(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 31 July 2013)

 

Thirty years ago a poet friend of mine remarked after watching a play that love stories are always so boring. They are the small guys’ great story and are interesting only to themselves. Well mine is probably no different, except that it is with the city of Chicago and the “Chicago Boys are Coming to Town.”

 

The University of Chicago announced on 11 July that it would be bringing the Asia Executive MBA program of its Booth School of Business to a newly constructed campus on Mount Davis in Hong Kong’s scenic serene Pokfulam district. The idea of Chicago coming to Hong Kong has been in the works for some time and did not come as a surprise, but when Dean Sunil Kumar’s phone call rang at 7:30 am that morning my heart raced. His voice came across the wire “Good morning, Richard. I am delighted to share with you….” I did not hear the rest of what he said as my mind could register only one thought: The phoenix is finally landing.

 

A “phoenix rising from the ashes” adorns the crest of the University of Chicago. It marks the birth of a new university in 1890, founded by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, and remembers the Old University of Chicago (1857-1886) that had failed due to prolonged financial difficulties.

 

Later that morning Chicago President Robert Zimmer’s email arrived to personally update alumni and friends, “Asia is a critical region to our faculty, students, alumni, and friends, and this new programming in Hong Kong represents an important step in the University’s growing engagement with the region. Very importantly, it will connect to the University’s Center in Beijing, which opened in 2010 and which serves the entire scope of the University faculty, students, and collaboration with Chinese colleagues and colleagues throughout Asia, and the combination of facilities in Hong Kong and Beijing will enable us to explore and develop further opportunities for collaboration in China.”

 

For me, Chicago’s coming is personal and it brings back many fond memories. My intellectual growth owes much to my years in Chicago. In 1970, I journeyed to Hyde Park, home of former US gangster Al Capone (of The Untouchables fame) and the University of Chicago, to begin my studies as a first year undergraduate student in the College. I would end up living in the Windy City for seven years throughout the 1970s to work on my undergraduate and graduate studies. Chicago was one of the US colleges I had applied to for admissions as a seventh-form student. I had included Chicago by chance because a fellow classmate had offered me the application form for which he had no use because Chicago did not offer engineering studies. I decided to try my luck and applied.

 

I learned after arriving in Chicago that the decision to admit foreign undergraduate students was restarted only a year earlier. It was a decision made at the insistence of the late Mrs. Cassandra Pyle, then Foreign Student Adviser, who would later become an important figure in promoting international scholarly exchange in the US. Mrs. Pyle was a delightful person with a warm personality, possessed a deep passion for international exchange. Mrs. Pyle took a special interest in the small number of Chicago undergraduate students from Hong Kong to make sure we adjusted well to study and life in the College. She later headed the prestigious Fulbright Program – the most prestigious US program to send US scholars abroad and bring foreign scholars to the US for scholarly exchange. Upon her retirement the Cassandra Pyle Award for Leadership and Collaboration in International Educational Exchange was named in her honor.

 

My studies at Chicago were therefore to a large degree the chance outcome of the decisions of two persons: my classmate and Mrs. Pyle. Professor F A Hayek would have called this result the miracle of “human actions and not human design” according to his concept of “spontaneous order”. This is doubly true because I eventually majored in economics and I had initially arrived at Chicago without knowing that the University was famous for the study of economics.

 

The diminutive Professor Milton Friedman was the towering giant leading the Chicago School of Economics. I did not meet the man until my third year (1972-73) in his Price Theory class. His book Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, was required reading in the first-year social science common core course as were the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was only in 1980 and after having left Chicago that I learned from watching the PBS TV series Free to Choose why Hong Kong was his favorite city. I have often wondered why Hong Kong needed to brand itself as “Asia’s World City” when the best branding is Professor Friedman’s “World’s Freest Economy”.

 

Milton Friedman was of course the most influential thinker in the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Harvard Professor Andrei Shleifer consider this period as the “Age of Milton Friedman.” Between 1980 and 2005, the world embraced free market policies, living standards rose sharply, while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined. Hong Kong was the “World’s Freest Economy” and the best example of the success of the free market. For Friedman, Hong Kong had helped usher in the era of liberalization and deregulation that swept across the world beginning in the 1980s.

 

I once told Friedman on his visit here that Hong Kong is not free, the government has a heavy hand in housing, health care, education, welfare. Friedman smiled and said: I am sure you are right, but look what Hong Kong has been able to achieve when only some areas are freer than everybody else’s. We must not forget this and I hope others will learn the lessons of Hong Kong’s experience, he said. China learned this lesson well: With a half-reformed economy it was able to trigger the greatest economic miracle known in human history.

 

Economics at Chicago had a huge impact on my intellectual growth, but a greater impact was the College experience. Chicago teaches us not to be afraid to think bold thoughts, cross traditional boundaries, and ask difficult questions. Creativity and innovativeness is learned in this manner at Chicago. To be odd and unpopular at times needs courage and demands honesty. This is character building at Chicago.

 

What did Chicago do for me?

 

First, I became a professor. At Chicago, I sat in Professor Hans Morgenthau’s class on international politics in the evening and heard him lecture on the need to “speak truth to power”. Power shapes our lives, but without truth, power becomes lost. Teaching truth is essential but not an easy task. In our humanities course we studied Plato’s Apology and learned why Socrates was executed by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth through his teaching. Teaching truth could be hazardous for your health, but there is not higher calling. It is the foundation upon which the moral and social fabric of civilization rests and thrives. At Chicago, learning is serious, exciting and transformational. Chicago’s motto: Crescat scientia, vita excolatur is alluring. The words mean: “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” At Chicago we were all part of a large mission to find out how to make the world a better place through the pursuit of learning.

 

Second, I became an economist. Economics at Chicago was not religion as outsiders tended to believe, but an empirical science. Going to class was another transformational experience. Students’ woolly thinking and faulty logic were taken to task and whether a proposition was “true, false or uncertain” was judged by what the facts say. Facts had to be interpreted and a great deal of scientific learning was devoted to sifting through the facts and examining their information content meticulously and methodically. Learning at Chicago was a multi-faceted experience that was fully problem-based and student-centered long before these terms became fashionable in higher education. Professor Melvin Reder believed that the rigor of the learning process meant weaker students gained most; a proposition I find convincing from personal experience.

 

At Chicago, I learned from Professor T W Shultz farmers are rational, from Professor George Stigler politicians are rational too when it comes to their own interests, from Professor Robert Fogel historians has a lot to teach us but history is too important to be left only to historians, from Professor Deidre McCloskey we have not really learned economics until everything we think of is explicable in economic terms, from Professor James Heckman the most powerful empirical analysis is always the most simple, and from Professor Gary Becker the power of economic analysis can only be discovered by the unrelenting push to apply it beyond the traditional boundaries of economics.

 

For me the decision to study economics was a difficult one. I was more interested in political science than economics, but a little book written by Professor Brian Barry, which I came across at the end of my second-year of studies, called Sociologists, Economists, and Democracy (1970) convinced me that I should study economics. This short, provocative book played no small part in the debate that precipitated a profound paradigmatic shift in the systematic study of politics from a sociological approach to an economic one. I never met Professor Brian Barry at Chicago even though he was teaching in the Political Science Department at that time, but his incisive analysis reached me just in time to set me on my path to pursue economic studies.

 

Third, I came to know modern China at Chicago. Chinese history after 1911 was a pretty blank space for a student like me growing up in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1971 together with two other undergraduate students from Hong Kong we devised a study plan to read contemporary Chinese history. Our efforts were supported by Tsui Sio-Ming  a graduate student in chemistry. Professor Tang Tsou of the Department of Political Science advised us on how to put together a solid reading list. Our weekly study and discussion group was attended by other Hong Kong students (周兆僖、唐欽信) from Northwestern University. The year 1971 was sixty years after the first Chinese revolution and the three of us named our summer adventure 「辛亥六十年」. At the end of summer, I discovered a part of me and my historical roots. The discovery was a critical first step that led me to eventually return home to Hong Kong after my sojourn in Chicago.

 

Fourth, I met my lovely wife at the University of Chicago and together we had two lovely children. Some of my former Chicago classmates – 雷鼎鳴、袁天凡、高志强 – all claim to have played a role in enabling our union, but let truth be told the real matchmaker was Chicago.

 

Chicago has been an amazing place for me. John D. Rockefeller once said the best investment he ever made was in the University of Chicago. I have to say so was mine. Like so many things in life it was a chance investment and my life was transformed.

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2 Responses to My Romance with the University of Chicago

  1. Yuhui Wu says:

    Dear Professor Wong,

    I am Yuhui Wu from your ECON1001 class in the past semester. I have read several articles of yours on this website and found them very inspiring and eye-opening.

    In this one recounting your experience at the University of Chicago, some of your transformations are exactly the kind I would like to see happening to me during my college period. Towards the end you mentioned a study and discussion group on contemporary Chinese history you formed with some friends back then. Though a student from Mainland China, I find my lack of knowledge in contemporary Chinese history quite appalling and have long considered making it up. Could you recommend some books for me to start with, like some in the “solid reading list” you went through? Knowing more about China would definitely be conducive to helping me find my historical roots during the formative years.

    Thank you!
    Jason, Yuhui Wu

    • Read books written by (1) Jonathan Spence, (2) Francis Hsu, (3) M C Wright edited volume, (4)James Harrison, and (5) Mark Selden for a start. They cover different periods. If you have time to read only on book then read Spence.

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