05/26/2014 01:52 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

Journey to the East

Erwin Li asks Stephen Schwarzman about his new scholarship

In April 2013, Blackstone Chairman Stephen Schwarzman '69 announced his hopes to revolutionize the future of US-China relations. His plan? To establish and endow a $300 million scholarship program at China's Tsinghua University.

Known as "Schwarzman Scholars," the program has already received over $250 million in funding and will welcome its first class in 2016. Scholars will have the choice to study for a Master's Degree in four different fields: Economics & Business, Public Policy, International Studies, or Engineering. Having donated $100 million to the program, Schwarzman remarks that the scholarship ranks as one of the largest international philanthropic gifts in China's history.

In our conversation, I ask Schwarzman how he first became involved with China. He tells me that after his company sold a $3 billion non-voting interest to the Chinese government in 2007, he was introduced to many senior government officials and university scholars. They offered him a "terrific crash-course" on all-things China, and from there he was invited to participate further in China's domestic affairs; for example, the multibillionaire investor currently sits on the international advisory board of Tsinghua's School of Economics and Management. Such experiences, Schwarzman explains, deeply informed his decision to establish the Schwarzman Scholars program.

Understandably, it's easy to liken the Schwarzman Scholarship to a certain Oxford trust. Yet the program is far more than just a "Rhodes East." Schwarzman says that the objective of his scholarship differs from that of its UK counterpart. "There's bound to be disagreements and friction between ascending countries like China and established ones like the United States," explains Schwarzman. "So the [aim] of the program is to allow countries around the world to interpret China's doings and reduce tensions so that we don't get into a bad place."

The scholarship's goals are thus defined by China's growing importance in international affairs. And to respond to China's meteoric rise, the program will accept 200 applicants a year - a composition that includes 45% American students, 20% Chinese, and the rest from elsewhere around the world. Chosen scholars are presumed to become more than just leaders in their fields; they will be expected to shape their countries' future relations with China.

To promote such deep understanding of China, the program will inevitably need to foster cultural connections. When I ask Schwarzman how he will integrate Schwarzman scholars into Tsinghua's community, he replies "We're very mindful [to not] set up an isolated group that could just as easily be at places like Yale...[so] we're doing a number of different things." Scholars will be encouraged to take courses at Tsinghua, and some of Tsinghua's students will live in Schwarzman College - a state of the art East-West hybrid residential hall designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. In addition, each student will be assigned a mentor based on his or her career interests. From legal experts to top-level businessmen, these professionals will, according to Schwarzman, "teach students about the real world, and provide them with a background in Chinese culture."

Perhaps most intriguing though, is the program's throwback to primary school buddy systems. By pairing scholars with a Tsinghua undergraduate student, Schwarzman hopes that Chinese locals can show their foreign friends around Beijing; after all, China's rich cultural wonders are far better experienced from an insider's perspective. Such a dynamic may even allow Schwarzman Scholars to become mentors themselves. The chances to build meaningful relationship with locals are thus ever-present.

I decide to inquire a little further about the scholarship's role as a bridge between cultures. After I ask Schwarzman how he wants to incorporate the performing arts into the program, he replies that as a music-buff himself, he too wants to have regular cultural activities at the college. "We'll have both famous Chinese and Western [stars] come to the college to either perform or lecture," says Schwarzman.

Given the program's extensive outreach and contacts, these endeavors are certainly within reach (Yo-Yo Ma happens to be on the Schwarzman Scholar's advisory council.) But sometimes, Schwarzman says with a chuckle, these connections happen quite serendipitously. "[Just] last year the opera singer Renee Fleming was at my house, and so I asked if she would be willing to come talk to the kids," remarks Schwarzman. "She said that she'd be glad to and was actually going to Beijing next week."

A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Business School, Schwarzman is no stranger to strong academics. In fact, leading scholars around the world have collaborated to create the program's curriculum. But he hopes to implement such extracurricular options to also reinvent how students learn about China: their every experience should be unique and formative. Schwarzman says that as someone many years beyond his formal schooling, his memories are more about who he spoke with and what he heard - not necessarily the minutia of a course. And in the same way, Schwarzman Scholars should actively embrace this learning philosophy. After all, they will only spend a year in China.

Certainly, the program has ambitious goals to promote mutual understanding and cultural integration. But never before has the demand to bring East and West together been so great. As the world's geopolitical and economic landscapes change rapidly, Schwarzman Scholars stands as a pivotal step to define the course of the 21st century. As Schwarzman Scholars Advisory Board member and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remarks, "I'll bet you that in 10 to 20 years, there will be a meeting of government officials...and at that table there will be a Schwarzman Scholar."

The year 2016 likely marks the beginning of many great things to come.


Erwin Li is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.