I wish India was blest with an interlocutor like Victor Hao Li who did so much to build abiding ties between China and the United States of America. As president of the East-West Center in Honolulu from 1981 to 1989 and later as a practising lawyer, consultant and philanthropist, he wanted to do the same for India. Some time in the late 1990s Victor invited me to a conference for the purpose on one of the Hawaiian islands. But sufficient support wasn’t forthcoming and the event was cancelled.
At the time of his death aged 72 on September 18, Victor was deeply engaged in non-profit work in China in education and energy. He rightly boasted once in an interview with Terese Leber for the EWC’s oral history project that the “fairly large” US businesses he had taken to China covered a broad range of interests. There was General Reinsurance (the biggest such company in the world) and Children’s Television Workshop, which produced 130 episodes of the Sesame Street serial with Shanghai Television. He warned clients against expecting fast returns. If that was their goal, he could introduce them to the right people but his own sights were set on more lasting linkages. “I will take you in a particular way,” he said, “which does not include fast returns but will lead you to building strong relationships.”
Zhao Ziyang’s epochal visit to the US in 1984 marked a spectacular success for his strategy. Victor flew to Beijing, laden with boxes of orchids for everyone in the Chinese hierarchy, and suggested Zhao start his American odyssey in Honolulu. Why? demanded the Chinese premier’s secretary. Victor says he hadn’t thought it out. “China always has made it a very important point to deal not only with the American government, but also the American people,” he ad-libbed. “Come to Hawaii. We are the American people.” The gambit succeeded. Zhao Ziyang was never averse to breaking new ground. When he discarded Mao suits for European attire, he told foreign correspondents in Beijing to give a boost to China’s garments exports by reporting how smart his Chinese-made lounge suit looked. The innovation of Honolulu before Washington appealed to him. It also gave a huge impetus to Victor’s lobbying on Capitol Hill and global fund-raising to keep the EWC where he had placed it on the world’s map.
Meeting Victor and his charming wife, Arlene Lum, publisher of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper, for the first time among the fairy lights of an al fresco black tie dinner hosted by Sheila Watumull, India’s white American honorary consul in Honolulu, I was struck by his modesty and winning gap-toothed smile. He seemed very young. I was on a lecture tour and though the EWC was an important milestone on my route, I knew nothing about its president. So, I was taken aback when Victor acknowledged Sheila’s introduction with a murmured “We’re hoping to persuade him to spend some time with us!”
Twenty-five years earlier, I had stopped off in Honolulu for a long weekend after a summer spent at Henry Kissinger’s feet at Harvard. I missed out on the EWC then despite an appointment with one of its officials. Young men in their twenties find Waikiki more alluring, and whoever I was supposed to meet must have written off the rude Indian who didn’t show up with nary a word of apology. This time I was present in the flesh but there were responsibilities at home including editing a newspaper that commanded readers and respect. Victor was gone by the time I was ready to pull up anchor in Calcutta but he had set the wheels in motion and I was warmly welcomed when I succeeded my old friend Derek Davies, the last real editor of Hongkong’s Far Eastern Economic Review, as editor-in-residence. William Cowper would have said, “God moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform.”
Although we were deprived of the chance of working together, Victor and Arlene showed us many kindnesses. But for them, Deep wouldn’t have been admitted in mid-term to Iolani School where the two younger Li boys, Jeffrey and Justin, studied. Iolani, “Heavenly hawk” in Hawaiian, was named by Queen Emma whose husband, King Kamehameha IV of Hawaii, also patronized the school when Hawaii was an independent kingdom. Punahou, where Barack Obama went, was originally for the children of white missionaries. The Lis introduced us to Hawaii society, suggested people to interview for my book, Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, and offered sound advice on seemingly small matters that nevertheless strengthened understanding.
A three-day seminar at Makaha, the surfing resort, with the distinguished Confucian scholar, Tu Weiming, highlighted this interest. As Victor told Leber, instinct advised him that “culture was absolutely, critically important”. Not just song and dance but language, values, institutions, practices and habits. “Culture would play an important role in every development and every solution to problems.” The word made Goering reach for his revolver. Somerset Maugham said it reduced strong men to mumbling. But Victor regarded culture as the key to rapport. He described “differences in language, institutions, procedures and preferences” as the most obstinate impediments to understanding. Some of his fervour transmitted itself to David James, an EWC fellow in the next room, whose three books on doing business in Asia translated the theme into everyday advice. Victor felt that not being “boxed in by departments and disciplines”, the EWC was especially able to reach out across cultural frontiers.
His eclectic background may have influenced this perception. Victor was all American, yet also Chinese, unlike Arlene who came from generations of settlers and had lost her ancestral language. Victor was born in Hongkong because medical facilities there were better than in China’s Guangdong province where his father was governor under Chiang Kai-shek, but taken to the US when he was only six. He grew up in New York City and White Plains. Michigan, Columbia and Stanford shaped his thinking. His Asia transcended what I call Chopsticks Asia. He had a deep interest in India and, I felt, was disappointed at India’s indifference to the EWC. B.D. Nag Chaudhuri, probably the first Indian member of the board of governors, wasn’t particularly into culture despite being married to a talented and vivacious singer. Things may have changed but for a long time Hawaiians felt that Ratan Tata, a later governor, wasn’t particularly interested either. There were no Indian artifacts on display like Emperor Akihito’s silver cup, Indonesian carvings or Thai silks.
Indira Gandhi’s 1982 visit, when she presented Honolulu zoo with Mari, the baby elephant Sheila and David Watumull imported, may have prompted a thaw in Indo-US relations but doesn’t appear to have kindled much enthusiasm for the EWC which celebrated its 25th anniversary three years later. Victor’s tenure was also marked by a major reorganization of the EWC, the Imin International Conference Center keynoted by George Schultz, an international film festival, Helmut Schmidt’s launch of a lecture series, and several new programmes for teachers and young leaders. I could understand him replying when asked if he planned on staying on in Honolulu that you “can’t get me out of here with a crowbar”. His mission continues. Justin Li proudly works with Smile Train, his father’s programme to provide free cleft lip and palate surgery to deprived children. More than 20,000 operations have already been performed in China. Victor believed in working with good people to move ideas forward. For his epitaph, he quoted Christina Rossetti: “Be the grass green above me,/ With showers and dewdrops wet;/ And if thou wilt, remember;/ And if thou wilt, forget.” No one who knew him is likely to forget. I wouldn’t be writing this in the comfort of Kensington but for Victor’s initial offer.