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PKU American alumnus Frank Hawke shares his China story

OCT . 11 2016
Peking University, Oct. 11, 2016: In 1979, while working on his Ph.D. at Stanford University, Frank Hawke made a decision that would not just change his life forever, but also write him into the pages of modern Chinese history. The United States and China had only just announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on New Year’s Day 1979, and on February 23 mid-afternoon, Mr. Hawke’s plane from Tokyo touched down at a snow-covered Beijing Airport, bringing the first ever group of American exchange students to mainland China.

Mr. Hawke had ‘caught the China bug’ while working on his bachelors in Economics at Stanford University in the mid-seventies. After deciding to put off a calculus requirement for another quarter, he discovered a course called “The Problems of Arms Control and Disarmament” taught by a Sinology professor named John Lewis. Dr. Lewis sparked his interest in China studies and after taking another course taught by Harry Harding on modern Chinese politics, Mr. Hawke decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science with a focus on Chinese political-economy.

After graduating from his bachelor’s program, Mr. Hawke directly entered the Ph.D. program and was planning to study in Taiwan, as mainland China was inaccessible to American students at that time. But just as he was finishing up his coursework, Chinese-American relations reached its highest point in 30 years. Stanford University had signed an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and chose Mr. Hawke to join seven other students who would make up the first ever group of Americans to study in mainland China since the establishment of the PRC. Mainland China was one of the last places on earth where you could not find Americans, but the newcomers quickly filled the void by settling into buildings 26 and 25 at Peking University.
Mr. Hawke’s Chinese improved rapidly, and he became close to some of his teachers too, including Professor Hong Junyan, who was responsible for the academic lives of the American students who were studying economics. In the winter of 1980, Mr. Hawke was alone for Chinese New Year, the most important holiday in Chinese culture, so Professor Hong invited him to his home for a New Year’s Dinner. The faculty housing was in bad shape at that time, but Professor Hong did not mind the condition of his home and went completely out of his way to welcome a lonely young Mr. Hawke over for dinner. The gesture really touched him, and it is something that Mr. Hawke says he will always remember.

Mr. Hawke joined the basketball team, and occasionally partied at the weekly ‘disco’ organized for the foreigners in town, but he spent most of his time studying. Every week he would take the bus to a big post office at Liubukou in central Beijing and browse through the new publications on the shelf. It was an exciting time, Mr. Hawke said, because there was an explosion of new publications in the Chinese academic world.
He would buy ten or fifteen journals and magazines on politics and economics and have them bundled up. In the winter he would eat boiled sliced lamb out of the gigantic ten-person communal hot pot at Hong Bin Lou, the Halal restaurant nearby. If it were summer, he would go for the grilled lamb on sticks.

The late seventies, early eighties were really a time of immense change in China. Mr. Hawke’s ultimate goal was not to earn a Ph.D., but just to be involved in China. In the seventies, the only way Americans could get involved was through academia, as there were no diplomatic relations and very little business. But once Mr. Hawke arrived and China began to further open its doors to American businesses, he realized, “those business guys were getting all the cool meetings”, and he decided to scrap his plans for a Ph.D., and after teaching a semester of economics at PKU, he took a job at a young company called Unison International, which helped American companies get their foot into the Chinese market. 
One of his most famous deals was the Beijing Jeep Corporation, China’s first Chinese-western automotive joint venture, and now one of the most classic examples of early foreign direct investment in China. Mr. Hawke represented American Motors, and the deal took about four years to negotiate before the signing in 1984. On a table in his office, he has a framed photograph of himself translating in the Great Hall of the People, between the Chairman of American Motors and the Chinese Minister of Foreign Trade, Chen Muhua. With Chinese teacups and trays of cigarettes on the table, it was a classic Chinese business scene.

Besides a few years in Taiwan and Vietnam (where he led the team that reestablished Citibank in the country), Mr. Hawke has lived more or less continuously in Beijing since he arrived in 1979. He is a self-described ‘Beijinger’ who has raised two bilingual and bicultural children in the city. At an alumni event in May this year, Mr. Hawke said that Peking University changed his life. He is now one of the most distinguished American alumni of Peking University and has built one of the most impressive careers of American expatriates in China. By managing the Stanford Graduate School of Business at the Stanford Center in the northern part of the PKU campus, he has returned to both of his alma maters, and will continue to make Peking University proud.

Written by: Jessie Gammon
Edited by: Zhang Jiang
Photos by: Liu Yueling
Source: Office of Internationa Relations