My summer in Beijing revolves around eight weeks of intensive Mandarin language classes. Run through the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies (IUP), the classes are taught at the Tsinghua University campus, often named the most beautiful campus in Beijing. The campus covers almost two square miles in the Northwest corner of Beijing, nestled between the 4th and 5th ring roads. In addition to a beautiful setting, the university has a storied history, and was most recently in international news as an alleged target of NSA hacking in the Snowden revelations (it houses one of China’s six major ‘backbone’ networks).

Tsinghua University was founded in 1911 as a preparatory school, with American money, in a generous effort to help China modernize after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Well, sort of – it turns out the funds came from money awarded to the American government as war reparations from China, based on grossly inflated damage estimates. This was in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, China’s defeat, and the punishing treaties that followed, which heavily favored the coalition of invading Western powers and awarded them massive amounts of money in addition to unprecedented rights to Chinese territory and self-governance within China. After prolonged debate, the U.S. government agreed that the $30 billion-plus indemnity was “excessive” and decided to return the part beyond costs actually incurred in the war. This decision came after several years and much lobbying on the part of Chinese representatives in Washington before an unenthusiastic public, a hostile Congress, and a preoccupied president Roosevelt.

When the money was finally returned, it was returned with strings attached, much to the chagrin of Chinese politicians: it had to be used for the education of Chinese students, who would then be sent to study on scholarship in the United States. From the perspective of the American lawmakers, everyone involved would win: China would get a new generation of leaders educated in top-notch American universities, and America would have benefit from a set of power-holders in China with pro-American views (in reality, many of the Chinese students who would go on to attend American universities suffered intense discrimination that did nothing to win them over to the virtues of the American model). If the American side was enthusiastic about this win-win situation, the Chinese side was not so universally satisfied. The American stipulations about how funds that were never properly theirs to begin with should be used was seen as high-handed interference in domestic Chinese affairs, and their plan to educate the next generation of Chinese students was an attempt at infiltration, a means to pry open Chinese society to further American influence, which would of course carry financial benefit for American businesses.  

But with the money firmly in the grip of the American government, there was little room for bargaining on the Chinese side. And so a preparatory school was founded on the site of former Qing dynasty imperial gardens, much like neighboring Peking University.

While Tsinghua evolved from a preparatory school into a full university, and broke completely with the reparations fund after the Communist Revolution in 1949, there are some who consider the source of the university’s founding a reminder of a painfully humiliating time for China. Many versions of the founding story exist, most with details selectively omitted and other, more convenient narratives emphasized in their place. Nevertheless, it is widely regarded as one of China’s best.

Chinese politics has a disproportionate number of Tsinghua graduates in the upper echelons of power, including a group has become known as the “Tsinghua clique.” The two most recent “paramount leaders” (simultaneously General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, and the President of the People’s Republic of China) both graduated from Tsinghua. Xi Jinping, the current President, was a chemical engineering major, and former President Hu Jintao studied hydraulic engineering.

For further reading on the subject of American remissions and the founding of Tsinghua University, I recommend “The American Remission of the Boxer indemnity: A Reappraisal” by Michael H. Hunt in The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 31, No. 3 (May 1972).