When Board of Trustees member Gao Xiqing was a railroad worker in China, the only book he had to read was Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.”
Gao, president of the China Investment Corporation and Law ’86, visited Duke for the December Board meeting this weekend, but while here, also spoke to more than 100 members of the Duke community. Gao discussed his upbringing in China and the changing relationship between his native land and the United States in an open session Saturday. Gao acknowledged the tension between China and the United States but encouraged increased collaboration between the countries, expressing support for communism in China.
Under Chairman Mao’s rule, Gao performed hard labor on a railroad for three years. He was rationed 1.5 pounds of food per day and 13 yuan per month, which was not enough to live on, he said, noting that Chinese and American students today have a much easier life.
Throughout the question and answer session, which was sponsored by the Chinese Students Association, he emphasized the importance of dedication to academic pursuits and advised Duke students that they should not take their education for granted.
“You have so many more opportunities than we had, and you have to take advantage of them,” Gao said. “I felt so privileged and happy to be in a law school…. All of a sudden, such a wealth of books.”
After graduating from Duke, Gao worked at a Wall Street law firm, helped develop the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges and now manages the China Investment Corporation—a roughly $400 billion sovereign wealth fund in China.
Chinese student Shiyuan Wang, a master’s of law candidate, said this is a dream career for a Chinese law student.
“As the Duke community, we are so proud of Mr. Gao’s achievements,” said senior Pengpeng Wang, president of the Chinese Student Association.
Gao said he is lucky that he is holding his current position at a time when the global standing of China and America are changing. He added that American political leaders need to approach China with a more open mind, noting that China should be seen as an equal on the world stage.
“Both [America and China] have great potential and great strength, but we are human, and we are fallible,” he said. “We should work together.”
Even though most Americans might be opposed to communism, Gao said, it is clear that the American democratic system is breaking down, while the Chinese system is functioning. He explained that it is difficult to make a democracy work when so many people across the political spectrum are voting, making it challenging to please everybody. This is particularly prevalent now when radical groups such as the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street are becoming popular, further polarizing the population.
He added that Chinese communism is effective for ruling a large and dispersed population but prefaced this by noting that China and the United States have very different cultures and histories. Although some claim Chinese communism has caused problems such as unequal education throughout the country and prevalent poverty, Gao said these issues are symptoms of distribution, not with communism itself.
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“[Communism] is the party of the people,” he said. “We treat people equally. We want everyone to be happy. Maybe not rich, but at least they have food.”
In the aftermath of Europe’s financial crisis, several countries asked the China Investment Corporation for financial assistance. But Gao said it would be unwise for China to help these countries. Despite China’s large GDP and its steadiness throughout the financial crisis, the GDP per capita is lower than those of many European countries currently suffering.
“It would be wrong for China to give to these countries—we have our own problems to solve first,” Gao said.
In his parting words, Gao encouraged Duke’s Chinese students to return to China because the country needs people with the diligence of a Duke student. They should keep in mind, however, that “China is China” and people who stayed in China for school are somewhat suspect of people who study in a Western country.
Ze Wang, a first-year master’s candidate in East Asian studies, said she previously believed that people who left China to study were not very loyal Chinese citizens.
“Gao is a wonderful guy,” Wang said. “He really clarified misunderstandings I had about people who study in the U.S. and then go back to China…. He really is concerned about China.”