By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Sometimes when you meet those few remaining academics that work directly with East Asian leaders, they have an exuberance that is infectious.
Don Hellmann cannot stop talking about his trips to China and his research on Japan. It’s not that he’s immodest. It’s that he’s so exuberant and honored that it gives one a whole new feeling about East Asia, as if you are discovering it again for the first time, with Hellmann as a guide.
Hellmann has just been awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest honor civilians can receive from the Japanese emperor, for his promotion of academic exchanges and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States. But it’s not that. His book on Japan, which smashed all stereotypes about the country, was just named one of the top books published by the University of California Press in the last 125 years. But it’s not that. Finally, he’s just returned from three trips advising the Chinese government about its struggling Belt and Road Initiative with which it hopes to reshape the world. But again, it’s not that.
What it is, for the University of Washington (UW) emeritus professor, is a fascination with East Asia that started when he was a soldier in Korea that led him to a profound belief that the region will always remain different, but that its differences can be cherished and even celebrated.
He has used this philosophy to win over critics both in the United States and East Asia. And he’s still using it, at 86 (he looks half his age), to begin to transform the educational systems on both continents.
It started after he had gone to Princeton and waffled about pursuing a business career. He ended up in Korea during the Korean War.
Faced with an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever, his officers were ordering camp guards to shoot any orphans that came down from nearby caves to scavenge garbage near the base.
“I said I didn’t sign up to shoot orphans,” said Hellmann.
The military was also bringing in truckloads of prostitutes every day.
Most were war widows trying to keep their families alive.
In the midst of this, Hellmann turned to the Asian culture that surrounded him. He became enthralled with rituals of singing and burying done by the Koreans. During leave, he travelled to Japan, which he found culturally largely in a pre-war state, despite the ravages of World War II.
“I knew I would never be able to fully understand the culture, but I wanted to try,” he said.
After the war, he returned to the United States and went to U.C. Berkeley for a Ph.D. in Japanese studies.
At the time, most outsiders believed Japan was being utterly transformed through its occupation to become a model of its patron: a democracy just like the United States.
For those in Japan, even for those who felt this might not be the case, it was sacrosanct to keep up this fiction.
Hellmann, for his dissertation, analyzed the way Japan had conducted its peace negotiations with the Soviet Union.
He found that despite surface changes, such as imposing a democratic system on Japan and breaking up large industrial and financial business conglomerates, the traditional culture and society had not changed. He doubted if its values would ever be fully changed.
This was a major departure at the time.
As he moved on in life, working for elite government institutions (Nelson Rockefeller hired him to write several books, and George H.W. Bush solicited him as an adviser), he elaborated on this essential theme.
He believed that after the end of the Cold War, the United States had an opportunity to create new multilateral institutions for cooperation to embrace common interests with a region that would always have different values.
But he was disappointed that he was never able to persuade then-President Bush to develop new institutions for international cooperation.
“What happened was, he was president of the U.S. when the Cold War ended, and he said, ‘I have trouble with the vision thing,’” said Hellmann.
His pioneering work in education has set the cornerstone for the UW Jackson School of International Studies, where students engage in task forces to study current topics, as if they were going to write policy recommendations. They then bring in an outside expert to evaluate their work.
Last year, a group of more than a dozen mostly Chinese students studied the South China Sea (for the first time ever critical of their government) and then brought in the former admiral of the U.S. Navy to test them.
And last year in China, his philosophy of respecting different values won over the Chinese leadership, which, according to Hellmann, fears that the United States is out to destroy them.
As a result of a number of papers he’s written over the years, the Chinese government sought out his advice on its struggling Belt Road Initiative (BRI), with which China has hoped to remake the world.
“The Chinese think I have something to say without insulting them,” he said during an interview at the faculty club at the UW.
In January, at a forum hosted by the country’s leading research institution, the Academy of Social Sciences, Hellmann was invited to give a paper on the BRI.
He argued that any attempt to remake the world by purely economic means would fail.
“If you want to use the BRI to basically run Asia, and through that the world, you have to do more than build ports and roads,” he told them.
“You have to earn it, you have to have trust and legitimacy, your foreign policy is going to have to include that dimension,” he said.
By way of offering encouragement, he praised the Chinese for already spending heavily on life sciences, which would benefit other countries.
But Hellmann had been speaking for only a few minutes, when someone came in that was “clearly in authority and had the respect and deference” of the hundreds of Chinese in the room. The man launched his comments into the talk and suddenly took it in an entirely new direction.
It turned out this was one of the architects of the BRI and a top adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping—known as “Professor Yu.”
Professor Yu’s comments were soon taken up by others.
“Somebody else then interjected that the capacity for global leadership was easier for Asia and China,” said Hellmann.
“They said that the U.S. and Europe, with their focus on the individual, was not capable of the kind of leadership China could provide,” with its focus on the group or a common good, he said.
Hellmann, growing animated as he recounted the exchange, took the comments to heart and responded passionately.
“I didn’t get into an argument with Professor Yu, saying that our values are better than your values. I said, ‘I don’t know what values are going to work. When we won World War I, we tried to create peace through the League of Nations and when we ended World War II, we ended colonialism. We may have been wrong in the implementation, but don’t tell me the humanistic nature of what we’re doing is incompatible and one is better than the other.”
“The values are different,” he concluded. “You can’t say one set is better than the other.”
At the end, Professor Yu said, “We have to agree to disagree, but we were taken aback by your presentation.”
They asked him to come back in April and again in December. Hellmann delivered his talk in the Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress meets. Xi Jinping was slated as the keynote speaker.
Hellmann has been overwhelmed by the attention. Just minutes before his interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, one of the leaders of the UW asked him to entirely restructure the way international studies is taught at the university. And when he came into the faculty club for the interview, it looked like he had just come out of a whirlwind.
But perhaps behind all this activity is a profound sense of loss. His wife died of cancer five years ago.
Besides clearing brush on his land, Hellmann has just started to write his biography.
“My life coincides with the American century,” he said.
But it also coincides with the beginning of a new century.
“We’re going to live in a world in which the Asian century and the American century are embedded into one. We’re going to have to get together without everyone saying that we’re singing from the same page in the songbook,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.