Ajay Nathan | October 3, 2023
The Challenges of Meaningful Dialogue
As someone with countless relatives in China and who has spent time in school there, I have always been hyper aware of the oftentimes conflicting opinions of Chinese and American citizens that stem from fundamentally opposing worldviews based on their unique experiences, backgrounds, and upbringings. Being able to engage in the U.S.-China Student-to-Student Dialogue with students from Peking University China was a tremendous opportunity. Although I was initially apprehensive, I was pleasantly surprised by the willingness of all my peers to be honest and open. Given the constant rhetoric about impending conflict and economic competition between the United States and China, it was also refreshing to discuss potential areas for cooperation, such as development programs like China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) or the U.S. Agency for International Development, and issues such as clean energy, natural disaster response, and poverty alleviation.
One thing that participants consistently strived to do in our discussions was to maintain objectivity and impartiality. For example, in discussions surrounding contrasting approaches to global development, when bringing up criticisms of “debt-trap diplomacy” within China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the same students would also point out flaws in the U.S. model of development in order to maintain fairness and avoid bias. I felt that it was important to acknowledge that each country’s approach has advantages and disadvantages, which should be discussed as objectively as possible. This was a sentiment that was encouragingly shared by all participants. Although eliminating bias completely can be challenging, I was very impressed by the ability of everyone that I spoke with to avoid falling into the trap of simply defending one’s own country’s policies in a purely one-sided fashion.
It may seem self-evident, but engaging in dialogue is hard. But perhaps not for the conventional reasons that one might imagine. Even in a relatively favorable setting and friendly environment such as this program, it can still be difficult to tackle more controversial topics. Instead of debating fiercely, there is still a strong tendency and desire to sidestep points or issues that might provoke more disagreement or controversy among participants. It is much easier to make non-controversial points that everyone will likely agree with, such as advocating for increased information sharing on natural disaster preparedness or the promotion of international cooperation through support for non-governmental organizations. Given these challenges of dialogue even under ideal conditions, it is no wonder that sustaining meaningful and productive dialogue between American and Chinese citizens is so rare today.
Since the issues discussed were complex and lacked simple answers, it may come as no surprise that as students, it was often difficult to come up with innovative solutions. Moreover, I did feel that many of our proposed solutions that pushed for more cooperation were somewhat unrealistic given the present-day climate of animosity and competition between the two nations. However, regardless of how actionable or feasible these ideas are in today’s world, I did feel a strong sense of optimism, since it was clear that students from both sides were hoping to contribute to a stronger relationship in the future where this type of collaboration will become realistic in time.
Everyone involved put forth good faith efforts to engage with each other and listen to other perspectives without prejudice and with a strong degree of mutual respect. After having had these conversations, I leave with a renewed sense of optimism and hope despite the difficulties we faced. This strong willingness by so many students to contribute to fair and open dialogue is a strong sign for our future relationship. I have no doubt that continuing this type of work and attitude will be key to building a strong foundation for cooperation and conflict prevention.
Kevin Li (SFS'25) is studying in the School of Foreign Service majoring in international politics with minors in history and Japanese
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