Atharv Gupta | May 20, 2021
Responding To: Georgetown Students Reflect on Virtual Exchange
The Student-to-Student Dialogues hosted by Georgetown University Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues was an eye-opening experience. However, it was eye-opening for reasons I did not initially anticipate. Upon applying, I thought the Dialogue would be very academic and policy-centric, and therefore saw it as an opportunity to round out my perspective on U.S.-China tech issues. However, coming out of the Dialogue, I am pleased my assumptions were wrong.
The value in this experience was not necessarily in the explicitly substantive discussions, but more so in the “soft” and subliminal elements. Fundamentally, it was valuable as it exposed me to what well-educated Chinese students truly believe about controversial issues, and the emotions they generally feel towards the U.S.-China relationship. Too often U.S.-China discussions are very high level and ultimately constructive and academic in nature. This makes it so easy to disregard that each of the 1.5 billion people in China hold individual beliefs and stances that can and do contrast those of CPP leadership, and thus makes it easy to adopt a dangerously simplified us vs. them mentality towards U.S.-China issues. Despite living in China and interning multiple summers in China, prior to this dialogue I haven’t truly had the opportunity to hear the opinions of Chinese students my age and really investigate the origins of our contrasting perspectives. These elements of the Dialogue, alongside the friendships cultivated along the way, are what made this program a truly valuable experience.
In reflection, there are a few takeaways I want to highlight:
First, I was reminded how significant China’s culture and history are to the beliefs, values, and actions of Chinese citizens. Notably, a student from Fudan University asked a leading question concerning the relationship between traditional Chinese norms/cultures and modern China. Aside from this being the first question asked in the discussion, it was particularly revealing to me because from a western perspective seeing issues through the lens of culture, let alone Chinese culture and history, is rarely a feature, but upon further investigation it becomes so clear how traditional Chinese norms, teachings, and expectations shape domestic behaviors and CCP rule. With this context, the Chinese-held narrative of China’s resurgence as an effort to regain a “seat at the table” makes much more sense, considering China’s historical regional dominance prior to 1840.
Second, I was saddened by the way students across all three Chinese universities spoke of U.S. engagement with China. Aside from framing China’s rise as regaining its position as regional hegemon, the throughline narrative was the feeling that the United States doesn’t respect China, and that the United States needs to respect China and Chinese culture in order to cultivate a strong relationship. In the dialogue with Peking University, one of the students actually justified why China is a “good place” and how Chinese people are “friendly,” implying the assumption that we, as representatives of the U.S. perspective, looked down on China. I was taken aback by this because my views on China from growing up overseas are very positive, and I had not actively considered the perception and impact of the rhetoric and actions of U.S. leadership on Chinese citizens.
Third, I was taken aback by how the students at Zhejiang University spoke of the controversy in Xinjiang over Uyghur Cotton. The human rights violations in Xinjiang seem obvious from a foreign perspective, but throughout our discussion students genuinely insisted the issue is “made-up.” In fact, a student defended China’s stance saying that they had personally visited Xinjiang, saw the cotton fields and factories, and called on U.S. company leadership to come visit Xinjiang and “see it for themselves.” Knowing the facts of the issue as recorded by the UN and other NGOs, I wasn’t sure how to respond, and could only justify the viewpoint as being drawn from government media. In this vein, students also shared the popularity of government sentiments to boycott U.S. firms that stopped using Xinjiang Cotton as buying from these brands means hurting the Chinese economy. This interaction reminded me not only how strong CCP influence is, but also how much Chinese citizens typically believe CCP narratives.
Overall, I am grateful for this opportunity provided by Georgetown University. It was a very valuable experience which will serve as a strong complement to my academic focus on issues at the intersection of technology/cybersecurity and the U.S.-China relationship. Going forward, I am excited to engage in similar opportunities pioneered by the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, and look forward to further fostering relationships with peers and future leaders at Chinese Universities.
Christopher Gyra (SFS'22) is a rising senior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University majoring in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (security concentration) and double minoring in International Business and Chinese.
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