“Pivotal” Support for Programs in China
By Mark Sidel
Unlike some of the other contributors to this special newsletter on the life, work and legacy of Franklin Thomas, I did not know him at all well. Others will be able to speak considerably more personally about him, and in considerably more detail.
In my time at the Foundation when he was president, I was far down the organization chart and far away geographically, first as a program officer in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then developing and managing the Foundation’s programs in Vietnam in the early and mid-1990s.
And yet, of course, I directly felt Frank’s influence and impact on our work. In the early 1980s, when Peter Geithner initiated the Foundation’s efforts in China from New York in the first significant United States foundation engagement with post-Cultural Revolution China, Frank was a strong supporter of those intensive efforts and the programs that resulted.
Five years later, he was a strong supporter of the efforts that culminated in the opening of the Foundation’s office in Beijing in late 1987 and our rapid expansion of programming in China.
And, more personally, in a decision that has had lifelong ramifications for me, he endorsed Peter Geithner’s recommendation that a young lawyer with many years of background in China be hired to work on that opening team in Beijing and to expand programming in law and governance. Frank’s decision enabled me to join Ford and eventually work with the Foundation in Vietnam, Thailand and India as well as China.
Eighteen months after the Beijing office opened, the Foundation and all other U.S. organizations then working in China were faced with the questions of what to do after the 1989 spring and June 4 events in Beijing.
I was far away from those New York discussions, but I was well aware that Frank and his senior colleagues upheld continued engagement with China after Tiananmen. He stood with his Chinese and American program staff in Beijing in supporting continued work in China while listening carefully and respectfully to those who advocated for a reduction or an end to programming and engagement.
That decision in 1989 to remain engaged with and in China was the pivotal moment in the history of Ford’s China programs. The decision to remain enabled the Foundation’s work with Chinese civil society, women’s rights, reproductive health and other areas that were only a glimmer in programmers’ eyes in 1989 and to become possible in the 1990s and after. That forty-year engagement with China, which continues to this day, has had significant impact in China and well beyond.
I join other colleagues in remembering Franklin Thomas and mourning his passing.
Mark Sidel worked variously at the Foundation from 1988 to 2000 on the program staffs in Beijing, Hanoi, Bangkok and New Delhi, and now is Doyle-Bascom Professor of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.