Home > News

Commencement Speech at Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management


Good afternoon. I would like to first of all thank Dean Qian Yingyi for giving me this opportunity to speak at your commencement day, to witness and celebrate this important day in your life. I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate you on the new journey you are going to embark on, and to congratulate your parents and your teachers, for it is also their success to have nurtured so many outstanding young people like you.

It is a rare honour to be invited to speak at a school as prestigious as SEM of Tsinghua University. And I was anxious about what to say. I am not quite as ‘high cap’ as the speakers in the last two years, not to mention the generational gap between us. When Jack Ma and Mark Zuckerberg were engaged in dialogue with Dean Qian who was the moderator during this year’s China Development Forum, the venue was so packed that even the corridor was blocked too. So with these people being your previous speakers, I have to think really hard about what I should say today.

I am close to 70 years old: I am the son of a returned overseas Chinese, one of the high school graduates during 1966 and 1968, and one of the educated youth sent to work in the Great Northern Wilderness. I once worked in a factory; I was among the first to go to college after the Cultural Revolution; and I had worked at Rural Policy Research Office of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 1980s. 70 years is a long time for one man. But it is just a very short period of time if seen in the context of China’s history of transformation, rejuvenation and modernisation since 1840. China’s modernisation began only after our defeat by foreign aggressors who were already modernised by that time. And the explorations we made, the hardship, distress and dilemmas we faced in the process of modernisation was perhaps unavoidable.

My family and I personally felt this hardship. My father moved to Singapore after Shanghai was seized by Japanese aggressors. And when Singapore had fallen, my family had to lead a homeless life. I was born after WWII in March 1947. Back then, my father was a teacher at a secondary school and also the Vice President of Singapore Teachers’ Union. In 1948, he was arrested by the then colonial British government and was deported a year after. It was in that year that he came back to the liberated Beijing. In October 1949, my mother brought my sister and I back to China.

I grew up in a turbulent period when the Chinese society underwent many changes. I hit my growth spurt during the Great Chinese Famine; I was sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution when I should have been in college; and family planning policy came when I built my family and planned to have kids. Put it in another way, I worked in difficult areas in my 20s, went to college in my 30s, studied English and got my Master’s Degree abroad in my 40s and started up China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) upon the order in my 50s. My 70-year life experience was somewhat mismatched in time with lots of sufferings, but considering those who sacrificed themselves for great causes or those who were unjustly treated, I think I am fortunate enough. The history should not be forgotten, and mistakes not repeated. China is bound to encounter hardships in the coming years when you leave school and start your career. In that case, I wish you are able to understand that China’s modernization does not come easily and painlessly.

From seeking independence to seeking revitalisation, China has never stopped its process of modernisation. According to the historian Tong Te-Kong, this epic transformation that began in 1840 will take 200 years to pass ‘the three gorges of history’ before reaching its destination in 2040. Deng Xiaoping said China’s target is to realize its modernization by the middle of this century. And President Xi seeks to build a modern socialist nation by 2049, 100 years after the founding of China. These targets are in the same ballpark, about 20 to 30 years from now, which is very close. But the last few miles is always the hardest, and there is certainly no shortage of daunting challenges. What awaits you ahead will not be marked by mediocrity and tepidness, for this I want to congratulate you. You will be part of this remarkable transformation and witness the realisation of China’s modernisation.

China’s modernisation demands bold exploration. This age of reform provides us with unprecedented opportunities. The 1980s were a volatile time for China’s reform. Things back then would seem very alien to you. It is now common to see supermarkets well stocked with different products at different price level. Things were not like this when Reform and Opening-up Policy was initiated. There was no free circulation of food items at that time, and the price was not set by producers. The concepts of “labour” and “labour market” are not allowed to be adopted. At the beginning of 1982, inspired by the work done at the China Rural Development Research Institute, I, together with a group of young teachers and graduate students, set up a research team on circulation and market committed to the study of rural economy and reform. Our work was supported and sponsored by the Rural Policy Research Office of the CPC led by Mr. Du Runsheng. Mr. Du gave us guidance on tasks and methodologies, and encouraged us to partake in the surveying, research and deliberations on rural economy and reform. In 1984 I took part in the organising work of Moganshan Conference. In 1986, I was transferred to Rural Development Research Centre of the State Council (RDRC) whose head was Mr. Wang Qishan. One year later, I assisted Mr. Wang in setting up the office of Rural Reform Pilot Areas in RDRC, where we had done a lot of experiment work, such as rural land contract system, as well as in food supply and marketing system. At that time, we often had conflicting opinions in many tough policy discussions. Sometimes we were even totally divided. But thanks to Mr Du’s open, equal and inclusive style, many policies eventually came into fruition through the process of research, experiment and evaluation.

That being said, self-exploration is inseparable from learning from others. China must draw from Western countries’ experience in their modernisation drive. Take myself as an example. My boss at the Rural Policy Research Office of the CPC sent me to the U.S. to learn English when I was already in my 40s. So I went to Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and did my Master’s in Public Administration before working at Harvard Institute for International Development for two years. This studying and working experience in the U.S. proved to be immensely helpful to my work later at CDRF. In 1999, the leadership at Development Research Centre of the State Council (DRC) assigned me an important mission – to organise an international forum as prominent as the one in Davos. There were only three staff at the China Development Research Foundation back then. But with the experience of overseas study, personal networks and domestic support from DRC, we successfully held the first China Development Forum (CDF) in 2000 which served as a platform for domestic and foreign entrepreneurs, academics and Chinese government officials to engage in dialogues and strategic communication. Premier Zhu Rongji also met with foreign delegate, confirming the standard of CDF to be high-level and high-quality. This year witnessed the 17th ceremony of CDF as well as an ever-increasingly strong interest in this forum both at home and abroad. Apart from CDF, CDRF also has a number of training programmes and research projects in collaboration with world-leading universities and think-tanks. For instance, our brand social experiments in child development is undertaken under the guidance of Nobel laureates professor Amartya Sen and professor James Heckman.

Apparently, there is an urgency to take care of the disadvantaged in society and promote social equity. In 2005, CDRF and UNDP co-authored China Human Development Report with the theme of Development with Equity, and won the ‘Outstanding Policy Analysis and Impact’ award from the UNDP. We believe that equitable development will not be achieved by expropriating the rich, but by helping the poor.

During our unremitting study of poverty, we realize how severe and important the issue of child poverty is. The rate of children poverty is sadly high, which affect the formation of long-term human capital and leads to the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Effective education and nutrition intervention for children in poverty is a public investment with fairly high returns, and has been universally accepted in developed countries.

The two children shown in the video at the beginning of today’s ceremony is Peng Ya from Guzhang County, Hunan and Wu Yufeng from Songtao County, Guizhou. Both of them are from poor families. And they are just two out of the 61 million left-behind children in China. The nutrition and education they receive today will not only affect themselves but also their children. It is our compelling obligation to help them.

CDRF has committed to social experiments over the last decade. It is not only a speciality for CDRF’s research programs, but also features a unique window of opportunity during China’s transitional period. In 2006 CDRF began social experiments on antipoverty and child development, and initiated field study on the nutrition for students in rural boarding schools. What we found was striking. While harvests were good and rural living condition as whole improved greatly, rural students in Guangxi were only having rice with boiled soybeans for school meals. Students in Ningxia only had steamed buns with hot water. In 2007 we initiated a controlled study for nutrition improvement for 2,500 students in Du’an County in Guangxi and Chongli County in Hebei, and got promising results after a year. The report we produced from this study received attention from the central government. And now, the central government provides 18 billion Yuan per year to subsidise school meals for 23 million compulsory education students from poor rural areas. To monitor the implementation and outcome of this national policy, we have set up a data platform to monitor school meals in 10,000 pilot schools in real time.

We have collaborated with the Centre for Disease Control to promote nutrition supplement for 6 to 24 month old infants. There were 6,200 beneficiaries of this project in 2009. Now it has scaled up to become a national policy covering 1.37 million infants. Our Village Early Education Centres initially had only around 3,000 children aged 4-6 enrolled in two counties. Now Qinghai and Guizhou provinces, Altai region in Xinjiang and 5 pilot counties in Sichuan, Shanxi, Yunnan and Gansu provinces have all adopted our model, benefiting nearly 100,000 children in poor rural villages.

Last year we started random control trials in Huachi County in Gansu Province, to study the effect of parenting training. The experiment provides 766 1-3 year old infants with home-visiting service no less than once a week, and it’s already showing good results. For us, this marks the smallest in scale but the most rigorous and technically demanding experiment to date. We also began a new initiative called Win the Future, a program for 150,000 secondary vocational education students. These programs were generously supported by all sectors of society, especially the business community. We hope to provide dependable support for children in rural poor areas, from womb to job. Giving every child a bright start in life is our hope and goal.

CDRF has an excellent team of 44 members of staff. Three of them are graduates from Tsinghua, including Dr. Hao Jingfang, who completed her PhD at Tsinghua SEM in 2013. She is recently nominated for this year’s Hugo Award of World Science Fiction Society. She is currently doing research on macroeconomics at our Foundation, working on projects assigned by the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs and the Budget Committee of the National People’s Congress. She manages all this while writing in her spare time. Her experience has given me a lot of confidence in the new generation.

I am sure there are many among you as talented as Dr. Hao Jingfang. As graduates of Tsinghua SEM, you have learned knowledge in a systematic way in the best SEM in China and mastered various skills, so there are only three more things I hope you can achieve.

Firstly, I hope you can be visionaries with specific action plans. International organizations used to talk about vision and mission, now they have added action to the mix. Without action, without solid research, vision could not have become reality. We are eager to make an impact on the world. Whether it is a child’s dream to the outside world, or the collective wishes of millions, they are all worthy of our substantial and continuous efforts.

Secondly, I hope you can be observant of society and be attentive to the poor. Dean Qian told me that the graduates of this school used to flock to investment banks, but now there emerges diversity. Some are enthusiastic about studying drama or filmmaking, and some have joined non-profits. This is terrific. You are elites, but you are also common members of society. You feel at ease both accommodating in luxury suites of5-star hotels and resting on a brick bed. That is the state of mind we ought to have. No matter where you go after graduation, whether to rural villages or high-rise offices, I hope you can always manage with modesty and composure. While toasting to your future successes, you should also think of the people without wealth or fame, and help them in your own ways.

Lastly, I hope you will be earnest and persistent in your future work. It is easy to develop a passion for one thing, but it is hard to be serious to everything that you are engaged in. It is easy to become hot-headed, but it is hard to persevere in one endeavour. Without focus and tenacity, many ventures will fall through. Earnestness and perseverance is the key to success.

Finally, I want to congratulate you again on completing your studies, and beginning a new journey in your life. Before I conclude, I want to share with you a story about my father. He was born in 1911 as the only child of a rural family. His name was given according to family tradition as Baoyong (meaning ‘treasured yong’, a bell-like musical instrument), but he changed his name to Xinyuan (meaning far-reaching soul or spirit) when he was 20 years old. I always thought he took it from a verse by the poet Tao Yuanming, ‘Xin Yuan Di Zi Pian’, which meant being in a state of Zen regardless of the condition of the surroundings. But after he passed away, from his diaries I found that his name and motto actually came from the scholar Hu Anguo of the Song Dynasty, who wrote: ‘do not be childish, but mature and unyielding; do not only consider for yourself, but for all; do not only strive to better your own life, but for future generations, this is what is said to be Xinyuan’.

I hope all of you can grow mature and unyielding, and hold society, and its future generations close to heart!

Thank you!