A very different U.S.-China discussion

Steve Kelman reflects on his latest meeting with Chinese college students -- after a year-long hiatus, and in decidedly different times.

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

As long-time blog readers may remember, I have for a number of years made presentations to a group of Chinese college students visiting the U.S. for a few weeks under the auspices of an organization called China Future Leaders, and sometimes written blog posts about these encounters. I had no meetings with them last year because of my illness, and just recently met with them in Cambridge for the first time in two years. Since the last time I met them, China's economy and China-U.S. relations have gotten noticeably worse, and I was interested in seeing whether either or both of these changes had left any marks on them.

At the beginning of my presentation, two of the questions I asked them were whether they thought China was mostly friendly to the U.S. or mostly unfriendly, and then whether they thought the U.S. was mostly friendly to China or unfriendly. When I had asked this same question in the past, most students said that China was mostly friendly to the U.S. and the U.S. mostly unfriendly to China. This pattern repeated itself this time, but actually the shift from the other times I've asked the question was in a "pro-U.S." direction.

The students voted 24-0 that China was mostly friendly to the U.S.; previous times a majority voted that way, but not nearly so overwhelmingly. And the students voted 12-10 that the U.S. was mainly friendly towards China, the first time a majority did not see the U.S. as hostile to China. In neither of these responses was there any trace of growing Chinese hostility to the U.S. in the Xi Jinping era.

To take their temperature on China's seemingly flagging economy -- The New York Times recently ran a piece called "Fears about China fester at Davos," saying that China's problems were a major theme at the business/government confab in Switzerland, and that many participants were concerned China was headed for a hard landing -- I asked them two other questions. One was how worried they were about China's economy over the next few years. The level of angst was not overwhelming: five were very worried, 15 were somewhat worried, and six were not worried. And when I asked them whether they were personally worried about being able to get a job when they graduated, none were very worried, seven somewhat worried, and an overwhelming 21 not worried. Again, the changes in China these last two years don't seem to have had a big impact on them.

During my questions at the beginning and in comments they made in connection with my presentation, they expressed a view that U.S. power in the world was strong. One said that a thing he liked about the U.S. was that U.S. power promoted stability in the world. Another student, who is interested in Africa, said she hoped the U.S. would become more engaged in helping Africa develop economically. When I noted that China was now playing a much larger role in Africa than the U.S., he replied that Chinese involvement would not substitute for the U.S. as a way to promote progress there. Again, no indications of a declining great power from these students.

I was interested to note that one student asked me what an individual Chinese person could do to work against Internet censorship in China.

While talking as part of my presentation about the role of immigration in American society, I asked them if they had heard of Donald Trump. (The group leader kindly rendered his name into its Chinese version, so everybody could know about whom I was talking.) Somewhat to my surprise, only six of the students had heard of him. (I am certain the number would have been considerably higher for a European student audience.) One of the students who had heard of Trump noted that he wanted to build a "great wall," like the Great Wall of China, between the U.S. and Mexico. I'm not sure they'd be a receptive audience for Trump's words about making America great again: They seemed to think America was great already.

PS. After my blog published last Thursday, somebody tweeted a nice message referring to the blog post and saying it was great I had returned to teaching after my illness (the blog referenced a discussion in an executive education class at Harvard). I really appreciated the tweet and, yes, as of January I returned from a year of disability leave and have started teaching again. Wish me luck everyone!

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