Mr. Schell, 66, currently the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, will take over immediately but remain at the university until the spring. He will step down as dean but keep his faculty position.
Mr. Schell said the center would conduct research, organize symposiums and work to educate the public on “this incredibly important and complicated and sometimes manic relationship between the United States and China.”
Among the most pressing issues facing the two nations are the environment, intellectual property, trade and human rights, he said. “Global warming is not going to be solved unless the United States and China figure out how to do it,” Mr. Schell said. “Everybody else is a bit player.”
Equally important, Mr. Schell said, is whether China can “peacefully evolve toward a more prosperous, democratic, environmentally sound society.”
Based in New York, the center was established with a gift from Arthur Ross, a life trustee at the Asia Society. (Mr. Schell’s official title will be the Arthur Ross director.) The organization will coordinate its research and education efforts with those of Asia Society outlets around the world and with various institutes and policy organizations that focus on China.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the chairman of the Asia Society, who among numerous other past posts served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1977 to 1981, emphasized that the institute was not “a lobbying group to set policy.”
“This is to create a broader base of understanding between the two most important countries in the world, who are having an uncertain relationship right now,” he said.
Mr. Schell’s reporting on China has sometimes been highly critical, particularly after the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. But he is not associated with a political position, said Vishakha N. Desai, president of the Asia Society.
“Especially in the last decade, Orville has been very involved with developing a collaborative relationship, without being an apologist or a critic,” she said. “That independent thinking is very important.”
Mr. Schell, the author of 14 books, 9 of them on China, contributes to numerous magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. He has also been a frequent commentator on network television.
Born in New York, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University with a major in Far Eastern history. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Chinese studies at Berkeley. In the 1960’s he was an exchange student at National Taiwan University. His wife, Liu Baifang, is Chinese, and two of their three children are now studying in China.
Mr. Schell also worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia and covered the war in Indochina as a journalist for The New Yorker and other publications.
“This country has worked its way into my life, lo, these 40 years, and in many ways it’s nice to come back to it full time,” he said of China. “China is one of those places where, once you get stuck on it — or it on you — it’s not easy to detach.”