Against that backdrop, the
first post-Cultural Revolution national college entrance exam in 1977
was a genuinely historic moment in China.
A flood of applicants eager to be educated and study at any risk emerged.
("They had no idea at that time if the college education might be
banned again," according to my friend). No age limit was placed on
candidates. As many as 5.7 million people reportedly sought to take the
exam, among whom only 272,971 students were admitted for entrance.
This means that if you are meeting someone Chinese who entered the university in 1977/78, you are, in fact, looking at one of those elite 272,971. These are people who, literally, risked their lives for the sake of a higher education.
Dongmin Chen, a dean in Peking University’s (PKU) school of innovation and entrepreneurship, turns out to be one of these daredevils.
When I popped the question (“which year did you enter the university?”) during my recent interview with him, Chen answered: 1977.
Chen (left) was a farmer before entering the university. He subsequently, took the prestigious CUSPEA (China-U.S. Physics Examination and Application) exam, and came to the United States.
The CUSPEA, created by the Chinese-American physicist and Nobel Laureate Tsung-Dao Lee at Columbia University, offered--between 1979 and 1989--an alternative graduate school admission procedure to students from China whose higher education system was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution. Each year, CUSPEA picked about 100 students and shipped them to graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada.
Chen, after his 15 years as Senior Rowland Fellow at Harvard University and ten years of entrepreneurial experience working for three startups (chief scientist at 4DS; founder/CTO at Miradia; one-year stint at Memsic) in the United States, recently returned to China and now teaches at Peking University. Chen’s biggest passion today is to promote a new initiative called the “Open Innovation Platform” under university sponsorship.
The platform is boldly designed to break many old molds in China, and challenge traditional Chinese thinking. If the generation of Chinese who entered the university in 1977/78 are indeed the innovative thinkers and risk takers as my friend implies, Chen will be one of the leaders who eventually brings change to the high-tech and science communities in China.
Of course, a one-man initiative doesn’t become a "movement" unless the man can marshal the support of the industry and community. This is Chen’s challenge, but it’s hardly greater than the one he faced when decided he wanted to go to college.