Chang-lin Tien laughs quietly as he considers the question, giving little away. "I am a private citizen," he says, "I am not an official person but I do have discussions, exchange of views and perhaps they like to know what is my assessment of the U.S. environment, the mood."
Just hours after returning from China to his campus office, the outgoing Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley is describing an "informal meeting" he had with Chinese premier Li Peng in early June. Tien was in Beijing to be inducted into China's Academy of Science. He was the first non-Chinese citizen to be accorded such an honor.
Before that Tien, at the urging of the Clinton administration, attended the inauguration of Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui in May. And last month he had a "private" lunch with C.H. Tung, the man likely to be China's top official in Hong Kong after the British leave the territory next year.
Tien downplays the significance of such meetings. But it is unusual for any but the most senior diplomats to move so freely among the upper echelon of Asia's leaders.
Tien, 61, a world-renowned scientist and U.C.-Berkeley's chancellor for the last six years, has quietly emerged as perhaps the most prominent Asian-American in the world. A familiar face in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and many other parts of Asia, he has become not merely
an informal U.S. ambassador but also something of a rainmaker, attracting millions of dollars in Asian money to the Berkeley campus.
Tien's role highlights the evolving relationship between the United States and its Asian allies. Where once we sent relief aid and missionaries to countries like Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia, now administrators like Tien solicit Asian nations for donations to underwrite financially struggling universities back home.
Tien's fundraising achievements are impressive. Over the last six years, at a time of budget cuts and shrinking resources at U.C.-Berkeley and other major American campuses, he raised a total of $780 million in private donations, including more than $20 million from Asian donors in the past year alone. (Much of this came from the 15,000 Cal alumni in Asia). Last month, he announced that Berkeley graduate James C.Y. Soong would lead a group of Taiwanese in donating $15 million toward the building of a library at Berkeley to house the university's extensive Asian studies collection. Another $3 million for the library will come from Cal alumnus and Korean Airlines vice president C.K. Cho. A new chemical studies building, named for the late Malaysian entrepreneur Tan Kah Kee, will be going up in Berkeley, in large part due to $8 million raised in Malaysia by Tien.
Tien's fund-raising prowess also enriched Princeton, where as a member of the university's Board of Trustees he helped secure
the $100 million pledge given last year to the school of mechanical engineering by Hong Kong industrialist Gordon Wu.
"People usually are replaceable, but I can't think of any of the contacts that any of us have that are more important in these days and times than Chang-lin's strong understanding of what's happening in Asia," said Paul Vanderhoef, Chancellor of the University of California at Davis. "We're not going to be able to replace Tien in that way."
Given his importance as a fundraiser, many in the university community were shocked at Tien's recent announcement that he was quitting as Chancellor. Observers believe the move was the result of his clash with Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the University of California's Board of Regents, which voted to eliminate affirmative action programs in the nine-campus University of California system. "I believe he was literally hounded from office," says Ling-chi Wang, professor of Asian-American history at Berkeley.
Tien, the first Asian-American to head a major American research university, refused to criticize the governor or the regents in his resignation statement. He remains committed to affirmative action, however. "I feel America is such a great place, a place of great opportunities for people like me," he says. "But also I see some injustice along the way. That is why we need diversity in the campus."
Slight and somewhat bookish, with the thick accent of his native Wuhan, Tien believes American colleges have a unique role to play in the future of Asia. "American universities are leaders in Asia. This is a tremendous resource for us, for Americans. For instance, in Taiwan, 80 percent of the cabinet are Ph.D.s, many of them from American schools. People still look up to America."
As a result, says Tien, Asia's leaders are anxious to support schools in the U.S., where academic freedom and creativity flourish. "In many ways America is still the most advanced of nations," says Tien, "especially in modern technology. There is a lot of new thinking developed here."
Born in Wuhan, China, in 1935, Tien moved in 1949 to Taiwan, where his father, who had been a wealthy Shanghai banker and senior financial official to Chiang-kai Shek, was exiled after the Communist revolution. Tien still remembers the family's fleet of limousines, drivers and nannies; the family mansion, with its "many, many rooms," is now home to eight families, as he discovered when he revisited it. "It is different now," Tien says with a laugh.
Tien came to America as a graduate student in 1956, where his pioneering work in micro-scale heat transfer technology led to applications in the U.S. space program and to micro-surgery instruments.
Tien says he plans to return to the laboratory after leaving the university. But there are rumors of a diplomatic posting should President Clinton be re-elected in November. With typical reserve,
Tien declines to either confirm or deny the rumors, although he acknowledges that he talks frequently with Ambassador Winston Lord, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.
Would he accept a government post? "I wouldn't say no," says Tien.
"You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising budget is big enough."
GOP campaign consultant Ed Rollins, author of the just-published "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms." (From "Fooling All the People," by Frank Rich, in Wednesday's New York Times).