March 2009 | By Jane Leung Larson
When C-100 Governor Henry Tang tells the story of the Committee of 100, he starts with a pile of about 300 phone messages that landed on architect I.M. Pei’s desk in June 1989. The calls came from journalists, television people, elected officials, and others who sought interviews or Pei’s presence at hearings, prompted by his New York Times June 22, 1989 op-ed, “China Won’t Ever Be the Same.” Pei’s perspective as a Chinese American on the June bloodshed in Tiananmen Square had called forth an intense response, and Pei didn’t know how to deal with it.
Pei’s op-ed read in part:
“In 1978, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s remarkable economic reforms, we were given the chance to work in China.” [Pei built the Fragrant Hills Hotel outside of Beijing.] . . .
“Today, these dreams are dashed by the horrible events at Tiananmen Square. We were shocked beyond measure. The revulsion soon turned to anger, then sadness, for it was all so unnecessary. . . .
“I do not regret the time spent in China. I still feel we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to fulfill some of our dreams.
“China will not be the same after this terrible tragedy. . . . ”
The 300 requests on Pei’s desk and the many others that followed sought Pei’s views not only on Tiananmen but on a myriad of topics dealing with China and “beyond the capacity of any one person to answer.”
By 1989, Pei and Tang had become good friends, meeting regularly to talk about China. Pei, Tang says, is deeply interested in international affairs, and still follows the news and editorial opinion closely. Tang was a successful corporate investor on Wall Street with an equally long history as a social activist in New York’s Chinatown (18 years as chairman of the Chinese American Planning Council). He had studied Chinese politics at Columbia University and first went to China as the American representative in an overseas Chinese delegation attending the 30th anniversary of the People’s Republic in October 1979. Tang said he had been “badgering” Pei for many years to take the lead in giving voice to Chinese American views on U.S.-China relations and other issues. Pei was the right person to lead such an organization, Tang said, “because he clearly was the most widely recognized Chinese person in the West,” even more so that Deng Xiaoping. Public interest in Pei had exploded just two months earlier, in March 1989, when the modernistic “Pei Pyramids” at the Louvre Museum in Paris opened after years of controversy and great anticipation.
After June 4, Tang said that Pei called him, saying “‘I think I’m ready to do something related to Tiananmen,’ and we need to form an organization and asked if I would help. Of course, I said, ‘With pleasure,” [pleased] that he would finally agree to get engaged around an important issue like this.” Then, said Tang, because of the political sensitivity of the times, “there were almost no organizations with Chinese American individuals putting their faces and names on the lines to dialogue about these issues. I dare say there were probably none.”
Six people were part of the founding Committee: Pei, Tang, investment banker Oscar Tang, General Motors executive Shirley Young, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the late Columbia University physics professor, Chien-Siung Wu. The urgency of the situation at the time included “murmurs and threats in Washington, D.C. from legislators that diplomatic relations should be severed,” said Tang. Although the U.S. had had diplomatic relations with China for a decade, Tang explained, there was much less interchange between the people, and consequently a lack of understanding. “Then when this act of Tiananmen happened, it shocked a lot of people and created a lot of negative emotions toward China.” Tang said that Pei told the group that “what is needed is an organization with the people with the background who could expertly address these issues. That was really the beginning genesis of the Committee of 100, to invite and recruit people with an interest and a willingness to address issues related to U.S.-China relations.” Most members had close ties in China or Taiwan, a few at the highest levels, and some were involved politically in the United States.
Among the first 40 members with their unique contacts and expertise in China was National Medal of Science winner T.Y. Lin, a renowned structural engineer and designer of bridges, who also happened to be personal friends with President Jiang Zemin. “Before we went to China, he would write letters to President Jiang and say that we were coming, and that’s how we got to meet President Jiang on a personal one on one basis, probably one of the most interesting meetings I’ve ever had in my life. President Jiang in his private study received about a half dozen of us and told us his reflections on the state of U.S.-China relations and how he saw what China needed.” What struck Tang most was Jiang’s confiding to the group that he went to bed every night worrying about the 150 to 200,000 Chinese who were jobless.
Pei was a longtime personal friend of Jing Shuping, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who hosted Committee delegations to China in talks about environmental issues and China’s path to industrialization.
Other members were close to American politicians, such as Ming Hsu, at that time Director of the New Jersey Division of International Trade and later a Federal Maritime Commissioner, who was friendly with powerful Republicans such as Senator John McCain, and the writer and famed “hostess of Washington” Anna Chennault, whom Tang recalls hosting a small group of C-100 members at an intimate dinner party with Senator John Kerry. As a result of their high-level contacts in both countries, the Committee often gave briefings to Members of Congress. In 1998, Committee members were called to the White House a few days before President Clinton left on the first state visit by an American president to China since 1989, to “answer six questions about China that they hadn’t found the answers to.” With their in-depth experience in China, said Tang, the questions seemed “rudimentary” to the Committee members.
Opening the eyes of high-profile Americans to the realities of China was another focus. For example, Richard Cheng, Chairman and C.E.O. of ECI Systems Engineering in Virginia Beach, arranged for a meeting of Chairman of the Christian Broadcast Network Pat Robertson with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing in 1998, which led to both religious and business interests in China. Tang remembers that Zhu had confessed his mystification about the religious right in the U.S. during an earlier C-100 visit in Beijing, asking, “What is this conservative movement all about?” Cheng and Robertson met with Zhu, and the 75-minute meeting was documented in an article by member George Koo, “Pat Robertson -- A Modern Day "Matteo Ricci" Fosters Ties Between Religious Right and China.” (Read the article)
The years between 1989 and 1999 were propitious ones for the Committee’s beginnings, said Tang, because of the unique position of C-100 members who were in close touch with all sides of the China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship. This was a time when there was much less contact between Americans and Chinese at all levels. “That multiple triangulation between Washington, Taipei and Beijing, at those levels, at that kind of intimacy, really made C-100 a serious organization to have dialogue with.” Although individual members would meet with Chinese officials individually to raise issues, the Committee’s first official delegation was in 1994. It was unprecedented, said Tang, because the delegation went to Beijing and Taipei on the same trip. In each city, they were mobbed by the press and were the go-between for messages of friendship and hope exchanged between the leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. This itinerary, which included Hong Kong, was repeated in later years, with the 1997 delegation attending the Hong Kong turnover to China. This culminated a two-year C-100 campaign in the U.S. to help the American public understand the historical and political context of Hong Kong’s change in government.
Listen to a short excerpt of Tang talking about the 1994 delegation to Taipei and Beijing: