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A Destiny AlteredA famous Chinese scholar once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A native of China, FDU professor Zhaobo (Bob) Wang’s first career step was directed by his government and, at the age of 18, he was assigned a job as a farmworker. His journey and his destiny seemed irrevocably charted. But then Deng Xiaoping came to power, restored the country’s national education program and paved the way for Wang to explore his intellectual limits and embark on an altogether different journey.
Wang’s new path extended much further than 1,000 miles and eventually led him to the United States and to FDU, where he now teaches production and operations management on the Florham-Madison Campus. “I can honestly say that without Deng, I would not be here.” The benefits for Wang, his family and his students have proved immeasurable. This summer, Wang not only revisited the scene of his boyhood days, but was on hand for President Bill Clinton’s historic visit, which included live television broadcasts and an unusual but brief spirit of openness. The winds of change have at least slightly penetrated the Great Wall, but in many instances Wang saw that much more needs to be done.
The Road TraveledWang was born in Jilin, a province in northeast China near North Korea. Since he moved to the United States in 1987, he had not been back to Jilin until this summer, when he visited with former neighbors and school mates. “I was surprised to see that after 10 years of reforms, many of them are still living in terrible, very poor conditions.”
This is where Wang would almost certainly be today were it not for an unusual twist of fate. In 1966, when Wang was 10 years old, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung instituted the “Cultural Revolution,” which included a near total ban on higher education. So, when Wang graduated from high school in 1974, he and his classmates were assigned to work in the countryside, where it was conceivable they could spend the rest of their lives. Wang, though, was looking forward to the work. “The communists did a good job of telling you that working in the countryside was great and that you could enjoy your life and make changes. We were all excited to go.”
Working on a farm, Wang discovered that the reality didn’t match the
rhetoric. “It was horrible. We worked all the time, even in bitter cold
temperatures. The only thing we received was food. There was a feeling
of desperation because there was no opportunity for change. I saw how miserable
the farmers were.” Because his father, as the director of a large company,
had some influence, Wang was eventually transferred to a job as a railroad
worker. Still, the world of academia might as well have been in another
galaxy. But then Mao died, and in 1977, Deng assumed power. Deng
Wang was one of the select few to pass a national entrance exam and soon was enrolled at Northeastern University in Shenyang. “When I went to college,” he recalls, “my mind was opened up to the fact that there were other choices in life and I could do many things.”
An excellent student, Wang proceeded to gain his bachelor’s degree and then became one of the first in China to earn a master’s degree in business. But then he faced another problem. Although Deng had introduced a limited market economy, China was not the place to learn or apply business skills. “Even though I had a master’s degree, I still did not know that much about planning or running a business. I realized I needed to study in America.”
Wang applied for and received a scholarship to study at Rutgers University for his PhD. He arrived in New Jersey in 1987 and at the time, Wang says he intended to return to China. “I wanted to and planned to go back, but the events of 1989 changed me forever.” That was the year protesters gathered at Tiananmen Square demanding democracy and greater political freedoms. In response, Deng’s government imposed martial law and instituted a harsh crackdown, which included the slaying of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed civilians.
At that point, Wang says he realized “there’s no way I can work under that regime. I could not tolerate it.” While not active politically, Wang did join protesters in New York City to voice his discontent with the Chinese government. Wang also understood that staying in America would be better for his wife (whom he had met while a college student in China) and his two sons. “We had better living conditions and access to better medical care and education.” After completing his PhD, Wang began teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Wang’s FDU career has been a win-win experience. Students have consistently praised him for his expertise and devotion to their learning, while he has enjoyed the opportunity to help future business leaders learn the tricks of the trade. Wang also has been able to broaden his horizons through an unexpected FDU connection. One of his students told his father about this Chinese teacher who knew everything about production and operations management. The father, Damon Germanton, BS’70 (T-H), was the president of a manufacturing firm that had branch operations in China. He talked to Wang and asked him to serve as a consultant and assist their Chinese ventures. “I am able to help them, not just with my ability to speak the language but also with my expertise in project management and total quality management.”
It was through this work that Wang had journeyed back to China on several occasions. But until this summer, his travels were exclusively business oriented, and there was no time for a vacation or reminiscing about the pivotal events in his life.
Today, although China is nearly two years into the post-Deng era, his influence remains pervasive and millions continue to be affected by the policies he set in motion. Although Wang says he is grateful to Deng for instituting reforms, he faults Deng for the violence of 1989 and China’s political and economic troubles. “I do appreciate some of the things he did, but I also feel he should take responsibility for the country’s failures.”
One such failure hit close to home. Wang’s father-in-law was accused of not sufficiently supporting the government and was jailed and held in a labor camp for 20 years. (Wang explains that the point of the matter really just involved a minor difference with his boss.) “Deng never recognized or apologized to people like my father-in-law. And that’s the way it is today. As long as there is a one-party system, the Chinese leaders will not acknowledge their mistakes.”
Witness to HistoryWang saw further evidence of the lack of recognition of past mistakes during President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to China. Although Clinton drew attention to the crackdown of 1989, Chinese President Jiang Zemin insisted that the Chinese government acted in the best interests of the nation. Wang says Clinton did a good job in China. “He mentioned the concerns that most people have. That’s the most he could do.” He adds that greater American pressure to force the Chinese to allow more freedom, such as threatening trade sanctions, could breed resentment. Plus, he says, economic punishments would hurt only the average citizens, not the ruling class. The bottom line, he adds, is that “political change is up to the Chinese people themselves.”
In addition to the live broadcast of the two leaders exchanging thoughts on subjects like democracy, human rights and Tibet, Clinton enjoyed open and at times riveting discussions with students at Beijing University, which were aired throughout the country. Wang says there were not any concrete changes resulting from the president’s trip, but the symbolism of the exchanges was very important. “It helped set the tone for the future and also sent a message that the Chinese people should enact political change.”
He added, “The need for political reform in China is urgent. The economy has changed dramatically and grown, but the one-party system is an obstacle to future gains. The current system will not allow criticism nor will it allow other parties and organizations to form.” Wang is an undeterred optimist, though, and believes change will come. The whole political structure has remained the same for years, but people no longer have any faith in it. It is up to the next generation to right the wrongs.”
Wang desperately wants to see the next generation succeed. That’s why
he sponsors several Chinese students who have experienced difficult circumstances,
encouraging them and financing their education until they graduate from
high school. “The money is important, but it’s really about inspiring them
to succeed. That can make a big difference.” Wang knows all-too well the
difference an education can make. It’s taken him on a fairy-tale journey
from an impoverished life in a remote Chinese countryside to a prosperous
career in the United States educating the business leaders of tomorrow.
“I consider myself a very lucky guy.”
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