In Brief

Donald W. Klein, Expert on Contemporary China, Dies

The longtime political science professor influenced a generation of Asian studies students
April 17, 2018

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Donald W. Klein, an influential voice for understanding contemporary China and who artfully interpreted power shifts in Communist leadership for students, scholars, and the general public, died on March 2 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was eighty-eight.

For twenty-three years Klein taught in the Department of Political Science, where his rise from lecturer to full professor dovetailed with an “exploding interest in Asian studies,” said Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor emeritus and former provost. 

Donald W. Klein. “Many former students, now alumni, talk about him as an unforgettable force in their lives,” said Sol Gittleman.“Don was a big influence in creating an environment for Asian studies to take off at Tufts,” said Gittleman. “If he was tough and direct on the subject of East Asia, it’s because he took his discipline very seriously. Many former students, now alumni, talk about him as an unforgettable force in their lives.”

James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, agreed. “I hear from Don’s former students with some frequency,” said Glaser, who was a colleague in the Department of Political Science. “It's not just that they remember him fondly. They talk about how he shaped their thinking and helped them cultivate their interests. It’s a testament to his influence.”

Klein was born on March 31, 1929, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Florida, where he studied political science. He then served in the Air Force intelligence from 1951 to 1955, and was stationed on the front lines in Seoul during the Korean War.

“When enlisting, he mentioned that he thought he would be of use in Korea due to his studies,” said his son, Jeffrey Klein, A89. “So they asked him right on the spot if he would be willing to go to the front line. He said, ‘Yes, sir!’”

After the Korean War, Klein working as a journalist and for the U.S. government in Japan, where he met his future wife, Yasue; they were married in 1957. The couple lived in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving to New York City, where Klein earned his Ph.D. at Columbia.

His academic career began at Harvard, where he was a research fellow from 1965 to 1967. He joined Tufts as a lecturer in 1973. 

It was the big and often difficult questions about power shifts in Mao’s China that made that made Klein one of the world’s leading China watchers. He began focusing on China’s economy and politics in the 1960s, contributing articles such as “The ‘Next Generation’ of Chinese Communist Leadership” in the edited volume, China Under Mao: Politics Takes Command (MIT Press, 1966).

He also co-authored the two-volume Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism: 1921-1965 (Harvard University Press, 1971). It was the first book to gather together the biographies of 433 influential figures of the Chinese Communist Party, and it remains an indispensable research tool for scholars of Chinese politics and other disciplines.

Klein also co-wrote Rebels and Bureaucrats: China’s December 9ers (University of California Press, 1976), which traces the history of the generation who came of age during the December 9, 1935 student uprisings in Beijing demanding Chinese government action against Japanese military aggression. 

Klein’s expertise was appreciated by what he called the “intelligent lay reader.” That audience of both newspaper and magazine articles gained thoughtful and straightforward insights into China’s political leadership shifts and outlooks, including its emerging potential for trade.

Klein’s contributions to the Boston Globe responded to widening interest in China’s emerging global presence, such as a 1981 article on the fifth anniversary of the death of Mao, and another in 1984, reflecting on Premier Zhao Ziyang’s visit to the United States. “Zhao is well-known for his firm belief that China’s future rides on the ability to modernize its economy,” he wrote, going on to describe the roots of Zhao’s “pragmatic admiration of Wester technical skills.”

“His op-eds were always clear and helpful,” said Gittleman. “He was our public intellectual on Asian policies and changes that were very important, but often difficult to understand.”

Klein shared his knowledge in other ways, too. He chaired the Columbia University Seminar on Modern China, was a member of the Asia Society’s China Council, and served as a consultant to a number of groups, including the National Committee on United States - China Relations. He was also a consulting editor for Asian Affairs and an editorial board member of The China Quarterly, Asian Survey and Pacific Affairs.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.