Zhihang Du | August 16, 2017
Lessons from Washington and Beijing
The U.S.– China Student Fellows Program doubled as a learning space for Chinese history and culture, while also giving fellows the opportunity to experience the intricacies of foreign relations in a way that would be impossible to replicate in the classroom. During the two weeks we spent in Washington and Beijing I learned more about China than ever before in my life. Although I had previously taken classes in school and university on Chinese history, and read several books on Chinese political philosophy, I knew that my knowledge of the subject would not be as deep as that of my peers. In particular, I felt that I did not know enough about how Chinese history manifested itself in current culture. Therefore, I found the meetings with Chinese and American experts, such as Counselor Chen Yanjun, Counselor of Trade at the U.S. Embassy James Green, and Bloomberg News political reporter Peter Martin, very helpful, as they helped contextualize currents events within broader Chinese history and culture. Additionally, after these meetings, it was very interesting to talk to my Chinese peers about the same topics to compare the ideas of experts with those of everyday Chinese. For instance, during our time in Beijing we discussed the U.S. decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. While student fellows tended to focus more on the negative aspect of the move, that we may be losing our best weapon to fight climate change, officials tended to see this more as an opportunity for China to take the reigns as the new leader of the clean energy movement in the world. By hearing both sides I received both a top-down and a bottom-up lesson in China.
As someone who was most interested in the U.S.-China Student Fellows Program as a chance to learn about international relations, I was not disappointed. During the scheduled portion of our trip, we met with several top officials in the United States and Chinese governments. It was very interesting to study how these leaders behaved and answered questions, and there is no way that I would have been able to gain this experience outside of the program. In mathematics, there is concept known as elegance, which describes a proof that is unusually precise and simple. Meeting with these officials I witnessed elegance in rhetoric; they all had an astounding ability to summarize very complicated issues and present a logical argument in few words. They could do this not only because of their depth of knowledge, but also because of their ability to play with words’ connotations and find the perfect word to describe the situation. I aspire to learn this skill to one day control conversations as well as they can.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the official portion of our schedule, I think that I may have learned even more during the unplanned portion. First, I had the privilege to spend hours with Professor Wilder, one of the most knowledgeable experts on China. More importantly, he has decades of personal experience navigating the relationship between the two powers. During our free time, I would constantly ask Professor Wilder about interpersonal skills and then would try to implement his suggestions into our official conversations among the fellows. Additionally, he spoke extensively about diplomacy techniques that I would never have been able to find in a textbook. Second, the program did an outstanding job creating an environment and finding the right fellows, such that even on our free time we would always be talking about politics, domestic and international, in the United States and China. One of my favorite conversations in Beijing took place on the way to dinner, in the back of a taxi, in which three other fellows and I discussed the value of liberalization. I loved this immersive experience of nonstop discussion with smart, passionate individuals on topics of such great importance.
The U.S.-China Student Fellows Program has shown me that there is hope for cross-cultural cooperation and understanding if we learn to better question the assumptions on which we construct our worldview. Growing up so close to New York City and attending a diverse university, I took pride in how often I had meaningful conversations with people of different cultures than my own. However, this program showed me how unprepared I was to discuss international politics with people holding a fundamentally different worldview; the assumptions I took for granted would not always hold up in these conversations. For example, I implicitly believed in the marketplace of ideas and struggled to understand some of China’s policies, such as its foreign NGO laws, that limit the inflow of potentially lifesaving ideas. If the Chinese approach is best, the argument goes, Chinese ideas will win anyways, so there is no harm in allowing foreign influence. Yet, the Chinese students pointed out that though the Chinese approach might be best, it is possible that the instability caused by the inflow of new ideas will destabilize the system beyond the limited benefits of more ideas. When speaking with others in the United States, both parties generally take it as a given that more competition is good, so I never really had to confront a situation like this. While we struggled at first, as time went on, the fellows became more comfortable with questioning their ideas, and this allowed the dialogue to move in a more cooperative direction. I am very grateful for the opportunity that this program provided me to learn about international relations and that it has shown me that if people as supposedly different as Americans and Chinese can come together, then there is no reason why Americans within a single country cannot do the same.
David Lysenko is a sophomore in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University majoring in international political economy.
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