Ari Filler | June 5, 2022
Understanding How to Manage the Divide
I found my experience with the U.S.-China Student Dialogue to be incredibly enriching. The program provided me with the novel opportunity to engage directly with Chinese students in a frank and open manner. Hearing their perspectives greatly enhanced my understanding of contemporary China. I now feel I have more of an intuitive sense of how Chinese elites think about relations with the United States as well as how they approach international affairs more broadly. Indeed, these dialogues gave me much-needed context for further exploration of Chinese politics and policy.
Over the course of just three sessions, I gained key insights into the thinking behind Chinese decision making on the world stage. Our discussions covered a lot of ground, ranging from the structure of international development agencies, to the energy industries in our respective countries, to the role of public opinion in government policy. The relatively unguided, wide-ranging nature of the conversations prompted me to notice common threads, painting a fuller picture of the Fudan University students’ worldview. By allowing the Chinese students to express their honest opinions on different global issues, the dialogue served as a glimpse of how Chinese observers of international politics truly feel. Personally, I found this extremely useful as it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the rhetoric used in official communications and what those in power actually believe.
After engaging with the Fudan students about a number of pressing topics, I came to appreciate the vast differences between American and Chinese political thought, as well as the urgent necessity of attempting to bridge the divide as much as possible. In particular, I noticed great disagreement over the proper place of rights and principles in international affairs. In my opinion, this was both the biggest area of ideological divergence as well the most important to manage properly.
Whereas the American students in my group largely believed in the universal value of certain freedoms, the Chinese students thought that these were superseded by the sanctity of national sovereignty. In their view, whether core Western values – like the free exchange of goods and ideas – are truly beneficial is less important than whether they fit each nation’s culture and history. For them, the greatest danger in foreign policy making is not to abuse human rights or fail to enforce moral standards. Instead, it is to disrespect another country’s vision of what is right for itself. So, for example, our Chinese counterparts argued that Western institutions like the International Monetary Fund had made a big mistake in imposing a one-size-fits-all model of economic and political development on developing nations, rather than allowing them to chart their own course, even if this produced outcomes that were unappealing to Western standards.
Managing this divide is crucial because the United States and China will be the two dominant global powers for the foreseeable future. If they cannot agree on a basic approach to governance, it will lead to economic and institutional bifurcation that gets in the way of solving problems. This is especially important in an age when the world faces a multitude of threats that cannot be easily tackled by one country or bloc of countries. For this reason, I am very glad I participated in the U.S.-China Student Dialogue.
Phineas Donohue (SFS’23) is a junior in the School of Foreign Service studying international politics with a concentration in foreign policy.
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