This past April, Su Ge, who received his MA in American studies from the Kennedy Center and PhD in American history with a minor in international relations from BYU in 1984 and 1987, respectively, returned to campus to receive a doctorate of international leadership, honoris causa. Ge stopped by the Kennedy Center, where Cory Leonard interviewed him for this special issue of Bridges Alumni Magazine. He currently serves in an academic post as president of the China Institute of International Studies.
Welcome back to Provo, a place you already know well.
Thank you very much. It is an honor to be back on campus—
a place that reminds me of Qinghai Province, in China’s northwest, where I grew up, due to its distinctive environment and beautiful natural setting. I have many fond memories of my time living and studying in Utah.
Your experiences in higher education, diplomacy, and policy have been notable. How have you approached thinking about your career path?
My aim has been to study first and then to render services to society, just like the BYU motto says: “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.” Before anything else, however, it seems to me that one needs to be a good person, to be righteous and upright. In my case, I have tried to do every job with all my heart and with full dedication.
Why did you first come to Utah?
In 1982, I came to Brigham Young University as a visiting scholar. I taught Chinese at the College of Humanities. A year later, I wished to pursue graduate studies at the Kennedy Center and became one of the first students to receive a scholarship here from the People’s Republic of China following the normalization of U.S.–China diplomatic relations. BYU is my alma mater, or what we call the “mother school” in Chinese.
“One should keep a moral bottom line in life and professional standards at work.”
Your daughter is also a Kennedy Center graduate?
Yes, my wife, Li Jing, and my daughter, Su Jin, joined me in Provo when I was studying for my degrees. After I had completed a postdoctoral appointment at Harvard University, the whole family returned to China in 1988. I taught as a professor at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. Later Su Jin grew up and wanted to study at BYU. She eventually graduated in 2002 from the Kennedy Center with a degree in international studies and an emphasis in global economy. So you can say that we are all proud Cougars and students of international affairs.
Who were some of your professors?
Coming to mind is a microcosm of BYU faculty, including Erlend Peterson, Todd Britsch, Frank Fox, and Paul Hyer. Also, I want to include Marshall Craig, Briant Jacobs, Ray Hillam, Spencer Palmer, and others who have passed away but will forever live in my heart. Last but not least is Neil York, the mentor for both my MA and PhD programs. All in all, my heartfelt appreciation goes to my alma mater.
What were some of your reasons for studying at the Kennedy Center?
There is a Chinese saying that “stones in other hills may serve to polish the jade of this one.” I was interested in looking closely at the stages of U.S development and hopefully finding some reference points for China’s modernization program and growth. I wanted to explore issues such as American modernization, urbanization, and technological growth. I was very much interested in how the United States had surpassed various hurdles in different historical stages—for instance, how the United States addressed pollution in the Great Lakes region. The golden spike in the transcontinental railroad is located here in Utah, and that represented an important step in linking the country’s east and west coasts. I also wanted to find out how education had contributed to the American development and so on by exploring lessons from the past of the United States. Not every experience was positive, but I learned a great deal and used this work in my master’s thesis. My later PhD work was on diplomatic history and international relations.
How has your perspective on China’s growth changed throughout your professional experience?China owes a lot to the outside world. The country owes fast growth to its openness that came through the era of modernization of Deng Xiaoping. We have to keep working on domestic reforms and at the same time stay open to the outside world.
In doing so we must avoid two traps: The first is the middle-income trap. We are at roughly $8,000 per capita GDP right now, and the challenge is to maintain a balance in economic development and sustainable growth.
The other is the Thucydides Trap, which is based on the dangers that occur when a rising power rivals the status quo power. We see how this played out historically with Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece. In this new century, it is vitally important for the United States and China to build up a new type of relationship between major countries based on non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win outcomes. The two important countries must enhance strategic trust and manage differences so as to broaden cooperation and avoid confrontation.
“Personal righteousness, responsibility, discipline, and perseverance are requirements for the final success.”
What else do you see as key to our understanding of China’s rise?
China made a major historic choice to develop its economy, carry out reform, and open itself up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, China has maintained high-speed economic development and has strengthened its overall national conditions. In 2010, China surpassed Japan in terms of GDP to become the world’s second-largest economy. Nevertheless, China’s per capita GDP still ranks roughly at eightieth in the world due to its huge population. Therefore, China is still a developing country. China does not shirk its duties and obligations corresponding with its international status as a major country, but it should act according to its ability and not overreach. Peace and development are the two main objectives for China.
In 2003 you entered diplomacy. What did you learn from that experience?
In 2003 I was appointed minister counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, and I afterward served as the ambassador of China to the Republic of Suriname and the Republic of Iceland until 2013. From then I served as an advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the People’s Republic of China until 2015, when I took my current position.
My earlier graduate studies laid an academic foundation and provided me with basic knowledge of international relations. During actual diplomatic work, I learned the need for and realized the importance of constructing international relations on the basis of a convergence of national interests. Diplomacy contains a set of hard-core principles, but at the same time it is an art to seek compromise. Following the world financial crisis in 2008, three undertakings cemented Iceland–China relations: currency swap, geothermal cooperation, and the free trade agreement. This shows that countries need in-depth understanding and inclusive cooperation. The individual diplomat must constantly broaden his or her horizons and adapt to constant change.
What advice do you have to other Chinese students thinking about their futures?
As the Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step.” High, lofty ideals need to be paralleled with down-to-earth actions. One should keep a moral bottom line in life and professional standards at work. Personal righteousness, responsibility, discipline, and perseverance are requirements for the final success. I firmly believe that BYU is a good place to pursue studies and lay a solid professional foundation for one’s future undertaking. I commend it to them as a good choice.
More: Read or listen to Su Ge’s BYU commencement address at speeches.byu.edu/talks/ge-su_go-forth-serve-5.