By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Taking the pulse of China's youth -- again

I recently met with the latest group of China Future Leaders university students coming through Boston. There were 140 of them this time -- reflecting the growth of Chinese tourism to the US -- and I had to divide up my appearance into two meetings, because the room we had couldn't fit more than 100.
As I always do (faithful blog readers may recall earlier posts on these student visits), I asked them a bunch of questions at the beginning of each session. I started by asking them a version of a question I had asked in the past. First I asked them what the best thing about the US was, and the worst thing. Then I asked them the same question about China -- what were the best and worst things.
What was interesting was that there was very strong agreement, for both the US and China, about the best thing about each country, and much less about the worst thing. For the US, by far what the students shouted out was that the best thing was "freedom," with "education system" in a fairly distant second place as the best thing. (Critics of US education take note, though -- the Chinese were probably thinking more about universities than elementary or secondary schools).

 For China, two answers dominated the best thing -- Chinese history and Chinese culture, with Chinese food in distant third place. Anybody who looks at the popularity of historical dramas, involving long-ago dynasties, on Chinese television would not be surprised about this answer. Things were relatively silent -- maybe due to politeness? -- about the worst thing about the US, and no real consensus, but individual answers included arrogance and high crime. For China, again there wasn't as much shouting out about the worst thing, but the most common answer was "too many people," with pollution in second place.
Then, as I have frequently asked them before, I asked them whether they thought the US government was on the whole friendly or unfriendly to China, and then whether the Chinese government was on the whole friendly or unfriendly to the US.

The response was the same as it has been every time before: Most students thought the US government was unfriendly to China, but that the Chinese government was friendly to the US. This time I asked the majority why they answered the way they did. On the US being unfriendly, the good news was that the students pointed to very concrete issues, such as the value of the Chinese currency, trade relations, and Taiwan. Nobody suggested anything more broad. Why did they think the Chinese government was friendly to the US?  One answer dominated:  "They buy US government debt."
At the end -- in the context of inviting interested students to "friend" me on Facebook -- I asked them how many of them were on Facebook, which is of course blocked in China and can be accessed only using special software to "jump the wall" (the so-called "Great Firewall of China"). To my surprise, about a quarter to a third of the students raised their hands -- though this number probably isn’t a good guide to guess the number of people who have managed to get and use this software, since some of these students are studying in Hong Kong, where the Internet isn't blocked.

I then asked them, "If Facebook were allowed in China, would you participate?"  Essentially every student in the audience raised a hand. This is interesting, since just about all of them are already on Facebook's Chinese knockoff Renren, so this suggests they want to be able to communicate with foreigners. These students aren't necessarily typical of all Chinese students -- they come from families rich enough to afford this trip, and they have chosen to come to visit the US -- but their responses suggest a continuing desire by young Chinese to cultivate contacts with us.

Posted on Jan 30, 2012 at 9:33 AM


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