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Sending 100,000 American Students to China

by Stanton Jue

A long-time “China hand” sees important breakthroughs in U. S. –China relations from the outcome of the recent Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two countries.– Ed.

I believe in a future where China is a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations, a future when our nations are partners out of necessity, but also out of opportunity.

-Barack Obama, July 27, 2009

On May 25, 2010 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the closing of the second Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) highlighted a small paragraph in the Joint Communiqué, saying that President Obama has announced a goal of sending 100,000 American students to China in the next four years. The purpose? They are to learn Mandarin Chinese, to experience Chinese culture, and to learn about the hospitality of the Chinese people, while they also serve as ambassadors for the United States in China. 

What an extraordinary public diplomacy initiative, arguably one of the boldest foreign policy moves in our time!  It certainly reflects Obama’s vision of a partnership out of necessity, but also out of opportunity for Americans to learn a major foreign language and culture and to promote mutual understanding between the United States and China.  This new initiative comes at a critical time when our two countries need each other’s help to face the enormous challenges and problems in a changing international environment.

From all accounts, approximately 100,000 Chinese students, not including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, are currently studying in the U.S. and less than 2,000 American students studying in China.  Most Chinese students from China mainland are full time students studying science and technology and other critical fields at undergraduate and graduate levels, whereas American students in China are more likely short term students or involved in summer programs.  There is an urgent need for a proper balance, but sending 100,000 students to China in 4 years is indeed very ambitious.

For the Obama administration, there is the problem of funding and competing for congressionally appropriated funds at a time when the country is facing a large unsustainable national deficit, not to mention slow economic growth and high unemployment and the costs of the war.  Given the polarized environment in Washington, Obama will have to use all his political acumen and good luck to bring Congress and the American people along to reach this goal.

To manage a program of this magnitude, the Cultural Agreement between the two countries will have to be revised or extended beyond this year, especially the Implementing Accord for the Cultural Agreement. There are other talks of setting up a new binational mechanism to facilitate and administer the program.

The American initiative to strengthen bilateral cooperation in educational and cultural exchanges and other people-to-people engagement includes three agreements signed by Secretary Clinton and State Councilor Liu Yandong:

  • Memorandum of Understanding for high-level consultation on people-to-people exchange
  • Renewal of the Implementing Accord for Cultural Exchange, and
  • Renewal of the Agreement for Cooperation in Educational Exchanges

From the Chinese side, there is much enthusiasm over the people-to-people exchanges.  Funding is not such a formidable problem in China when the country maintains a large foreign exchange reserve resulting from a large trade surplus with the U.S. each year.

China even offers 10,000 Bridge Scholarships to American students in this exchange program by first State Councilor Liu Yandong.* 

What is the origin of this public diplomacy initiative to send 100,000 American students to China in the next four years?  Last November 16 en route to Beijing for the U. S.-China summit, Obama spoke in a town hall style meeting to a group of highly vetted students at the Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai.  He said among other things that he is pleased to announce that the United States will dramatically expand the number of American students who study in China to 100,000.

At the conclusion of the summit on November 17, 2009, the initiative of student and people-to-people exchanges was officially affixed in this paragraph of the Joint Communiqué issued in Beijing:

“The two countries noted the importance of people-to-people and cultural exchanges in fostering closer U. S.-China bilateral relations and therefore agreed in principle to establish a new binational mechanism to facilitate these exchanges. The two sides are pleased to note the continued increase in the number of students studying in each other’s country in recent years.  Nearly 100,000 are now studying in the United States, and the U. S. side will receive Chinese students and facilitate visa issuance for them.  The United States has approximately 20,000 students in China.  The United States seeks to encourage more Americans to study in China by launching a new initiative to send 100,000 students to China in the coming four years.  China welcomed this decision by the U. S.  The two sides agreed to expedite negotiations to renew in 2010 the Implementation Accord for Cultural Exchange for the period through 2010-2012 under the Cultural Agreement between the government of the USA and the government of the PRC.  The United States and China agreed to jointly hold the second U. S.-China Cultural Forum in the United States at an appropriate time.” (See U. S.-China Joint Statement issued by the Office of the Press Secretary, The White House).

Currently both governments are conducting a broad range or exchange programs.  For example, since its inception, the Fulbright program has provided support  for nearly 2,500 American and Chinese students and scholars (more than any other country) to study, teach and  conduct research at universities, and the Gilman Scholarship Program has doubled the number of scholarships for American undergraduate students to study in China.  The education department of each country has carried out many cooperative projects in various fields. In response to the Chinese government’s request, the Peace Corps has more than 100 Friendship Volunteers who teach English in rural areas such as Sichuan, Chongqing, Gansu, Guishou and other rural regions.  (See Secretary Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Liu Celebrate People-to-People Engagement in Beijing, issued by Office of Spokesman in Beijing, May 25, 2010).

At a time of economic recession when the government is cutting services and vital programs such as education spending, medical services programs for the disabled and elderly, and police and fire protection, critics question the validity of more people-to-people and student exchanges.  Worthy as these people-to-people exchanges are, if the Congress is not fully supportive by providing adequate funding, we will not see the program off the ground anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the initiative of sending 100,000 American students to study in China was warmly received by the Chinese leadership when President Hu Jintao reiterated his enthusiasm and support by saying that “not even the most sophisticated telecommunication technology can replace face-to-face exchanges.” 

Finally, as both countries have a major stake in improving mutual understanding and reducing misinformation about each other’s foreign policy and values, it is crucial to include this public diplomacy initiative which can play a positive role in reaching audiences beyond the halls of government to the universities, the media, the skeptics, entrepreneurs, and the public at home.End.

* Who is this Chinese official?  She is highest female official in the State Council (Cabinet), the only female member of the. Politburo, the highest policy-making body, and a key member of the Tsinghua faction in government which includes President Hu Jintao and his projected successor Xi Jinping in the next CCP congress two years hence.


Stanton Jue
Stanton Jue

Stanton Jue is a retired Foreign Service Officer who specializes in Chinese affairs from the Cold War through reconciliation to China’s periodic cooperation and competition with the United States in first decade of the 21st century. He had postings in Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and China as well as an extended tour in Washington to help in the reopening of U. S. – China relations.  His main focus has been on China and US relations with Beijing and Taipei.  His articles have appeared in the Foreign Service Journal, American Diplomacy, and the American Journal of Chinese Studies.

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