After more than four decades of cautious but steady engagement with the West, China is shutting the door.
Connections with the United States in particular — in academia, trade, science, defense and security — that were crucial to China’s re-emergence on the world stage are withering as relations worsen, decoupling accelerates and President Xi Jinping of China turns his nation inward.
This is worrying. A healthy level of exchange is critical to prevent mistrust between two rivals from metastasizing into confrontation and conflict. The problem is: Who within and outside China is there to engage with? Mr. Xi has overcome political rivals, jailed dissidents and strangled civil society organizations, making it politically risky for anyone to interact with counterparts in the United States.
People-to-people exchange may seem banal, but it has already proved vitally important to China-U.S. relations. In 1971, with the United States and China deeply estranged, the thaw began with “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” which paved the way for diplomatic normalization and eventually the return of an isolated China to the community of nations.
The United States must view engaging with young Chinese as an integral part of its diplomatic strategy. It should ease visa restrictions for Chinese students, reinstate exchange scholarship programs and actively court Chinese students to study in the United States.
The Chinese remain the largest group of international students in the United States, at more than 300,000. As a faculty member at a Canadian university, I teach many young Chinese who harbor reservations about their country’s direction and who will help shape future attitudes toward the United States.
But their numbers are declining. U.S. visas issued to Chinese students have plummeted since the Covid pandemic. As U.S. public opinion toward China sours, a survey last year showed that most Americans support restrictions on Chinese students. Some American politicians and media reports have painted Chinese students and researchers as potential spies, which helped spawn the China Initiative, a Trump administration effort to investigate possible espionage by Chinese academics. But it was dropped after accusations from civil rights advocates and universities that it unfairly targeted people of Asian descent.
Concern about Chinese espionage and the country’s influence in overseas operations remains, but Generation Z Chinese should be seen not as a threat but as an opportunity.
Ever since the Chinese Army crushed student-led democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has kept a wary eye on the young. They grow up in a tightly controlled system of “patriotic education” designed to instill loyalty to the party, which has gained momentum since Mr. Xi took power a decade ago.
Yet an independent streak still runs through Chinese youth. Just before last month’s Communist Party Congress in Beijing, at which Mr. Xi cemented his control, an apparently lone demonstrator staged a protest to repudiate Mr. Xi’s increasing authoritarianism. The rare public show of dissent was quickly suppressed. But anonymous Chinese students across more than 350 universities in the United States and around the world amplified the protester’s message online.
Even before that, many of my Chinese students had expressed to me, in confidence, complicated sentiments about their country. There is frustration with Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid policy, which has cost friends and family their livelihoods, and concern over their career prospects after they graduate and return to China, where the zero-Covid policy and Mr. Xi’s moves to rein in the private sector have chilled the economy and fueled youth unemployment. Others, having witnessed or taken part in protest movements while studying abroad, want to see protection for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, which have been suppressed under Mr. Xi, as have other civil rights out of concern that advocacy groups could be co-opted by foreign forces. Some of the students I’ve spoken to say they want to stay abroad, seeing Mr. Xi’s tenure — he secured a third five-year term at last month’s Congress — as a prolonged winter for social change in China.
These frustrations are typically suppressed through self-censorship, even while abroad, because of fear of reprisals from classmates or ultranationalist Chinese online trolls. Many students lower their voices when discussing Chinese politics, whether in the classroom or public spaces.
Yet thousands of China’s best and brightest remain critical thinkers. Some who have served as teaching assistants in courses on democracy are acutely aware of the irony of not being able to vote in their home country. Chinese students arrive at my university with no experience in taking part in social movements, but protests on or around campus inspire interest in social justice within China, such as the hardships of hundreds of millions of migrant workers who toil for low wages in jobs far from home.
This works both ways, however. Chinese students are often taken aback by the unequal treatment of African Americans or have experienced anxiety over anti-Asian violence that has coincided with the Covid pandemic. But through my years of teaching, I have watched these experiences create a cohort of young Chinese cognizant of the flaws in both the Chinese and the Western political systems. This doesn’t mean they will return home and advocate U.S.-aligned interests, even if they could. But they could be the future when it comes to brokering U.S.-China understanding, something in short supply now.
The Chinese Communist Party’s “patriotic education” is designed to indoctrinate the country’s younger generation. The strategic American response is to ensure that Chinese students maintain access to Western free thought and the institutions that safeguard it, rather than block those students at the gates.
Diana Fu (@dianafutweets) is an associate professor at the University of Toronto and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of “Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China” and previously served as a national co-secretary of Rhodes scholarships in China.
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