By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Another visit from China Future Leader students

When I gave my most recent quarterly talk before a group of Chinese university students sponsored by the organization China Future Leaders, I noticed that half the group was missing. Their parents, afraid of swine flu due to extensive Chinese media coverage, were afraid to send their kids to the United States. (A Chinese student of mine at Harvard told me today that there are discussions in the Chinese media of quarantining American tourists in China!)

Only two of the 25 or so students were currently on the job market in China -- one had gotten a job already, the other hadn't. When I asked the students if they were worried about getting jobs, just about all of them nodded their heads. Interestingly, when I mentioned various careers to which they might aspire, not a single member of the group said they wanted to work for the government.

In this group, none of the students had ever been to America before. I asked them what they were hoping to learn about Americans and American society during their visit. They responded with various images they had of Americans, based, they said, on movies and TV shows (none said their views were based on books, magazines, or newspapers). One described Americans as adventurous and willing to take risks, another as willing to stand up for their own opinions even if other people disagreed with them. In my experience, the traits that people most note in other cultures are ones they see as lacking or unusual in their own culture.

In the part of my talk where I discussed US-China relations, the students laughed nervously -- they always do when I say this -- when I stated that some Americans were concerned that growing Chinese power might signal Chinese military ambitions. The idea that China might try to take over other nations clearly seemed inconceivable to them.

There was a fascinating discussion of Taiwan initiated by the students themselves during the question period. One student (whose grandfather, it turned out, was a Nationalist general who had fled to Taiwan in 1949) said he had recently spent six months in Taiwan and felt mainland Chinese people did not understand Taiwanese at all. Another student, who had earlier stated she hoped to be a journalist, said that she could understand why Taiwanese had no desire to be part of the mainland -- they felt they had freedom and democracy, while China didn't. A third student then noted that Chinese regarded Taiwan as a leftover from the period of foreign domination of China, and that rejoining Taiwan to mainland China involved completing China's transformation from a weak and victimized nation to an independent, proud one. He also noted that the Chinese military was afraid Taiwan could be used as a base to attack China in the event of war. All in all, this was a very sophisticated, nuanced discussion, removed from the strong nationalism that is often seen as characterizing the attitudes of Chinese university students -- although this group, visiting the US, may not be representative of other students.

PS. I want to make sure blog readers are aware that this week is Public Service Recognition Week, which recognizes America's under-appreciated civil servants. Public servants, thank you for your work on our behalves.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 05, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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