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By Steve Kelman

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What makes Chinese students optimistic (and pessimistic) about the future of China?

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

As regular blog readers know, I meet a few times a year with Chinese college students visiting the United States in connection with a program called China Future Leaders. I typically as part of meeting with them take their temperature on some issue involving China, or China and the United States. This time I asked them the question: "What is one thing that makes you optimistic about the future of China for the next 15 years? What is one thing that makes you pessimistic?" I then allowed five students each to nominate something, and then the whole group -- about 60 or so -- were allowed to vote for one or two things each that made them most optimistic or most pessimistic.

For what made them most optimistic, the categories divided into those about the development of the Chinese economy ("economic growth" and "economic opportunities to bring new products and services to China") and those involving China's internationalization ("China's increasing status in the world" and "increasing numbers of Chinese going abroad and learning ideas from the world"). Also nominated was "good relationship between the United States and China."

A "good relationship between the United States and China" got only two votes. However, the other international categories beat out the economic categories but a narrow but decisive margin. The thing that made them most-optimistic about the future of China was the increasing number of Chinese getting international exposure. "For many years," one student said, "China cut itself off from the world. That's not true anymore." China's increasing international status came in second place in terms of numbers of votes.

What made them most-pessimistic? Nominations included pollution, unsafe food, violence by the government against the people, and bad relations with other countries in Asia

Here is very clear "loser" was pollution. For well over half the group (the largest number of votes any of the optimistic and pessimistic alternatives received) pollution was one of two things that made them pessimistic about China. In second place came poor relations with other Asian countries. (Poor relations with the United States was not nominated.)

Interestingly, one nomination for something making the studentspessimistic about the future of China was the Chinese education system -- the worry that it did little to encourage creativity. This choice was not among the things that worried the students the most, but it got a moderate number of votes. This is particularly noteworthy given breast-beating in the United States about the supposed superiority of Chinese schools.

During the question period, a girl studying to be a diplomat asked me a question about whether I agreed with the many Chinese people who, she said, believed that the Chinese government was far too weak and accommodating in its relationship with other countries, not standing up for China's interests enough. (She noted that a Chinese critic had mailed the foreign minister a nutritional supplement to eat so he could become stronger.)

I am suspecting that many American blog readers were surprised at her question, and are worried instead about Chinese foreign policy being too aggressive. I pointed out to her that U.S. observers, not to speak of China's Asian neighbors such as the Phillipines or Japan, hardly regard Chinese foreign policy in the region as weak. I used this as an opportunity to appeal to her as a diplomat, and to the Chinese students (I would have said the same to American students were I speaking to them) that it is a very common human trait to think our opponents are powerful and malevolent, while we ourselves are weak but virtuous. The different perspectives inside and outside China about the foreign policy stance of the Chinese government reflect that. (I bet if you asked Americans whether the U.S. government is too accommodating to China, many if not most would say yes, while Chinese would think the United States was too aggressive and hostile.)

Never too young, or too old, to learn about how people elsewhere look at things, and about putting yourself in the shoes of others.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 22, 2014 at 1:32 PM


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Reader comments

Sat, Feb 1, 2014

Interestingly, the article mentions the problem of fostering creativity in China making a sad point. The answers of the students are so predictable that the article itself is proof of that lack of outside the box thinking that is stifling China's real development.

Wed, Jan 29, 2014

I think the young lady can fight her own battles. Can we stow the PC tsking?

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Dr. Kelman, In regard to the "girl" studying to be a diplomat, since when does the Kennedy School admit children? I'm guessing that person was actually a woman, wasn't she?

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Odd that the pessimism list didn't include demography -- the likelihood that the 'one-child policy' will result in China becoming old before rich.

Wed, Jan 22, 2014 Vita He

If we could get more things listed for the second question, I would expect a different outcome. After my nomination of the international exposure to our rising generations, I was going to point out the sense of ethics for the pessimistic. People generally see their own benefit going up or down closely attached to the nation's economic growth, but it is sad that a lot of us "lack" the ability to identify what is virtually right or wrong. This may at least cover the two out of the five nominations, education and pollutions. In other words, slower development in ethics, in comparison to the optimistic economics, was a failure of our education; the deficiency of ethics in all aspects is one of the causes to nowadays severe pollutions in China.

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