Atharv Gupta | May 20, 2021
Responding To: Georgetown Students Reflect on Virtual Exchange
Overcoming Bias and Listening to Both Sides
Participating in the U.S.-China Student-to-Student dialogue as a student of neither American nor Chinese citizenship was a rather esoteric experience. As a Singaporean student, I found myself having to navigate between two seemingly disparate and sometimes opposing sides in the dialogues. While I certainly in no way represented Singapore’s posture on U.S.-China issues, neutrality and balancing between both sides influenced the way in which I communicated my perspectives during the dialogues. One key learning point for me was whether there were sides, much less adversaries, in the first place.
When international media comments on the U.S.-China relationship, both countries are often polarized on opposite ends of a political and sociocultural spectrum. For example, China is authoritarian while the United States is democratic. Language used in the media obscures our understanding of both countries and more crucially, their societies. In doing do, such language unfairly places value judgments on both countries. The United States is held up as a moral standard, while China is demonized against this yardstick. Policymaking in China is also reduced to flawed process, with the term neoconservative hawks often used to describe top officials and decisionmakers in the Chinese government.
Such double standards are evident in recent human rights discourses globally: China is often criticized for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang (and rightly so), but similar criticism is not levied for the treatment of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border or even lapses in civil rights in the United States. These dichotomies hinder effective and productive dialogue.
Thus, the challenge for us Georgetown participants was to overcome the bias that is inherent in the media we consume. We did our best to capture and appreciate the nuances in the U.S.-China relationship, and we kept the themes we discussed sufficiently broad to allow for a free-flowing conservation, also accounting for the difference in communication styles amongst the participants of the dialogues.
There were times at which we felt we had to represent the official stance of the United States, but we realised after the first dialogue that it would actually be more fruitful to discuss points of interest to young people, from pop culture to our education paradigms. After all, the truth of the current state of the U.S.-China relationship and why it is so fraught is because both parties do not understand the individuals that constitute it. Kishore Mahbubani has argued that Washington does not understand China because it fails to understand the historical tensions and animosity China has with it, such as with the tarnished memory of U.S. involvement in China’s Century of Humiliation. Thus, it is crucial to understand how the legacy of history shapes contemporary attitudes in China towards the U.S. today.
That all participants of the dialogue were youth provided a great opportunity to learn about the different social currents and how they influence political sentiments. I realised that globalization has minimized the cultural differences, so much so that both sides are actually not distinct. In this way, the dialogue made me realise that the dichotomy in the U.S.-China relationship is a false but deceiving one that skews the foreign policy of both countries towards each other. Educational institutions have a crucial role to play in circumventing convenient stereotyping of not just the two countries in the debate, but their individual citizens as well.
Natasha Vincent (SFS'21) is a senior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in International Politics, with minors in Arabic and Economics.
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