A Billionaire's Bet: The Best & Brightest

CNBC's 'A Billionaire's Bet' producers on super-achieving scholars, filming in China and the Trump effect

This experiment in U.S.-China relations could build lasting bonds between the countries
This experiment in U.S.-China relations could build lasting bonds between the countries

A Billionaire's Bet: The Best and Brightest, a new CNBC documentary airing this Sunday, June 22 at 10P ET/PT, follows a group of young super achievers from around the world as they embark on the one-year Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in China. The ambitious program, founded by billionaire and Blackstone CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman, aims to gather, educate and influence the next generation of global leaders. It's been hailed as a way to ease tensions between the U.S. and China, and even potentially stave off future cold wars.

For some behind-the-scenes insight on this making of this documentary, we sat down with CNBC producers Kathy Liu and James Segelstein to talk about the importance of the Scholars program, how they selected which scholars to follow and the peripheral impact of the U.S. presidential election abroad.

CNBC producers (from left) Kathy Liu, Christie Gripenburg and Daisy Li Cherry at the Great Wall, outside of Beijing, China.
Christie Gripenburg | CNBC

What led you to select the Schwarzman Scholars program as a documentary subject? Why was that the story you wanted to tell?

Kathy Liu: We thought it would be an interesting time to examine how young people – some of the cream of the crop of their generation - from both superpower nations interact in a brand new scholarship program that is quite unusual for China. The relationship between China and the U.S. has been colored by tensions these last several years. And the difference between the number of Chinese citizens studying in the U.S. (330,000) vs. the number of U.S. students studying in China (13,000) is stark. We thought the program would be a good window into how a group of U.S. and international students cope with living and studying in China, especially at the elite level of these students.

James Segelstein: There's no question that China has become the "other" major player on the world stage -- the second largest economy and yet still something of a mystery. At the same time, Steve Schwarzman's gamble to bring together the best and the brightest with the hope that they'll someday be able to calm tensions between China and the West is fascinating. Exploring China in the context of Schwarzman's "bet" was a great opportunity.

How did you decide which students had stories worth focusing on?

KL: In narrowing down the group of interviewees, we ended up with mostly U.S. and Chinese students, which reflects both the student ratio of the class and also the two superpowers of the day. It's hard to explain the alchemy of why a certain student's story rises above another's in terms of what would be compelling to watch. But, in general, we looked for scholars who are both at ease on camera and who were able to talk about their experiences in a detailed and passionate way.

Were there any restrictions to filming or were you given free rein by the Chinese government?

KL: There are certain restrictions to filming in Beijing and they include "sensitive" areas. Our China-based field producer helped us figure out the boundaries, but generally we didn't have a problem with filming.

Did the Chinese have any misconceptions about America that you feel the scholars or even you, yourself, changed?

JS: I think the Chinese Schwarzman Scholars were strongly affected by the impact the U.S. presidential elections had on the U.S. Scholars. The emotions it evoked, combined with the unexpected outcome, allowed the Chinese students to see how profoundly emotional and impressive a free democracy can be.

What was your favorite moment of filming?

KL: My favorite moment was walking along the Great Wall, taping the students as they explored the wall and got to know each other. I've been to the Great Wall a couple of times before, but the section where we followed the students was far enough away from Beijing (about 2 hours) that there were very few tourists. Also, the day was stunningly clear and pollution-free for miles and miles. You could see the wall draped over the mountains like the tail of a dragon. It looked even better than a postcard.

JS: There were several great moments in the production of the documentary. Following Aaron Goldstein as he explored Zhongguancun, "China's Silicon Valley," was a chance to see the nuances of Chinese business etiquette in action. Watching the Scholars interact with each other while eating a hot pot meal, seeing them participate in a Tsinghua University swim meet and just following them as they studied in Beijing coffee houses were all wonderful opportunities to get to know them better and find out what made them and the program tick.

CNBC producer James Segelstein in front of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China.
CNBC | James Segelstein

A constant theme of the documentary was the recent presidential election, especially as it pertains to the scholars' personal stories. Was that intentional or did it just come about naturally?

KL: When we first started this project, we didn't set out to have the presidential election as a theme, but on virtually every piece I work on, major news stories have impacts on our subjects just as they would on any member of the general public. The presidential election was a major story, if not the major story during the first semester of the Scholars program. And because of that, it emerged as a major theme for our documentary.

JS: Steve Schwarzman's not-so-hidden agenda for the Schwarzman Scholars program is to create an ongoing relationship among future world leaders so they'll be able to tamp down tensions as they arise between China and the West. As a result, the election campaign and particularly then-candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric about China were a perfect context in which to watch the scholars converge and experience their year.

After filming with the scholars and getting to know them and their stories, what path do you see each of them taking? Do you think we will be hearing more about them in the future?

KL: I expect that many of them eventually will work in public service, whether that's in elected office or working for state or federal agencies. All of them take on multiple projects and have interests in a variety of areas, and I think that will be reflected in their future careers. I fully expect more than a few of the 110 scholars to be in the public eye as either experts in their field or as government officials in the next 20 years.

JS: These are very ambitious young people. At the same time, many of them are genuinely interested in service. So I expect to hear from them whether they become politicians, health care officials, business people or environmental stewards.

Based on your experience in China, what were your key takeaways about the people, the country and its culture?

KL: I've been traveling to China since 1993 and it's hard to summarize its people in a few sentences because the generations are so different. You have an older population that has lived in China during extremely difficult times (the great famine and the Cultural Revolution), who hardly left their own province, much less the country itself; a middle generation that grew up into adults during the massive changes of the 90s and the aughts and who were able to travel outside the borders of China on a limited basis; and then a younger generation who have only seen China during the prosperous times of the last 20 years and travel like the millennials of other countries – couch-surfing, hostels and Airbnb. Throw into the mix the fact that virtually everyone born after 1979 grew up as only children, whereas all their parents are from families with multiple siblings, and you have people with very different perspectives on themselves, on China and on their place in the world.

Generally, I think most people are quite nationalistic or patriotic, but about China itself as a country and culture … not necessarily about its politics. China as a culture is thousands of years old and, before the Western powers arrived a couple of hundred years ago, China was the dominant nation in the Asia-Pacific region. ... Chinese people think in very long terms and, looking towards the future, they view their culture and their country in the same way: That China, as it was in the old days, will be a superpower for many years to come.

JS: China is a very proud and ambitious nation. It will be fascinating to see whether it can peacefully continue its race toward economic and regional advancement while balancing the spinning plates of political expression, a growing middle class and generational struggle.

This interview has been edited and condensed.