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Apple’s Tim Cook is now top adviser to the business school at ‘China’s Harvard’

Imaginechina via AP Images

China and the United States are locked in a struggle for tech supremacy but you wouldn’t know it from the list of luminaries on the advisory board of Tsinghua University’s business school. Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella and Elon Musk are all there. And now they have a new chairman — Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The university, known as “China’s Harvard,” has a storied history as a cradle of Chinese political and economic thought. It’s one of the most elite education institutions in the country, and was even attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The School of Economics and Management said Cook chaired the board’s annual meeting last Friday. His appointment was praised by board founder and former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who said in a letter published Tuesday that he hopes the board “will become better and better” under Cook. Apple declined to comment on the news.

The university’s relationship with western leaders is strong, and the business school has included an A-list of executives — particularly from the United States — on its board since its establishment in 2000.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Musk and Microsoft’s Nadella were all listed as board members during the most recent school year. So were leaders from Walmart, IBM and General Motors. Its previous chairman was Jim Breyer, the American venture capitalist. Former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and former Walmart CEO Lee Scott have also held that post.

China is well represented, too. The country’s top trade negotiator and vice premiere Liu He was listed as a board member during the most recent year, as were tech billionaires Jack Ma, Pony Ma and Robin Li. An annual board meeting was even the setting for Cook’s first meeting with Jack Ma, the former Alibaba chairman and one of the most prominent Chinese businessmen, according to the school.

Zhu described the board as an “an important bridge of communication between China and the world” in his letter. But China’s relationship with some parts of the world — and especially the United States — has grown tense in recent years. And though Cook has served on the Tsinghua board since 2013, his elevation to chairman comes at a particularly sensitive time.

The US-China trade war, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and other global headwinds have complicated the relationship between the world’s economic superpowers. And American companies doing business in China are under an enormous amount of pressure to navigate those relationships in a delicate way without putting their operations at risk.

Now that US-China relations have soured, maintaining the “bridge” that Zhu described “has become all the more important,” said Ronald Wan, chief executive of Partners Capital International in Hong Kong. “There are still a lot of misunderstandings between the world’s two largest economies,” he added. “I think that’s the significance of this brain trust.”

Apple — which recorded $9.1 billion in sales last quarter from Greater China, or 17% of its global total — was recently scrutinized after it pulled a real-time mapping app used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, from its App Store.

Cook has worked to bolster his company’s relationship with China. Just last week he met with China’s top market regulator to talk about Apple’s investment and business development in China, along with “consumer rights protection and fulfilling corporate social responsibility,” according to the Chinese government.

And in March, Cook told attendees at a conference in Beijing that his company was “grateful” that China has opened its doors to Apple.

“We encourage China to continue to open up,” Cook said at the China Development Forum. “We see that as essential, not only for China to reach its full potential, but for the global economy to thrive. … Our future, therefore, depends on collaboration.”

Article Topic Follows: Biz/Tech

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