Give Me Liberty! in Hangzhou

There is a saying – with guanxi, you can do anything.  Without guanxi, you can do nothing.  Sometimes, with guanxi, you can get Liberty! in China.  A story about ordering textbooks in China.

In 2009, I began teaching fulltime at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology (ZUST) in Hangzhou. I had a joint appointment with the business school and the engineering school.  For the business students, I was to teach micro and macro economics; for the engineers, courses in urban and environmental planning.  My students were a mix of Chinese and foreign students, mostly from Africa, a few from the middle east and Indonesia.

This was the era when Chinese schools were looking to form cooperative relationships with school in the US, England, Germany. In the fall of 2010, the president of San Francisco State University came to ZUST and delivered a promotional talk – in Chinese – to my engineering students.   The proposal that had been worked out was a 2+2 deal – two successful years of study at ZUST could lead to two, possibly three, years at SFSU and a joint bachelor’s degree in engineering.

This was an excellent opportunity for ZUST students, since a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in China was not worth much outside of China.  With the possible exception of one program at Tsinghua, no Chinese engineering bachelor’s degree programs were internationally accredited.  This meant that a graduate could not apply to take the professional engineering exam in most of the world without substantial additional study or years of practice.  There was no guarantee that the SFSU joint program would receive accreditation, but there was certainly a chance.  Basic courses in math and science would be taught in China. The more substantive courses would be in the US.  This was not unlike a junior college transfer program into a major American university.

SFSU wanted a couple of core courses taught at ZUST – an American history course and an American politics course. My background is in civil engineering, urban planning and policy, economics and organization.  But I spoke English and looked American, so I was tabbed at the instructor. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

No other teacher at ZUST had ever taken, much less taught, American history.  It might be fair to say that this was the first time such a course had ever been taught in Zhejiang Province.  It was a historical first.

These were still heady days of openness in the second half of the Hu Jintao administration.  I was at ZUST because I had just finished six years of teaching midlevel CCP officials in a graduate program in public administration at IIT in Chicago.  I wanted to see what teaching in China would be like, so I went.  The director of the international program at ZUST was a student of mine in Chicago.  She was smart, open, and interested in making deals with foreign schools and foreign teachers.  It is fair to say that I was the face of the foreign program at ZUST at a time when such programs were much desired.

Textbook selection was going to be a challenge.  In the US, book ordering need not be more complicated than an instructor sending book details to the ordering department of the school, and a few days or weeks later the book shows up in the school bookstore.  Students buy the book, and the course is in business.

I knew that would not be the process at ZUST.  There was a book ordering department, but of course that was mostly for Chinese books.  There were a few American books used – most notably, the Greg Mankiw Fundamentals of Economics books, but those were published legally in China, so the Mankiw books had already been vetted for content.

The course was to be American history since 1865.  No other details provided to me.  There were many book from which to choose, and Eric Foner had written more than twenty of them.  His Give Me Liberty! is still the most used American history survey course text in the US.  For the instructor, the teacher’s edition provided powerpoints, which would save me dozens of hours of work (no one teaches in China without powerpoints). The book was also used at SFSU.  I chose the Foner book.

I emailed my book choice to my former IIT student, the head of the international program at ZUST, now my colleague.  If she had been drinking tea when she saw my email order, she probably would have done a spit-take.  Give Me What?

These were heady days of openness, but come on, there are limits.  Give Me History would have been ok. 

My former student was the head of the international program, but she was not the No. 1 – that was the Party leader, who was ultimately responsible for all my actions.  She could not speak much English, and could certainly not read the book, so vetting fell to my former student.

This is where the guanxi worked.  We were teacher and student in Chicago, and we had many chances to talk.  She saw me as at least reasonably trustworthy – I was not going to be running down China in the classroom.  Give Me Liberty! was the SFSU book.  The whole point of the course was to expose these Chinese students to American style courses and teaching so they had a chance to go to the US in their third year.

But still.  We had meetings.  My former student had to look up the book online, and read what she could from the W.W. Norton website. She had to convince herself that the book was ok, just an unfortunate title. I had to promise her that there were no passages suggesting that China or CCP were implicated in the bombing at Pearl Harbor or responsible for the Great Depression, and that destruction of CCP was not an integral part of American history since 1865.  She took me at my word.

There was a more serious vetting process on the ZUST side than I know.  My former student was putting herself on the line, and her Party leader, in ordering such a book.  She could not order the book herself – that had to be done by someone in the civil engineering department, and that woman was putting her reputation and that of her dean on the line as well.  I had more than half a dozen meetings with various of the parties.  I sent long emails, with text of my discussions with the WW Norton rep in the US.  I don’t know if there were provincial education bureau discussions before the book order could be placed, but I would not be surprised. Liberty was not a censored word, but it wasn’t on everyone’s lips, either. If something went south with the book or me or the course, the jobs of several people could be on the line. 

Then there was the money.  Students are supposed to pay for books. In the US, the book sold for about $46 at the time, about 300 yuan.   Three hundred yuan was the book allowance for one ZUST student for an entire semester. We could not order CD copies – those would have been illegal to ship and WW Norton would not send them anyway- as the rep told me, they didn’t have good IP protection in China.  We could not order used copies – Chinese only wanted new, and could only order from the publisher in any case. Illegal copying was still common in China, but the school did not want to engage in that itself, so ordering one copy was out.  A real world example - the Mankiw Fundamentals book was about 790 pages.  The book printed legally in China was sold for 79 yuan (about $12).  In the US, the book cost over $100.  But photocopying in China cost 0.1 yuan per page.  You do the math.   The school was going to have to buy the books, about 9000 yuan, and eat the cost.  That was a couple of months salary for some teachers.

I could have put together notes, and taught without a book.  But Chinese teachers are expected to use a book (presumably so it can be vetted, and so the school has some assurance that the teacher is at minimum reading something to the students).  For my course, a book was most certainly going to be necessary.

There were time constraints.  Shipping on a boat would take about six weeks to get to ZUST, and this was after whatever approvals and vetting were needed outside of ZUST.  WW Norton did have a relationship with one of the required Chinese book importing companies, so paper copies of the book could be sent to China. But time was getting short. We had been having the meetings and email discussions all through the spring, the school closes down in the summer, and I needed the books by about August 1.

I thought perhaps I could just order the books myself from W.W. Norton in the US – thirty or so copies, wrap them up, put them on a boat, they would arrive in six weeks or so.  But that wouldn’t work. The Chinese government still controlled book ordering.  Books could only be ordered through one of the designated import agents.  If my thirty books had just shown up at Shanghai port, they would have been seized and tossed.

I gave the school a deadline – I needed the books ordered by July 10.  My guanxi with my former student worked.  Give Me Liberty! was ordered by ZUST.  The books got delivered, and we used them – or I should say, the books were in the bookstore.  Only a few students purchased the book.

ZUST did not repeat the course.  Very few – perhaps none – of the Chinese students wanted to pay the American tuition to SFSU, and they did not respond well to an “American-style” course, with quizzes and exams and papers to write.  The students got a taste of liberty, taught American style, and judged it wanting.

I ordered other books from America for other courses.  None of those were the existential crisis of ordering Give Me Liberty! in English, for use with Chinese students, with such a provocative title.  When the course was over, the unsold books were delivered to me in my apartment.  Perhaps they are still there. Anyone interested, contact me.  I'm at liberty to make a deal.



院、部、(盖章)   建筑工程学院                院教学主管(签名):           教研所所长(签名):        联系电话:           填表日期:  2011    6     日  



Course name


Textbook name




Press name









Order volume















History Since 1865

Give Me Liberty!


WW Norton

2nd Edition Volume 2 Paper

ISBN 978-0-393-93256-0


William D. Markle










Norton Media Library

WW Norton

WW Norton




William D. Markle










Instructors Manual and Test Bank

Valerie Adams

WW Norton




William D. Markle










Studentt Study Guide

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WW Norton




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