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June 5, 2022

Responding To: Georgetown Student Dialogue Participants Reflect on Exchange with Fudan University

Bringing Out the Best in One Another

Rael Baird

The U.S.-China Student-to-Student Dialogue has illuminated the importance of authentic people-to-people interactions to foster cross-cultural understanding, particularly at a time when tension dominates the U.S.-China relationship. Our small group discussion ranged from the philosophical to the practical, exploring perspectives on international institutions, national identity, and current affairs, among many other points of conversation. I left this program wanting more – I look forward to remaining in touch with my cohort and perhaps, someday, even meeting in-person.

One of the stand-out moments for me was our exchange on national identity – what did it mean for each of us to be “Chinese” or “American?” As one of the participants from Fudan University pointed out, national identity is a complex and personal concept, perhaps defying complete description. With those caveats, we discussed elements of our own conceptions of national identity, including traditions, values, and history. Besides these shared national experiences, I was struck by one of the responses from our Chinese counterparts, who noted that national identity is in part defined in contrast to others and thinking, “That’s not us.” For example, the day of the first session, a group of Georgetown students were protesting the university’s decision to strengthen masking requirements, a stark contrast to the strictly enforced lockdown in Shanghai at the time.

Her point reminded me of a passage from the Confucian classic Analects (7.22), where Confucius is quoted as saying, “Put me in the company of any two people at random – they will invariably have something to teach me. I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.” Considering the shared importance many Western and Chinese philosophers place on self-cultivation, I hope that our differences can serve as sources of inspiration, education, and change.

Global governance is one area the United States and China are particularly suited to learn from one another. As two great powers, the U.S. and China have a responsibility to take leadership on global issues like human rights, pandemic preparedness, and climate change. We shared our conceptions of human rights, which differed primarily in their prioritization of economic development in the human rights context, with the United States placing greater focus on legal and political rights and China focusing on the improvement of material conditions. However, mutual mistrust towards each side’s engagement with international institutions, each finding fault with the other’s balancing of national interests with international imperatives, has hindered cooperation and exchange, leaving both sides feeling as though the other is acting in bad faith.

This can only be overcome by rebuilding trust through authentic dialogue, which is challenging given the breadth of politically sensitive issues that the United States and China disagree on. This phenomenon was highlighted by our discussion of the war on Ukraine. Only one Fudan University student felt comfortable discussing the topic, and they focused on encouraging us to examine the issue from Russia’s perspective, considering the extent to which NATO expansion was destabilizing and threatening for Russia – a fair observation, but the official Party line. The dialogue was productive but constrained, but I am hopeful for the day we can all discuss the hard issues freely, so that the United States and China can together confront the global challenges that pose threats to our shared humanity.

Rael Baird (SFS’22) is a senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, studying international politics.

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