China Town Hall: Educational exchanges can play crucial role in thawing Sino-U.S. relations | Duke Kunshan University

China Town Hall: Educational exchanges can play crucial role in thawing Sino-U.S. relations

December 6, 2019

Shi Jian (far right), former vice president of Sichuan University, addresses the panel during Duke Kunshan’s China Town Hall discussion

Trade tensions between China and the United States may be running high, but so too is the demand among students in both countries for cross-cultural educational experiences, putting universities in a prime position to promote dialogue and build mutual trust, experts said in a panel discussion at Duke Kunshan on the future of Sino-U.S. relations.

Organized as part of this year’s China Town Hall, the talk featured Dan Li, a professor at Fudan University’s School of Economics; Ted Plafker, a veteran journalist for The Economist; and Shi Jian, former vice president of Sichuan University.

Moderated by Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan, the discussion focused on education, science and technology, with the panelists holding a largely optimistic view of China-U.S. educational ties going forward.

“Even though bilateral relations are not going well at this moment, I still believe that people want to expand cooperation in education,” said Li, who is also deputy director of Fudan’s Office of Global Partnerships. “If I ask my Chinese students where they want to go, they want to go to Harvard, MIT, etc. At the same time, American students are applying to Fudan because they want to understand China.”

Ted Plafker, a veteran journalist for The Economist magazine

Plafker said he feels the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election could affect the direction of educational exchanges for several years to come.

“The attitude in the U.S. is concerned more and more with technology theft and suspicion of Chinese students,” he said. “I feel it’s going to deprive the two partners of one of the best mechanisms for keeping things on track, or close to on track, unless we can get political leadership on the U.S. side that is capable of handling this.”

China is the largest source country for international students in the U.S. However, the 2019 Open Doors report published by the U.S. Institute of International Education showed the number of Chinese students grew by just 1.7 percent in 2017-18, a sharp drop from the 16.5 percent growth of 2013-14.

Simon said the souring situation between the world’s two largest economies had alarmed some parents, but Li argued that the low growth could have more to do with supply rather than demand.

“The demand for an American education among Chinese kids is still quite high,” she said. “A lot of our students, such as in physics and engineering programs, want to go to the U.S. to study and apply for universities there, but they are rejected. That’s why they have to change the destination; instead they go to Europe, they go to Japan.”

School shootings on U.S. campuses had also resulted in concern among Chinese parents about safety, which may also have affected the number, she added.

Dan Li, a professor at Fudan University’s School of Economics

Plafker said he did not think the goal of the U.S. government is to limit the number of Chinese students, “but there is pressure to be more aware of security, to be more suspicious, and that will have an effect on lowering numbers.”

He added: “There are features of the political culture of both countries that make it challenging, but if it wasn’t challenging it wouldn’t be interesting and worthwhile. I’m optimistic because even in the case of a bad turn in bilateral relations, the value of an education or any exposure to the other side will serve you well.”

China Town Hall is organized by the National Committee of U.S.-China Relations, based in New York. A webcast discussion among four experts in the U.S. moderated by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos was broadcast live to more than 80 venues on Nov. 18.

During the webcast, the experts touched on the U.S. attitude toward Chinese technology giant Huawei, the tit-for-tat trade tariffs, and their hopes for negotiations between Washington and Beijing.

“We don’t need to solve all the problems. I’m optimistic that if they can’t be solved they can be worked around,” Plafker said in the discussion at Duke Kunshan. Simon added that education can serve as a “critical pillar to sustain relations even in times of difficult political moments.”

Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan

After observing the progress of joint-venture universities across China, Li predicted that China will continue to open the education sector to foreign institutions to allow for further experimentation and teaching innovation.

“The Chinese government fully realizes that if you only have one model to educate people, you don’t know that these graduates will be globally competitive in the future,” she said, adding that Chinese universities are also being encouraged to go global.

Making a poetic analogy, Shi Jian, a professor of English, said that one of the most profitable branches of Starbucks looks onto a popular teahouse in Chengdu, the home of his university. At first, tea drinkers sat on one side of the square, coffee drinkers on the other. But over time they came together and now share the same table.

This is the nature of educational exchange, he explained. “Education brings different ideas, different opinions through discussion. And through discussion and reflection you get wisdom.”