Obama and Hu have pledged for 100,000 American students to come to China over the next four years (up from the current 13,000 a year), so what could that look like?
The student group FACES (Forum for American/Chinese Exchange at Stanford) offers one vision: it brings together 20 American and 20 Chinese students at Stanford University in the spring and then the same students again in China in the fall–the latest conference was jointly held at Peking and Remin Universities in Beijing last week. Three takeaways from my FACES experience:
- Pragmatists trump ideologues;
- Familiarity breeds friendship;
- US-China programs benefit from robust institutional support.
These three lessons lead me to believe that student exchange can contribute to a more cooperative US-China relationship.
1. Pragmatists Trump Ideologues
Students care more about economics and exchange than politics, if FACES is any indication. Admittedly, there is a selection bias: top students passionate about the US-China relations tend to be cooperatively inclined.
Still, the group is willing to tackle sensitive topics: a discussion of religious freedom raised more than a few eyebrows because student groups tend to be closely monitored in China, especially at elite universities. One panelist addressed the subject of why some Chinese youth choose to join the CCP despite then having to renounce (or disguise) their religious faith: “I ask them, ‘Why do you want to join the CCP?’ ‘To get a good job,’ they reply. It’s not because they’re Marxists. I’ve been in China for 6 years and never once met a Marxist.” In the end, materialism–not ideology or the CCP–was cited as the main inhibitor of religion in China.
When a Taiwanese student (3 of the 20 “Chinese” were from Taiwan) indicated a separation between China and Taiwan, he was jokingly jeered. But in a later serious discussion, students were all in favor of holding a FACES “China” conference in Taiwan in the future. The mainland Chinese sounded eager to visit Taiwan—more interested in sights, clubs, and the reputedly gorgeous girls than any political symbolism. The risk lies with older, powerful, and more political generations: jeopardizing sponsorship from Peking, Renmin, and Fudan Universities, for example.
2. Familiarity Breeds Friendship
For one week, students room, debate, karaoke, joke, feast and gan bei together. This in-person exchange is of a different nature from the impersonal internet exchange that can arguably further entrench “rednecks, red guards, and trolls.” Diverse ideas are exchanged in a civil forum, instead of an echo chamber of pre-existing views. I know of innumerable friendships (and a few relationships) that have arisen from FACES, but have not yet spoken to anyone alienated by “the other side.”
Is the social integration seamless? Absolutely not. Social differences persist even among the most internationally-oriented students. Karaoke kept all of the Chinese up late (followed by mafia, the wildly popular group game until 4am). The Americans all dropped out early, with waning enthusiasm for public singing and many exhausted from an earlier night at a club. Many Chinese, on the other hand, paid their first visit to a club (which can be viewed as locales of ill-repute in Chinese culture). Suffice it to say that not all were converted into Paris Hilton, or clubbers at all. On a positive note, it is reported that students were universally satisfied with the copious quantities of banquet food.
3. US-China Programs Benefit from Robust Institutional Support
It seems everybody needs a China strategy today—not just companies, but also governments, universities, and donors, which is good news for China-oriented student groups. FACES was founded at Stanford University to promote mutual understanding following the hysterical reactions to the 2001 spy plane incident. While it required tireless effort, the group has since garnered institutional support from universities (Stanford, Peking, Renmin, Fudan, and Zhejiang) and private donors, as well as corporations (New Oriental and Renren were conference sponsors).
The same goes for attracting speakers: US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman delivered the keynote address on Nov. 21 at Peking University, stating that President Obama told him, “some relationships transcend politics” and touting a seemingly genuine spirit of pragmatic bipartisanship; Huntsman did after all give up a governorship and shot at the presidency in 2012 for the post. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have spoken in the past, while the President of Stanford University, John Hennessy, regularly addresses the FACES conference at Stanford. Such institutional and financial support indicates that political, business, and academic leaders do attach importance to the US-China relationship.
While perhaps idealistic, these students are not of the fresh-off-the boat, coming to see “Red China” for the first time variety. The majority of the Americans speak decent Chinese (some excellent) and have a strong China focus (whether it be politics, arts, economics, sports, or cuisine). The Chinese students all speak fluent English and most have been abroad. FACES students include Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman Scholars, the discoverer of a new species of newt, an accomplished concert pianist, and perhaps the world’s foreign expert on China’s Happy Farm game—future leaders. President Obama was not the only one striving to strengthen the US-China relationship in Beijing last week.
- FACES Website (now accepting applications for the 2010 student delegate class)
- FACES Blog
- Twitter: @StanfordFACES
Kai Lukoff, American, was a FACES delegate ’07, executive ’08, and is now a proud alum. He is also perhaps the world’s foreign expert on China’s Happy Farm game. His opinions do not represent the official views of the FACES Organization. On Twitter: @klukoff