that trained you," said John Gruetzner, vice chair of Intercedent Limited, a business advisory firm in Shanghai. Gruetzner praised Gao as a hardworking professional and said Rickards and Butler's criticism was unfair.

Gao, however, downplayed the contribution his financial experience would bring to the Board by noting the large collection of successful investors among the current Trustees.

"They have all these very capable people-they don't need me," he said.

Perhaps more important for Duke than Gao's commitment to the University is his commitment to his home country. His loyalty to China could bode well for Duke's relationship with the rapidly growing nation.

"The first thing that stood out to me was: This guy's a patriot," Carrington said. "He was a bridge, and he liked that."


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