Advait Arun | January 18, 2022
Agreeing to Disagree
The first thing I noticed was that the Chinese students were much more prepared than us. To start, they all used the same Zoom background (a picture of the Peking University campus), while we all showed the back walls of our individual bedrooms. During the dialogues, they spoke as if at a Model UN conference giving a speech supporting their country’s opinion. The American students, to my surprise, didn’t take up the other end of the argument. I found myself mostly asking questions, and, if I did express an opinion, it was to acknowledge the nuance of the situation rather than support American actions or perspectives.
Despite the difference in approach, the conversations were extremely interesting and productive, though not in the way I assume they were intended. In a frank, genuine, and collegial way, our small group spent most of the time laying bare the irreconcilable differences in philosophy between the U.S. and China. While we were able to agree on some minor sources of cooperation, such as on environmental policy, we acknowledged that broader cooperation on issues like human rights, development, and the role of international institutions was likely impossible.
The first small-group conversation centered on the role of international institutions. More so than the other dialogues, this conversation felt like a criticism of American activities abroad. The most significant point raised was that China is not fairly treated by the international system. The Chinese students believed that developing and Eastern countries deserve a stronger voice and more involvement in international affairs.
Furthermore, the Chinese students clearly supported bilateral and regional institutions over global ones. They specifically stated that if two countries are having a dispute, those countries or the countries in that region should handle it. Third parties (I inferred that they meant the U.S.) are not needed to resolve conflicts unless specifically asked. Additionally, issues of international importance require consensus as opposed to unilateral action.
The third dialogue covered environmental issues but quickly turned into a broader discussion on development and human rights. The most interesting point shared by the Chinese students was that cooperation on international development between the U.S. and China is unnecessary. China is offering an alternative path of development from the Western path, and, as such, development does not need to be standardized internationally. The Chinese students and the American students both then noted some challenges and benefits of both approaches of development. For example, one Chinese student mentioned that a problem with Chinese finance is the lack of local participation in development projects and that the agency of developing countries could be valued more.
When the conversation moved to the failures of China on human rights in development, one Chinese student expressed how different the conceptions of human rights are between the two countries. While the U.S. values individual liberties, in China, human rights represent the right to survive. The student said that China believes it has fulfilled its human rights obligations because it is able to provide for its citizens’ survival.
Finally, since time was running out, I asked if the Chinese students had any questions for us because I had felt that they spent most of the dialogue answering our questions. One student asked how the U.S. can fulfill its promises abroad when power is separated between the executive and legislative branches, to which I replied that the U.S. struggles deeply with that problem, especially given recent events. This question demonstrated a keen awareness of the limitations of U.S. foreign policy.
Ultimately, I found the dialogue enlightening in showing how China views its role on the global stage (at least from the perspective of college students). Much of what was said I already knew from classes and the news, but to hear it directly from Chinese students who study international affairs finally confirmed some of the theories within U.S. discourse.
I also found it encouraging that we were able to have such an honest discussion about our differences. It was clear that the differing perspectives come from fundamental divergences in philosophy, which aren’t things that can be debated because they’re so culturally dependent. It was somehow refreshing to have a respectful and informed discussion on how far apart our two countries really are.
We didn’t come up with any solutions for the U.S.-China conflict, nor did we acknowledge that there are any. But, ultimately, this dialogue showed me that the future leaders of China care about the well-being of people across the world. And even if we will never bridge the gap between our two countries, we can always rediscover our common humanity through simple acts of conversation.
Matt Lupo (SFS'22) is a senior in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service majoring international politics.
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