Interview: Globalization of business, education and China: interview with prof. Chiwen Jevons Lee

A Brief Scetch : He has taught at many leading institutions around the world, such as University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University in U.S., Tsinghua University, Peking University in Beijing,  HKUST in Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, …

Instytut Boyma 16.01.2020

Ewelina Horoszkiewicz: Hello, Professor Lee. I want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with me.

Chi-Wen Jevons Lee: The pleasure is all mine, I always admire individuals with the will to learn.

EH: Today, I would like to discuss your contribution to the globalization of Chinese business education and your thoughts of China’s role in the global marketplace. But before we begin, I’d like to get to know your story a little bit better. Who is Chi-Wen Lee, where did he come from?

CWJL: My full name is Chi-Wen Jevons Lee. I was born during the second world war, in China. I didn’t stay there long. My father was part of the Nationalist army that retreated to Taiwan. I spent most of my childhood there with my parents and six siblings.

EH: That was a very large family. What was it like growing up in Taiwan? Did you feel welcomed by Taiwan or did you still feel attached to China?

CWJL: The Mainland Chinese were rejected by the Taiwanese Chinese even though we were from the same heritage. Taiwan was previously occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese had a very close relationship with Taiwan. When the mainlanders came over, we didn’t come in waves, we came as a tsunami. The millions that flooded Taiwan also brought extreme poverty as the tiny island resources struggled to support the refugees. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with aching hunger pains, but this wasn’t just my experience, it was a very poor generation for Taiwan.

EH: There’s a Chinese saying about success being found in the darkest of places. How did this experience shape your life decisions?

CWJL: With such a large population spread over such distance, the Imperial Chinese system of authority used the National Exam as the key to a better life. This traditional mindset carried on to Taiwan. I wasn’t the best student, but I knew that this wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I knew that I had to get into the best universities to get a chance at a better life. I competed with the local Taiwanese and Mainland Refugees for a seat in the National Taiwan University, Economics Department.

EH: And after you secured that position, you were one of the first generations of students with opportunities abroad.

CWJL: It was truly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The global trends indicated that China would be a leading economic and political power. With a country of this size, China was destined for a position of power on the global stage. But the Cultural Revolution closed off for many years. This meant that if people wanted to invest in the future of China, Taiwan was one of the best options. I remember that almost everyone in my graduating class was swept up by the West. It was a big talent loss for China. The moment the top performing minds of Taiwan graduated, they migrated abroad. But looking back now, this helped the development of China indirectly. Most of the members of my class and the following alumnus ended up taking the resources and knowledges that they gained abroad back to help build China into the country it is today.

EH: This sounds like a big break, a brave new world out there. What did you notice upon moving to the new environment?

CWJL: The biggest challenge was language. Not just language, but the cultural way we use language. Language, itself is not difficult, it’s just a database, but succeeding in a foreign environment means that you must carve out a place for yourself. A cultural grasp of the language and an outgoing personality will take you far. Intelligence will only take you so far. The valedictorian and salutatorian all failed out of their programs in the US. My grades weren’t the best, not bad, but definitely with room for improvement. But I achieved a significant amount of success despite my unremarkable academics. I also noticed a difference in attitude. For many of my American peers, their career achievements felt like an option, something that would be nice to have. But for me and my Taiwanese classmates, there were no other options. We were left afloat in these unfamiliar lands, we had to thrive. It was a long swim back home.

EH: I looked over your long list of accomplishments. I am curious, after all your efforts to make it in America, what brought you back to Asia?

CWJL: Good luck and good fortune. Opportunity came knocking and I couldn’t say no. Hong Kong had planned the first international university built by the Chinese for the Chinese. This was a project with great ambitions rivaling the global education establishments. They needed a world class staff for the world class institution. I had made a name for myself amongst the scholars abroad and when I was offered the position, I took it and never looked back. This was a great opportunity for self-development, this was my chance to build an institution from the ground up. Within four years, HKUST was ranked internationally and my accounting department was ranked first!

EH: That was quite the achievement! It must have opened many doors for you.

CWJL: It was a miracle of a miracle. I had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant and talented people during my time at HKUST. We had a few Nobel Prize winning visiting professors. These connections prominently positioned me in the world of academia. When I returned to Tulane University, I began receiving offers all across China. We broke ground on the Tulane – Fudan University collaboration where we brought the best and the brightest minds of China to the US. China had a complex relationship with the rest of the world, especially America. While the Chinese populace was fascinated with the luxuries and options of the west, the political stance was one of icy wariness. But China was a burgeoning country, it couldn’t contain it’s appetite for knowledge and growth. Fudan University in Shanghai was the beginning of a trend that would sweep over the world.

EH: Can you tell me more about this trend that you noticed? How did it manifest itself in China?

CWJL: The trend that I noticed was the globalization of business education. With static, domestic markets, business was heavily influenced by the systems in place, who you knew, the resources you had access to was the game changer. The well-established business schools in America helped cultivate the network for these resources. But as the pace of change and dynamic-ism of the business world increased, business became less straightforward. We are in a globalized market in search of localized solutions. Business education is a function of market need. As the global marketplace has globalized, the business education classroom has also globalized. This was the introduction of the case study to the business classroom. As the business world became more dynamic, the best solution wasn’t always the most worn path. In the chaos of the business world, the need for localized insight opened doors for all participants. Business is a world where brilliant minds clash to find a better answer for the eternal problem, how to create more value. These weren’t solutions that you could find in a textbook, this is the wisdom that had to be gained through the experience of success and failures. And as Asia and the rest of the world entered the global marketplaces, we see it reflected in the business classrooms. More and more diversified classes bringing unique insights and solutions to the every growing world around us.

EH: I find it interesting how the business classroom is a reflection of market demands. In recent years, China has taken a substantial role globally, politically, socially, but the most notable change has been economic. What are your insights into the larger Chinese business environment and what the rest of the world can learn from China.

CWJL: While China has experienced tremendous growth in the past few decades, this is more a function of playing catch up. China was able to draw upon the lessons and experiences of the countries that had developed before it. When China opened its doors and foreign investments flowed in, China bloomed. But China is still not yet ready to teach other countries how to do business. The Chinese Imperial Rule has been ingrained into the culture for the past three to four thousand years. The traditional emphasis on standardized testing is as disconnected as it is prevalent in modern day China. In my experience, the highest academic achievers were rarely the best business people. As a manager, your ability to work through complex mental problems is not as important as your ability to influence people. That’s what business is, the ability to create value in a way that influences other people’s behavior. I began China’s transformation in creating the first EMBA and MBA program at Fudan, Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Xiamen University that selected individuals not based on test scores, but on the holistic person. Now, it’s up to the future of China to realize what it means to be a Chinese Business Person.

EH: I really appreciated the insight you shared into what business means and how the globalization of the world with a Chinese focus might mean for the future of business education. Thank you for your time, Professor Lee, it was a pleasure.

CWJL: The pleasure was all mine. I look forward to reading about myself.

Ewelina Horoszkiewicz

Graduate of management and sinology at University of Warsaw. Member of Polish-Chinese Friendship Association, holder of HSK4 cerificate. Her main interests are Chinese studies, in her professional life, she combines the skills of analysis, market research, project coordination and cooperation related to China. In Boym Institute she is coordinating cooperation with other institutions and new projects.

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