By Lee H. Hamilton
The relationship between the United States and China is the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world, and it is growing increasingly contentious. It will take a lot of knowledge and understanding — on both sides — to manage it without slipping into a new Cold War.
That’s why it’s especially worrisome to see reports of sharp declines in the number of Chinese college students studying in the U.S. and the number of Americans studying in and learning about China.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a big factor in this trend; it disrupted travel and fueled worries about China’s trustworthiness. Also, China under Xi Jinping has been increasingly repressive to its citizens and hostile to its neighbors. It has become less a country that intellectually curious young people want to visit. Many Americans have grown more suspicious of China.
But that’s all the more reason for engaging with China, through diplomacy, people-to-people meetings, and, especially, the exchange of knowledge and experience by college students. The future of U.S.-China relations will depend on a rising generation that can speak to each other and work out differences.
I’m a very strong supporter of student exchanges, as well as foreign language studies. I think they’re terribly important. They need to be expanded, not curtailed.
Working on a university campus, I see the vibrancy and diversity that international students, many of them from China, contribute. I’ve also been impressed that Americans who have lived abroad, whether for work or to study, seem to come home with a much more tolerant attitude toward other countries and their governments.
When I was a college student, studying overseas wasn’t something that many people did. But, after graduation, I had an opportunity to spend time in Europe. I had never been abroad; I don’t think anyone in my family had been abroad. It proved to be a very enlightening experience. I support overseas study and travel because I know what it did in my life and in the lives of others I know.
It was gratifying to see a virtual explosion in the number of American students studying abroad in recent decades. In the 1990s, the number more than tripled, according to the Institute for International Education. Then it plummeted with the pandemic. The number of international students in the U.S. saw a similar trajectory: It peaked before the pandemic, then declined.
When Barack Obama took office, many Americans were optimistic about our relationship with China. Obama launched the “100,000 Strong” program, aimed at growing the number of Americans studying in China and the instruction in Chinese languages at U.S. schools.
At the same time, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. increased, topping 300,000 for several years. But a combination of factors – including Chinese parents’ worries about anti-Asian bias in the U.S., and the rise of competitive universities in other countries – halted the trend. China still produces about 30% of international students in the United States, more than any other country, but the number has declined. Meanwhile, fewer U.S. students are studying in China or learning Mandarin and other Chinese languages.
There are reasons for Americans to be cautious about how we engage with Xi’s China, including concerns about espionage and intellectual property theft. There’s also a long tradition in the United States of using China as a whipping boy. Standing up to China is one of the few themes that unite Republicans and Democrats.
But so much depends on the relationship between China and the United States, not just for the two countries but for the entire world. Anything that impacts that relationship adversely will have wide-ranging consequences. We need to learn about China, and the Chinese people need to learn about us.
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