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Lisa Trei, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail:

Leading China scholar Michel Oksenberg dies

Michel Oksenberg, a leading China scholar involved in negotiations during the Carter administration that led to the normalization of U.S. relations with Communist China, died Thursday at his home in Atherton from complications related to cancer. He was 62.

A memorial service will be held on campus in April.

Oksenberg was a senior fellow at the Asia/Pacific Research Center (APARC), a political science professor and a Hoover Institution senior fellow by courtesy. He first taught at Stanford as an acting assistant professor from 1966 to 1968.

Sociology Professor Andrew Walder, co-director of APARC and a former student of Oksenberg, recalled his mentor as an influential scholar on China. "He was the country's most experienced senior adviser to [U.S.] governments on China" and someone who "trained more students in contemporary Chinese studies during the last 25 years" than anyone else. "His enthusiasm for the subject was overwhelming and he had a way of motivating students that is very rare," Walder said.

Oksenberg was able to move effortlessly between academia and politics, and connect with a variety of audiences, Walder added. "As China scholarship has become bigger it's become more fragmented. [Oksenberg] could pull it all together."

Political Science Professor Daniel Okimoto, director emeritus of APARC, was instrumental in inviting Oksenberg to Stanford after he left his position in 1995 as president of the East-West Center, a federally funded research and training institute in Honolulu. Okimoto said his colleague, whom he first met at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, was an "extremely affable, infectiously enthusiastic guy."

"Mike had his feet in many different worlds," he said. "First and foremost, he was a scholar. He wrote a number of books on policy and politics. He was also a policy maker and maintained a commitment to making scholarship relevant to the real world. He spent a lot of time on improving America's relationship with Asia; a lot of it 'below the screen.' He was also involved in helping the American business community find its way in China."

In addition to teaching, participating in conferences and writing op-ed articles for newspapers, Oksenberg was a member of the Trilateral Commission, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations' Board of Directors, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Forum for International Policy.

Oksenberg was born in Antwerp, Belgium. He grew up in the United States, mostly in Florida. He earned a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College in 1960, a master's degree in 1963 and a doctorate in comparative politics in 1969 from Columbia University. According to Walder, Oksenberg entered Columbia with a strong interest in international affairs and considered Soviet studies, but heard that scholarship on China was opening up. His passion for the country was kindled when he met Doak Barnett, the son of missionaries in China, who taught political science at Columbia during the late 1950s and 1960s. "There was some spark between him and Doak Barnett," said Walder. "[Oksenberg] considered him to be a second father." Barnett died two years ago.

After teaching political science at Stanford, Oksenberg worked at Columbia from 1968 to 1974 and then spent two decades on the faculty at the University of Michigan.

From 1977 to 1980, Oksenberg took a leave of absence from Michigan to serve as a senior staff member on the National Security Council, with special responsibility for China and Indochina. In 1978, he began the process of helping to bring about the normalization of U.S. relations with China. President Richard M. Nixon had started the thaw with his groundbreaking visit in 1972 but, by 1978, the United States still recognized the government of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China. Oksenberg helped the U.S. government take the politically difficult step of allowing a mutual defense treaty between Taiwan and the United States to expire and recognizing the leadership in Beijing as the legitimate government of China.

Political Science Professor Jean Oi, director of the Center for East Asian Studies and a former Oksenberg student, said her mentor fundamentally understood how the vast country worked. "He is going to be very much missed," she said. "He has left a big void that will be hard to fill."

After Oksenberg was diagnosed with cancer last summer, Oi said, he continued to work. "He was a fighter until the end," she said. "There was so much more he wanted to do." One Oksenberg project that she said will be continued is an ongoing study of the workings of Zouping County government in Shandong Province in northern China. "Mike Oksenberg was instrumental in getting China to open this county as a research site for American scholars. It has proven invaluable," she said. "We've been going there for more than a decade."

Oksenberg is survived by his wife, Lois, of Atherton, his daughter, Deborah, of San Francisco, and his son, David, of Dublin, California.

A memorial fund has been established to endow a chair in contemporary studies in Oksenberg's name. In lieu of flowers, checks should be made out to Stanford University, marked "Oksenberg Fund" and mailed to Cassaundra Edwards, Institute for International Studies, Encina Hall, Room 100, Stanford University, Ca. 94305-6055.


By Lisa Trei

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