PERSISTENCE AND INHERITANCE: LIONEL M. NI MAKES A RETROSPECT OF HIS OLD DAYS AT CCF

 

 

2022-05-09

Dear readers:

2022 marks 60th anniversary of establishment of the China Computer Federation (CCF). This article is contributed by Prof. Lionel M. Ni, an overseas board member of CCF and president of HKUST (GZ), to make a retrospect of his old days at CCF.(This article is first posted on the WeChat official account “China Computer Federation”.)

 

It is a great honor for me to be invited to celebrate the 60th anniversary of CCF as an overseas board member and make a retrospect of the stories between me and CCF. It also gives me a valuable opportunity to reflect on my years’ bond with China’s computing industry.

 

“STORIES OF BEING FIRST”: MY BOND WITH CHINA’S COMPUTING INDUSTRY

 

After China formally established diplomatic relations with the United States in early 1979, a large number of Chinese visiting scholars were eager to learn more advanced scientific and technological knowledge in the United States. In 21979, I was studying for a PhD degree under Prof. Kai Hwang at Purdue University. Many Chinese professors of Purdue University received those visiting scholars from Chinese mainland. I still remember that Mr. Dai Ruwei, currently an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, studied under the famous Prof. King-Sun Fu at that time. The first visiting scholar that Prof. Kai Hwang received was Prof. Zheng Yanheng from Tsinghua University. As the first doctoral student of Prof Kai Hwang, I hit it off with Mr. Zheng at our first meeting and have maintained frequent communications after that. At that time, Chinese mainland just opened up to the world and I was full of curiosity about my parents’ hometown. Mr. Zheng answered many of my doubts and questions and also helped me gain a deeper understanding of Chinese mainland. I hereby would like to thank him for helping me regain the long-lost contact with my uncle in Chinese mainland. In 1980, when I took up my doctoral study for the last year, Mr. Guojie Li also came to Purdue University and studied under Prof. Benjamin W. Wah as a doctoral student.

 

Purdue University

 

In 1981, I began my teaching career at Michigan State University, as the first Chinese teacher at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Mr. Anil Jain, a renowned professor of the department and a leading expert on pattern recognition, received his first visiting scholar from Chinese mainland, Prof. Zhisheng You from Sichuan University. I still remembered how much I was amazed by Mr. Xiaobo Li, the first doctoral student from Chinese mainland at our department, after he ranked first in every course he took at the department. What he achieved not only deeply caused a sensation within the whole department but also marked the first step taken by the faculty to embrace outstanding students from Chinese mainland. My first doctoral student from Chinese mainland is Mr. Chongwei Xu, who is mainly engaged in the research of load balancing of distributed systems. After I was promoted to associate professor in 1984, I received Mr. Xianji Li, a visiting scholar from Hunan University. After that, I received some other scholars from Chinese mainland, including Mr. Weiqin Li from Beihang University and Mr. Daijie Cheng from Chongqing University.

 

In 1987, with the support of the World Bank, I visited Chinese mainland for the first time and taught at Hunan University and Beihang University. During my stay in China, I also accompanied my mother to visit her younger brother and other families after 40 years of separation from each other. In 1989, I was promoted to full professor. In the next year, funded by the United Nations, I came to China for the second time and taught at Beihang University. During the same period, I gave a keynote speech at the International Conference for Young Computer Scientists (ICYCS), presided over by Mr. Guojie Li and Mr. Xiaoming Li. It is also the first time that I met Mr. Wei Li who just returned from the University of Edinburgh. During my 22 years of service at Michigan State University, I received Prof. Qinping Zhao and Prof. Zhang Xiong from Beihang University and Mr. Yadong Gui from the Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology. Among the 34 doctoral students I once instructed, 13 of them are from Chinese mainland, and Mr. Yunhao Liu is the last doctoral student I supervised in the United States.

 

At mid-year 2002, I joined the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) as the dean of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Since then, I have made more direct communications with the domestic academic circles. Those excellent scholars and students from Chinese mainland have deeply impressed me with their hard work and professional competency. To my surprise, I also found that they were not familiar with the updates and rules of the game in the academic community abroad. Therefore, I actively encouraged the faculty to invite visiting scholars from Chinese mainland. At that time, 80% of the expense during their stay in HKUST was covered by our department, which could not only reduce the financial burden of these visiting scholars but also promote the exchange and cooperation between our faculty and these scholars from Chinese mainland. Over the years, dozens of promising young scholars and students visited HKUST. In addition to co-publishing many first-class papers, they have greatly contributed to the closer and more sustainable cooperation between HKUST and the computer science community in Chinese mainland.

 

 

In 2006, with the support of Shanghai Jiaotong University, I was honored to serve as the chief scientist on wireless sensor networks for the National Basic Research Program of China (973 Program) under the Ministry of Science and Technology. The team organized an intensive training course lasting two to three months for young scholars at Shanghai Jiaotong University. These young members actively exchanged experience in research methods, speech presentation, article writing, and first-class paper writing. The team also invited the academic elites at home and abroad to communicate with students or jointly guide these excellent, studious graduate students. Today, many of them have successfully grown into the leaders of the domestic computer circles. Looking back on these unforgettable stories and my interactions with the domestic academic community, I feel that these interesting, inspiring experiences have touched the tenderest part of my heart and also given me a more vivid, profound picture of Chinese mainland.

 

“THE RISE OF A NEW GENERATION”: MY BOND WITH CCF

 

I heard about CCF for the first time in October 2004, when IFIP International Conference on Network and Parallel Computing was being held in Wuhan. Mr. Guojie Li just assumed his responsibilities as the honorary president of CCF, and Mr. Zide Du led CCF to explore and march forward as the secretary-general.

 

Prof. Li

 

At the banquet, Mr. Li presented Prof. Kai Hwang with the “King-Sun Fu Prize” on behalf of CCF in recognition of his contributions to China’s computing industry. At the 2005 China National Computer Conference (CNCC) held in Wuhan, the 1st CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution was presented to Prof. Kai Hwang. I have known Prof. Hwang since I was a student. He has been not only a respectful teacher but also a close friend to me for 45 years. With a deep attachment to the motherland, he was the leader of the Defend Diaoyu Islands Movement when he was a doctoral student at the University of Berkeley, California. Besides being one of the earliest activists for the Defend Diaoyu Islands Movement, he is also a high-end overseas scholar who tried every means to visit the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. Prof. Hwang and I have very similar family backgrounds. Therefore, apart from scientific research, we often shared views. Prof. Hwang’s considerable contributions to China’s computing industry are beyond doubt.

 

Prof. Hwang

 

In 2005, I participated in CNCC for the first time and was invited to give a keynote speech among other speechmakers including Mr. Andrew Chi-Chih Yao and Mr. Chung Laung Liu. I still remember that Mr. Hai Jin treated us to a midnight snack at a night market in Wuhan. That is also the first time that I saw Mr. Yao taking off his suit and gulping down beers. I also listened to Mr. Liu (recipient of the 2015 CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution) telling jokes even more attentively than when I listened to a keynote speech. As years go by, my mind still keeps flashing back to these scenes of memorable days.

 

At the 2006 CNCC, the 2nd CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution was presented to Mr. Stephen S. Yau, a distinguished expert who has made unparalleled contributions to the realm of computing. In 1975, when I applied for my graduate study in the United States, he was already a dean of Northwestern University. At the 2007 CNCC held in Suzhou, the 3rd CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution was presented to Mr. Wei Zhao. Mr. Zhao has made great contributions to China’s computing industry, especially to the academic reputation of the University of Macau. At the conference, I also had the honor to deliver a keynote speech related to the 973 Program. At the 2008 CNCC held in Xi’an, the CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution was presented to Mr. Kai Li, whose achievements in academia and industry are far beyond our reach. At the conference, I was also invited to give a keynote speech on smart cities. In 2009, CNCC was held in Tianjin. Thanks to Mr. Jinpeng Huai’s nomination, I was honored to become the recipient of the 2009 CCF Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution and was invited to give an acceptance speech. At the conference, I put forward ten goals for China’s computing industry to fight for in the future, such as when we can earn a leading position in the world’s leading journals/conferences/organizations, when Chinese doctoral students will be actively sought by leading universities abroad, and when Chinese universities or research institutes will become places of pilgrimage for the scholars from all over the world. After years of concerted efforts, we seem to be getting closer to these goals.

 

Prof. Ni

 

As more and more overseas scholars won the Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution, I was also invited to serve on the selection committee many times. Without doubt, selecting a recipient from numerous outstanding candidates presented a great challenge to the selection committee. In 2018, Mr. Xianhe Sun, one of my doctoral students, won the Award for Overseas Outstanding Contribution and made Prof. Kai Hwang and me feel very gratified. This is how the inheritance and development of academia from generation to generation achieved with tangible actions. I hope that Mr. Sun will enjoy the same pleasure when his students have the opportunity to win the award in the future.

 

Meanwhile, I took an active part in various activities held by CCF and participated in the CCF Young Computer Scientists & Engineers Forum (YOCSEF) many times. I still remember that I was invited by Mr. Zide Du, then Secretary, to share ideas on “paper publishing strategy from the perspective of academic evaluation system” at the Beijing venue in 2007. Mr. Zide Du was always good at leading in a topic with hot events, striking a chord among all participants, and triggering a collision of ideas. When taking part in CNCC activities, I often seized every opportunity to communicate with Mr. Zide Du and listen to his ideas on CCF reform, which also impressed me with his passion, aspiration, and ambition. He put forward several innovative proposals to reform CCF at the system level. The credit of building CCF into such a successful and influential organization in the scientific community goes to the successive presidents for their wise leadership, and also to Mr. Zide Du for his personal charm and indelible contributions.

 

Having served as an overseas board member of CCF for many years, I have witnessed the booming development of CCF and the build-up of China’s national strength as well as science and technology power amid various difficulties. I hope that the new-generation computer scientists and scholars will continue to forge ahead and make new contributions to building China into a scientific and technological powerhouse.

 

 

I have recently been appointed as the founding president of HKUST (GZ) and will be based in Guangzhou in the long run. I can now resign from my services as an “overseas” board member with honor. Looking back on the valuable experience of serving CCF, I believe that it has an everlasting influence on every one of us. I also believe that many CCF members have their individual feelings and insights. Let’s continue to work hard for a brighter future for CCF and embark on the new, glorious journey ahead together.

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