Make It

Why I'm building a network of 10,000 elite scholars who understand China

I've been struck over the last 10 years at how substantive understandings between nations have failed to keep pace with our abilities to communicate through the internet, global media and increasing levels of travel.

My perspective on this paradox dates back to Blackstone's 2007 initial public offering. China's sovereign wealth fund became a significant investor in my company, and I was invited to join the Board of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management. This was really an invitation to get to know China.

Virtually everyone I knew in 2007 agreed that China had become a critical player on the world's stage. However, few people had a deep understanding of the complex cultural values and traditions that underpin that nation's business, political and everyday life. While my frequent visits and the relationships I built in China deepened my own understanding, I became more aware of and concerned about broad cultural gaps.

Watch: "A Billionaire's Bet: The Best and the Brightest," on CNBC on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT about the Schwarzman Scholars program in Beijing aimed at grooming future leaders.

As China continues to expand its economic and international influence, this lack of cross-cultural understanding could have tragic consequences. Harvard Professor Graham Allison has articulated an idea known as the "Thucydides Trap." It states that, through history, the rise of an emerging power very often creates fear and anxiety among established powers, which can (in the worst-case scenario) lead to war.

Schwarzman Scholars was designed to help defuse those tensions and create a more peaceful world. Each year, it brings up to 200 of the world's most promising students from countries around the world to study in Beijing at Tsinghua University. By exposing those future leaders to China and each other, it is our hope that they can then go back to their home countries and help interpret what is happening in China in a more nuanced and thoughtful way.

The journey to create such an ambitious program was anything but easy. It was a six-year effort involving teams in New York and Beijing. We were half-a-world and 12 time zones away, attempting to create an international program without precedent in a country with a different language and culture from our own. When we started, we had no curriculum, no faculty, and no selection process for the scholars. We didn't even have a building to house the program.

"Over the next 50 years, we are going to create a cohort of more than 10,000 Schwarzman Scholars. This is a network of relationships that can be activated over a lifetime in the service of reducing the antagonism, partisanship, and rancor that could threaten global peace."

Slowly, however, things started coming together. We built an advisory board of some of the world's most influential political leaders; we organized an academic advisory council of 22 professors from the world's top universities to help create a challenging curriculum and recruit dynamic professors; and, most importantly, we set out to design a selection process that would identify young leaders around the world with the academic ability, intellectual curiosity and leadership potential to emerge as the futures of their countries and communities.

Our ultimate vision for the impact of the program is equally as ambitious as our initial dream to get the program off the ground. We want to see a future U.S. Secretary of State sitting across from a foreign diplomat, who each share a common bond as Schwarzman Scholars. We want to see groups of young entrepreneurs, who previously forged a relationship in Beijing at Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, discussing best practices across oceans to help their local communities. We want to see Fortune 500 CEOs from Shanghai and Seattle, who once studied together as Scholars, partnering to strengthen global economies.

Over the next 50 years, we are going to create a cohort of more than 10,000 Schwarzman Scholars. This is a network of relationships that can be activated over a lifetime in the service of reducing the antagonism, partisanship, and rancor that could threaten global peace.

Last August, I first visited the finished building that I had previously only seen in sketched renderings and as a construction site. I spoke with professors who had spent the last year turning ideas into lesson plans. I watched students from every part of the globe move into the college with people they may have never encountered. They were brimming with enthusiasm, optimism and energy.

As we near the end of the inaugural year, my excitement and dedication to the larger goal of Schwarzman Scholars continues to grow. I look forward to the next chapter of the program, as our inaugural class walks across the stage at graduation on July 1 and to welcoming the second cohort to Beijing in August. I am more confident than ever – if we give the next generation of future leaders the tools, knowledge, and networks they need to break down cultural barriers, we can help build a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Commentary by Steve Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of Blackstone. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Chairman of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum. He is the founder of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing aimed at educating future leaders about China. Follow Schwarzman Scholars on Twitter @SchwarzmanOrg.

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