Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
January 16, 2022

Responding To: Georgetown Students Share Thoughts on Exchange with Peking University

Finding Common Ground

Ben Sando

I had awaited the 2021 Georgetown University–Peking University (PKU) U.S.-China Dialogue with excitement. In an era where it seems that news about U.S.-China geopolitical competition appears every day, I anticipated an opportunity to battle over ideas with the participating PKU students. The Zoom conference loaded just like my Georgetown graduate classes and I was in a meeting room with dozens of people. The Chinese faces were young like ours and I noticed the same details of fashion, similar styles of hair to what I had encountered when I lived in South Korea. The PKU students introduced themselves and there were smiles on their faces, or lines of weariness under their eyes from the classes they too were struggling with. Charged with discussing “global governance” in breakout rooms, I found young people who were curious and full of optimism that they could make the world a more developed place. This optimism—all with a youthful distrust of the powers that be—was nothing apart from what I knew from my peers at Georgetown.

I was not locked in some fiery debate with ideologues from China. I was talking to individuals with the same beliefs as me. These students had spent time volunteering in the Global South, had been raised in middle-class homes like myself, and did not believe that the U.S. and China needed to grapple in some grand war over dominance. They spoke of experiences in Kenya and Sri Lanka and witnessing the railroads and bridges that their country had built. They refused to denounce these projects even when we pressed them on the unsustainable finance that might have driven them. They saw the better standard of living these projects had brought, not the disputes over predatory financing or “debt-trap diplomacy.” In a country they had never chosen to be born into, from which they still aspired to make the world a more equitable place, how could they see China any differently?

In each of the three sessions, we were lectured by Chinese experts on global governance who presented the competing perspectives fairly. China is a rising power bent on re-shaping global rules; or it merely wields the economic power worthy of a say in the global order. The United States is a leader in honest and sustainable development finance, though it may instead be hegemon aggressively acting to preserve control. The views of no participant fell so perfectly into one side; ours were all a mixture of these extremes. Nationalism, or a need to belong, may explain where we fell in this discussion. However, among the young PKU students with whom I spent hours talking, I could see no less of the compassion and desire for good change that is so common in my American generation.

Ben Sando (MSFS'23) is pursuing a master's degree in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service with a concentration in Asian studies.

Other Responses