Atharv Gupta | May 20, 2021
Responding To: Georgetown Students Reflect on Virtual Exchange
Amicable Small Talks
Amidst rising tension between China and the United States, bilateral dialogues are becoming increasingly important yet growingly difficult. Although both countries realize the benefits of keeping the communication channels open—from understanding one’s competitor better to reducing unnecessary miscalculations—meaningful dialogues, especially on sensitive topics, remain few. This is true not only at the official level but is also reflected in people-to-people ties. Student-to-student dialogues, for example, face obstacles and challenges.
During the second semester of my senior year, I had the fortune to attend conversations with my Chinese peers from Fudan University and Beijing University. As a Chinese student studying abroad at Georgetown University, I envisioned that I could serve as a bridge and present myself as an example of genuine friendship between people of the two countries. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the Georgetown cohort included students from several countries with different interests and experience. This became my reason for optimism as I thought that our diversity will certainly dispel any perception that we represent the U.S. official position in any way.
My optimism, however, soon dissipated during our first dialogue with students from Fudan University. Although fellow Georgetown presenters of global health did not give their Chinese counterparts an easy time by suggesting that China is still hiding data regarding its vaccine trials. Responses from Chinese students were only fiercer, and a discussion on how the U.S. and China may find room to cooperate became a debate where the Fudan team naturally represented the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we at the Georgetown side were drafted into the State Department without previous notice. The debate on why cooperation remains limited became so heated that internal disagreement arose within the Fudan team regarding whether the U.S. should be trusted for cooperation in the first place. To redirect our conversation to the more productive and constructive track, many international students at Georgetown tried to speak about their personal stories witnessing and experiencing the changing U.S.-China relations. Our attempts to make the discussion more personal, however, fell largely on deaf ears as presenters on the Chinese side shifted our discussion to a different topic that only invited more poignant questions backed by disinformation and biased opinions.
After our unsatisfying dialogue with Fudan, we proposed to change course by adjusting the discussion format and encouraging a more personal discussion. Our efforts certainly paid off during our discussion with students at Beida, but the amicable dialogues were limited largely to uncontroversial and non-sensitive issues such as channels to better understand China and Chinese traditional values at the insistence of a Beida student who led the discussion. Although many of us on the Georgetown side had hoped to talk about issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the right moment never came, and we were left with a friendly but similarly unsatisfactory conversation that covered nothing more than a suggestion that people can learn more about China via channels such as Bilibili, a video sharing website similar to Youtube.
Even during intense competition between China and the United States, people-to-people ties can still flourish. At the same time, however, as long as the disparity in information access continues and Chinese perception of the U.S. as a hegemon wishing to contain China’s peaceful rise persists, dialogues on sensitive issues can hardly produce fruitful results without slipping into endless heated altercations.
Harry He (SFS'21) is a senior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in regional and comparative studies with a focus on Asia.
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