BEIJING — Two years ago, one of China's most successful investment bankers broke away from his meetings in Berlin to explore a special exhibit that had caught his eye: "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime." In the basement of the German History Museum, He Di watched crowds uneasily coming to terms with how their ancestors had embraced the Nazi promise of "advancement, prosperity and the reinstatement of former national grandeur," as the curators wrote in their introduction to the exhibit. He, vice-chairman of investment banking at the Swiss firm UBS, found the exhibition so enthralling, and so disturbing for the parallels he saw with back home, that he spent three days absorbing everything on Nazi history that he could find.
"I saw exactly how Hitler combined populism and nationalism to support Nazism," He told me in an interview in Beijing. "That's why the neighboring countries worry about China's situation. All these things we also worry about." On returning to China he sharpened the mission statement at the think tank he founded in 2007 and redoubled its ideological crusade.
He's Boyuan Foundation exists almost entirely under the radar, but is probably the most ambitious, radical, and consequential think tank in China. After helping bring the Chinese economy into the arena of global capital through his work at UBS, He now aspires to enable Chinese people to live in a world of what he and his ideological allies call "universal values": liberty, democracy, and free markets. While the foundation advises government institutions, including leaders at the banking and financial regulators, its core mission is to "achieve a societal consensus" around the universal values that it believes underpin a modern economic, political and social system.
"This is the transition from a traditional to a modern society," He says.
The challenge for Boyuan is that "universal values" clash with the ideology of the Communist Party, which holds itself above those values. "Boyuan is like the salons that initiated and incubated the governing ideas of the French revolution," says David Kelly, research director at a Beijing advisory group who has been mapping China's intellectual landscape. "They explicitly want to bring the liberal enlightenment to China."
The 65-year-old He is at the forefront of an ideological war that is playing out in the background of this week's epic leadership transition, where current Chinese President Hu Jintao officially yielded power to Xi Jinping. At one pole of this contest of ideas are He's universal values; at the other, the revolutionary ideology of the party's patriarch, Mao Zedong. This battle for China's future plays into the decade-long factional struggle between Hu and his recently resurgent predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Jiang's ideological disposition has evolved in chameleon fashion but in recent years he has hinted that if the party remains inflexibly beholden to Mao Zedong-era thought and Soviet-era institutions then it faces a risk of Soviet-style collapse.
When He Di stepped down as chairman of UBS China in 2008 -- after leading the investment banking capital raising charts for four straight years -- UBS gave him an office, a secretary, and a salary with no minimum work requirements. He continued to find UBS lucrative deals, capable princelings to hire (such as the son of former Vice Premier Li Ruihuan) and introductions to wealthy private banking clients. The Swiss bank also gave him $5 million to inject into Boyuan, just weeks before the 2008 global financial crisis, without any strings attached except the appointment of a UBS representative on his board, according to Boyuan representatives. He tipped in $1 million of his own as he redeployed his resources to build a platform for ideas. "One day I picked up the phone and called potential board members." he said. "I called 6 or 7 ministers or vice ministers, without any hesitation."