Common Ground

Chinese and U.S. students learn a thing or two about public service.

Civil service has a longer history in China than it does in the United States: the Qin dynasty began building its bureaucracy in 221 B.C. But in recent years, Chinese government and universities have turned to U.S. graduate schools to teach their government officials the latest public administration theories. Those programs have helped Chinese public servants with everything from media strategies to emergency preparedness, and they've paid another dividend: building connections between Chinese students and their American counterparts.

"I've always had the feeling that management kind of transcends cultural barriers," says Joseph A. Ferrara, director of the executive master's program at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

In a partnership with Fudan University in Shanghai, Georgetown has hosted groups of Chinese municipal officials for two-week visits to Washington. During that time, the Chinese officials attend seminars that focus on issues such as the budget process, ethics rules for American civil servants and how Congress works.

Lan Xue, executive associate dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, says examining differences in political context and in pressing issues is important. He has seen cultural disparities as he designs an emergency management curriculum for Chinese officials.

"Crisis management [in the United States] is pretty much shaped by what happened on Sept. 11, while in China, crisis management was very much shaped by severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003," he says.

SARS prompted Chinese agencies to not simply manage disease outbreaks but also to deal more pro-actively with the media, Xue says. Public demand for information during the crisis led some Chinese agencies to appoint spokesmen to manage special events like a meeting of the People's Congress, field questions from the foreign media and arrange domestic news conferences.

Chinese ministries are gaining an online presence and disseminating information on official Web sites, but they struggle to keep up with the rise of blogs and unofficial sites.

Xue and Anthony Saich, Daewoo professor of international affairs and faculty chairman of Asia programs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, have played important roles in developing an educational partnership between Tsinghua and Harvard. In 2002, the Chinese government asked Harvard to put together a public policy training program for Chinese civil servants. Since then, officials with strong English-language skills have joined existing management training programs at Tsinghua or come to Harvard for a semester as fellows, and officials who speak mainly Chinese have participated in a program that brings them to the United States for six weeks, four of which they spend at the Kennedy School.

The Chinese government's dedication to training its civil servants and its willingness to provide input-but not to interfere, Xue and Saich say-in developing the program's curriculum, have given Harvard's efforts credibility with Chinese government employees.

That trust extends in both directions. Harvard recently recommitted itself to the programs as part of a larger effort to build ties with Chinese academics. For the Kennedy School classes, Saich has helped translate public policy case studies designed by Tsinghua on topics ranging from whether to relocate the Beijing Zoo to how to improve pension management for farmers. Saich says learning from one another is important for both Chinese and American students.

"From the Chinese view, there tends to be a statist view of solutions: Let's look first to the state, the state should come in and do that, it's the state's responsibility to provide that service," Saich says. "The American students, some have a fear of the state and the question is, how can we get the state out of this. . . . It makes them question their assumptions about the ways that state and society work, but it gives them skills in defending the development of their own society."

It's not just public servants who are interested in U.S. public administration. During a March visit by Government Executive, students in the first class of Tsinghua's new master's of international development program were hungry for information about how the U.S. government handles performance management issues. Many of them plan to go into business after graduation, but they see strong government regulatory programs as critical to transparency and credibility for both business and government.

"There are always transparency and corruption problems in the third world," says Ba Ha Eun, a student who came from South Korea to Tsinghua's Beijing campus. "Korea is neither developing nor a developed country. To achieve the status of a developed country, we need to be responsible."

But beyond any specific lessons that Chinese civil servants learn from American universities or trickle-down effects on civil society, the programs that Georgetown and Harvard run could pay significant dividends in understanding.

"In the broadest possible sense, it can make the world a safer place because people know each other," Georgetown's Ferrara says. "You realize that the folks over in America have [the same] domestic political constraints that we do, so when they can't get something done, it's not because they hate us, it's because of resource issues, or there's an election that year. And by the way, we have the same issues."

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