35 Years of Building Bridges: Project Pengyou Honors John Thomson

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On June 6, a crowd of more than 50 well-wishers gathered in the Project Pengyou Courtyard anxiously watching the sky, wishing away the rain. The earlier downpour had threatened to flood us out, but as the evening came about, the clouds parted and a single rainbow appeared in the sky just in time for a very special event.

When we heard that John Thomson would be retiring at the end of the summer and leaving China, we were devastated. To insiders, John is affectionately known as “the Godfather” of the U.S.-China educational exchange sector. Over the past 35 years, he has worked behind the scenes to help pave the way for countless American China study programs, beginning with the first American students to China after US-China normalized relations in 1979.

John will be leaving China at the end of the summer to retire after a long and illustrious multi-phase career as a foreign service officer, director of IUP at Tsinghua and later of UC EAP at PKU, and leader of the China Association of Program Executive Directors (CAPED), a community of international education practitioners in China.

We knew that we had to do something special to honor John Thomson. So we conspired with his oldest son Charlie Thomson and some of his closest friends to plan a surprise party that would send him off in style!


Many weeks earlier, plans had been set in motion; Charlie made Friday night dinner plans with his father as a diversion. Guests arrived to our courtyard early and munched on food from Dali Courtyard, Mr. Shi’s Dumplings and MaMa Pizza while waiting for the guest of honor. Once Charlie and family arrived at the restaurant next door, Charlie told John he wanted to quickly check up on Project Pengyou’s water filters (Charlie is the chief rep in China for Aquasana).

When the knock came at our door just past 7:00pm, guests became completely quiet while Holly Chang opened the door and lured John into the Project Pengyou courtyard . Once he walked through the moon-arch at our entrance, everyone shouted “SURPRISE” and the courtyard erupted into shouts and laughter. The look on John’s face when he walked in: priceless. Despite nearly 70 co-conspirators, John had no inkling of the party or what was to come.

We managed to pull off the surprise! We felt a bit bad for scaring John's granddaughter though...
We managed to pull off the surprise! We felt a bit bad for scaring John’s granddaughter though…


As guests were seated, the “roasts and toasts” of John Thomson began. All of the speakers wove lovely tales of their encounters with John and how he’d enriched their lives and their experience in China. The line-up of speakers were some of John’s closest friends from the past 35 years, including Frank Hawke (Director of the China Program Stanford University Graduate School of Business), Andy Andreasen (Executive Director of the Stanford Center at Peking University), Jeremiah Jenne (Director of IES Beijing Center), Bill Kazer (Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal), and Abe Sorock (Founder of ATLAS China). John Grobowski (Partner at Faeger Baker Daniels LLP) and Tom Gold (Executive Director of IUP) were unable to attend the event but prepared remarks that were read aloud.


Each speaker offered their own contribution: Frank gave an impromptu interview of John, Chris Chan presented a video tribute by his UC-EAP students, and Andy Andreasen read a tongue-in-cheek poem that he personally composed. The toasts painted the picture of an early pioneer and unsung hero who helped countless others generously and never sought credit or recognition. John shared stories from the early days when there were more ox carts than cars in the streets and the highlight of the summer was to pop a squat at Wangfujing and cool off eating watermelon. Having served as a mentor and leader to so many who are now working in promoting educational and cultural exchange in China, John’s absence will surely be felt.

Much like rainbows are a rarity in Beijing, so is someone as beloved as John Thomson. On behalf of all our 朋友们, we would like to sincerely thank John for all of his many contributions to the field of US-China exchange and wish him all the best in his retirement.

 To see more photos from the reception, see our PHOTO GALLERY!



Since August 2011, John Thomson has been Director of the University of California Beijing Center at Peking University. Most recently, he was the first City of Chicago representative in China for three years, based in Shanghai and promoting Chinese investment into Chicago. Prior to that, he was Resident Director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing for four years.

John was a career diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service from 1970 to 1997, serving in Beijing in 1978-81 during normalization of US-PRC relations, when he established the official USG cultural and educational programs in China, including Fulbright exchanges. He also served in Taiwan, Indonesia, Sweden, and Washington D.C. After leaving the U.S. Foreign Service, John was Managing Editor of China Online, an online business information service in Chicago, for three years.

He has lived a total of 14 years in Beijing and Shanghai, and 12 in Taiwan, beginning with a visit to Taiwan in 1960. John is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.A. degree in Chinese Language, and also has a M.A. degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University. Prior to beginning his study of Chinese language in 1965, John served two years in Okinawa with the U.S. Marine Corps. John is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.