Ari Filler | June 5, 2022
China and the United States: A Contrast of Cultural Ideas
As a participant in the Georgetown University Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues’ Student-to-Student Dialogue, I had no idea what to expect. When I joined the first Zoom meeting of our three-dialogue series, I anticipated some instructions. However, I quickly learned the program was intended to be unstructured so as to allow for open conversation; and that it did.
My discussion group had three students from Georgetown University (located in Washington, D.C.) and three students from Fudan University (located in Shanghai, China). During our conversations, we touched on the differences between the United States and China’s response to COVID-19, approach to social change, as well as differences in research pedagogy and production. As we discussed these topics, I was struck by how much the regime type of each country impacts cultural ideas; the United States student perspective tends to prioritize individualism and uncensored thought while the Chinese student perspective focused on utility and state support.
While contrasting China’s Zero-COVID strategy to the United States’ lack of central restrictions, one of the students from Fudan compared the different approaches to parenting. She said that parents, in this case China’s central government, are meant to take care of people and ensure they have a good future. She felt the lockdown in Shanghai, while painful for many, was for a greater good that the children, in this case citizens, could not see. The student understood that the lockdown took emotional and financial tolls on millions of people, but still felt the government’s actions were largely justified.
That student’s perspective differed greatly from those of the Georgetown students, who put a high premium on the freedom to choose how to respond to COVID at an individual level. I cannot imagine a world in which I would allow the state to remove me and my family from our home and separate us because we have COVID. Even in the depths of the pandemic, before vaccines, it was not even a consideration that people who had COVID would be forced to leave their homes. Though I am supportive of central public health measures, including lockdowns, I believe there is a limit. I would not support the state’s deep incursion into my life as my Chinese counterparts did. However, I think this difference comes from the two cultures. Students in China are accustomed to state control for the proclaimed betterment of society whereas students in the United States are accustomed to a focus on individualism and private responsibility.
This pattern of contrast continued into our discussion of social change; people in the United States frequently challenge the government, but most people in China never publicly question the government. In the United States, freely defined organizations have the right to protest any cause. By contrast, the Chinese government seeks to narrowly define organizations and limit public protest. An example of this is that the Chinese government administers the All-China Women’s Federation which pushes for feminist practices. Whereas in the United States various groups organize protests on feminist issues, such as abortion rights, only one government administered federation focuses on feminism in China. This difference in social movement organization mirrors the disparity in regime structure; the United States has many stakeholders in each decision whereas China only has a few.
Another area where I noticed this important difference was in the systems of knowledge production. In the United States, it is clear to most students that new knowledge comes from myriad sources including universities, think tanks, and private corporations. In elementary school students are trained to identify the reliability of academic sources. Then, in High School, students start to understand that the most trustworthy sources convey bias simply by the verbiage and presentation of facts. As a student from the United States, I was taught to always consider sources from myriad producers because institutes, universities, and the news all have different perspectives.
By contrast, it was not clear to the Chinese students that knowledge is produced in different spaces. The Chinese students said that knowledge is primarily produced in a single space, the university. When I asked about think tanks and private research the students said they did not believe those institutions existed in China. This sounded wrong, so I began reading. I learned that China does have a number of think tanks, but they typically play the role of government advocate. While the research comes from different sources, as in the United States, it is intended to present a singular narrative. I suspect the students did not immediately consider think tanks because they were accustomed to reading a similar perspective from each producer of knowledge. If one receives the same information from each source, there is no need for bias or reliability tests.
Though I understood the effect of the different regime structures from an academic perspective, I harbored the belief that university spaces would weaken the impact. While the students from Fudan certainly had diverse perspectives, the broad narratives were similar, and largely in line with society. I foresee that this contrast with the Georgetown students’ multiple narratives will present areas of growth for both sides that will eventually provide for stronger collaboration.
Gershon Stein (SFS’24) is a sophomore in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service majoring in regional and comparative studies with a Spanish minor.
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