"My decision to stay in China leads to truly unique life"

On February 23, 1979, twenty-five-year-old Frank Hawke arrived at snow-covered Beijing Capital Airport with seven other US students.

On February 23, 1979, twenty-five-year-old Frank Hawke arrived at snow-covered Beijing Capital Airport with seven other US students.

They were the first group of American students to study in the People's Republic of China since the two countries officially normalized their diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979.

Hawke, who has lived and worked more or less continuously in Beijing over the past 40 years, is now the director of the China Program for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, located at the Stanford Center at Peking University.

Study and teaching in Peking University

Hawke's interest in China was sparked by two Sinologists at Stanford – John Lewis and Harry Harding, when the economics undergraduate took some of their courses in contemporary Chinese politics. After graduating from his bachelor's program, he decided to pursue an academic career in Chinese studies and started to learn Chinese.

"When I arrived in China, I actually spoke very little Chinese. I could maybe recognize some characters, but that was really about all," laughed Hawke, who speaks very fluent Mandarin with a Beijing accent now.

After a short stay at the Beijing Language Institute upon arrival, Hawke was admitted to the Department of World Economy at Peking University.

"Classical economist, Professor Hong Junyan became my mentor. He was a wonderful man. He treated us very kindly and was very much aware that we were a long way from home," said Hawke.

Hawke was supposed to go back to Stanford after a year in Peking University, but he didn't. "I wasn't ready yet to go back because I felt that there was so much yet to learn," he said.

Hawke then taught neoclassical economics at Peking University for one semester at the invitation of Hong.

Negotiations for China's first automobile joint venture

After teaching in Peking University, Hawke joined a company called Unison International, which helped American companies do business in China.

With Unison, one of the most famous deals Hawke participated in was the Beijing Jeep Corporation, the first Sino-foreign auto joint venture between American Motors Corporation, one of Unison's clients, and Beijing Auto Works.

"I was the one facilitating on the ground, attending all the negotiations. I was providing a lot of advice in the context of the negotiations," said Hawke.

"That was a very interesting negotiation," he said, adding that "every little detail had to be negotiated. Finally, we got it done in 1983."

When China opened its doors to the global market in 1978, a motor car was still a novelty for Chinese, but now China becomes the top player both in auto manufacturing and sales, with cars being almost a household necessity.

Contribution to China's agriculture

In 1997, IMC Global, a world's leading producer of phosphate and potassium fertilizers, hired Hawke to serve as the president of its Asia subsidiary.

That job gave him lots of opportunities to go around China and talk to not only Chinese phosphate producers, but also a great number of Chinese farmers.

"That was really a lot of fun for me to be able to talk to Chinese farmers and learn about their lives and how we could help them improve their crop yields, not only by providing these very important fertilizers, but also in discussing how to farm more scientifically," said Hawke.

"We were supplying something China badly needed, Chinese farmers badly needed, as the Chinese say, Feiliao Shi Liangshi De Liangshi (fertilizer is the food for the grain)," he said.

In 2011, Hawke was offered his second job in agriculture – to run East Asian operations for the International Potato Center, which is headquartered in Lima, Peru.

What impressed Hawke most was "Chinese farmers were extremely friendly, always willing to answer our questions, always willing to learn." "That gives you a sense of accomplishment that you're working with people who really want to listen and maybe learn something."

Witness of China's rapid growth

From 1979 onwards, Hawke has witnessed China growing at a very rapid rate, which is, as the World Bank described, "the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history."

There were "rationed coupons for everything," as the Chinese government had to make sure that everybody had the basic necessities, he said. The nation at the time could not produce enough grains and various kinds of foods for her people, such as meats, eggs, and so on.

"When the ration coupons went away, I think that was a sign that things turned the corner. So that was a milestone, obviously," he said.

In the past 40-plus years, more than 700 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty, contributing to over 70 percent of global poverty reduction.

"I have great confidence in China. I have great confidence in the Chinese people. I think the key to China's future is to unlock the genius of the Chinese people," said Hawke.

Call for people-to-people exchanges

Talking about the current strained US-China relations, Hawke said the two countries "should be in a better position to understand the other side" after 40 years of the establishment of the diplomatic ties.

The world's two largest economies can "still disagree, but we can disagree with respect out of mutual understanding," he said, noting that both sides should learn each other's history and culture.

"One way to avoid mistakes, to avoid tragedy is by having very robust people-to-people relations. I would like to see more exchange students, more people going back and forth in all fields; it's extremely important," he said.

"It's nice to have lived through a past worth telling," Hawke said of his China stories in retrospect.

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