“If you don’t have people-to-people exchanges and especially education exchanges, who is there to provide another picture,” former ambassador and president of the U.S.-China Education Trust Julia Chang Bloch recently asked. “It is that people-to-people exchange pillar; the educational exchange. That’s what can still continue to hold at least the channels of communication open and continue to have views and messages transmitted, and that’s very important when all else fails.”
The last several decades, bilateral people-to-people exchanges have prospered between China and the U.S., bridging cultures, ideas, people, education, and economies. The creation of sister city programs on both continents have boosted local economies, small businesses, and created communities of international students and expats, which have only further bolstered China-U.S. ties.
However, in the last four years, political pressures have begun to cultivate a deep misunderstanding between the two nations, reversing a decade-old trend of diverse and skilled migration in higher education, in addition to drastically reducing the “brain circulation” configuration. In the past, this provided an opportunity for the free flow of brain power from both countries to receive higher education abroad, allowing everyday citizens to gain work experience in the science and technology sectors in both China and the United States.
According to official data, Chinese nationals have traditionally enjoyed sending international students to the United States for a well-rounded education. In spite of the staggering $13 billion that Chinese international students have contributed to the U.S. economy during 2017-2018, the U.S. State Department announced plans in September to revoke student visas for Chinese nationals who they believe were considered high risk individuals of intellectual theft. Highly coveted programs such as the Peace Corps and Fulbright Scholar Program have since followed suit, rescinding participation in China by ceasing operations indefinitely.
Previous successful people-to-people relations have provided numerous opportunities for Chinese and American students to experience a well-rounded and diverse education. Chinese exchange students such as Jackson He is one of the prime examples of the successful intercultural understanding that has been nurtured between the two nations. His choice to study in the United States provided him with an opportunity to enjoy in a different way of life, learn a variety of exciting topics, and attain a diverse education while cultivating his skills to become the first Chinese-born player to play and score in a major college football game.
U.S. program participants have also found success while studying at Chinese universities, where they traditionally learn about the country’s rich and vast history, visit important landmarks, immerse themselves in Chinese culture, and grow their perceptions of what China really is. Their experiences have led to important dialogue and summits at the highest level, all of which have created opportunities for further collaboration and future interactions.
Experts warn that if relations continue to deteriorate, people-to-people ties will become collateral damage that may be irreversible and might hinder the science and technology sectors that drive innovation in the United States and usually attract international talent.
Notably, experts argue if the incoming Biden-Harris administration does not stabilize and improve people-to-people relations, the world will be left at a disadvantage as high-tech talent will disperse and development and research jobs will be lost, resulting in the overall casualty of human capital and research cooperation.
“Without understanding, people can be easily swayed by disinformation and one-sided persuasion. This leads to bias and misjudgment, and it is not conducive to maintaining good relations between countries, and not conducive to the betterment of mankind,” said Audie Wong, Executive Director of CUSEF.
Ezra Vogel, a longtime China-U.S. Focus contributor and professor, stated that “we need the framework to contain the rivalry so that we can work together and have friendly relations that are really in both our benefits.” Ultimately, concluding that China and the United States should face issues together, such as climate change and containing the COVID-19 pandemic around the world.
In the end, scholars agree diplomatic relations must continue despite the strengthening China-U.S. competition. The world depends on great nations to communicate, learn, and work together to drive research competition and improve lives; all the while preparing for global challenges that no doubt awaits in the future.