While many of us were making New Year’s resolutions Jan. 1, 12 students were on a long flight to China. As a part of a new January Term course, titled “Game Change: Bridging the U.S.-China Divide Through Sport,” these students learned about past and present challenges of U.S.-Chinese relations while engaging with Chinese students in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in friendly table tennis competitions. It would be simplistic to think that this J-term merely recreates the historic 1971 diplomatic display between U.S. and Chinese players at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships. Rather, this J-Term ping pong program has importantly extended the precedent of sports diplomacy into the educational realm. In doing so, this program has taken a critically important step toward more productive exchanges between the United States and China that are founded in mutual understandings. The University and other academic institutions must work to ensure that U.S.-China student exchanges such as these survive hostile geopolitics.
Ever since former President Donald Trump xenophobically labeled COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” cultural exchanges between the U.S. and China have taken a long-lasting hit. Today, the amount of U.S. journalist visas issued to Chinese nationals, U.S. books published in China and even Chinese film and literature translated in the U.S. have drastically decreased since the pandemic. But what perhaps is most concerning is the decline in U.S.-China student exchanges, indicative of a decline in both countries’ current willingness to alleviate rising tensions. A State Department survey found that in the 2021-22 academic year, only 211 U.S. students studied abroad in China, whereas 11,000 students did before COVID lockdowns. And while Chinese students still make up the largest percent of international students in the U.S., this number dropped more than 50% between 2019-2022. These statistics are not merely a reflection of Chinese COVID lockdown policies — universities outside the U.S. are seeing increased Chinese student enrollment. The complicated relationship between the two countries, then, have visibly hindered these students’ enthusiasm for an education abroad in America.
Yet, how is this slow-down in student exchanges more significant than any of the other side-effects of historically complex and tense U.S.-China relations? Academic student exchanges effectively encourage U.S. students to not only gain, but experience current knowledge about China. Exchange students challenge themselves with first-hand cross-cultural learning and sharpen their language skills — experiences that a simple and perhaps one-sided academic domestic study of China would exclude. If the U.S. truly wishes to cultivate the next generation of expert leaders to navigate the U.S.-China geopolitics, then they must foster head-on exposure to the very current events on which our next generation must become experts. Study abroad is the perfect way to foster this exposure by immersing students in the communities they must learn more about.
Beyond pure academics, however, the continued dearth of exchange opportunities for U.S. students in China signals a larger danger — an unwillingness to listen and understand different cultures and perspectives. National security concerns towards the Chinese government, though valid, should not outweigh the essential work that U.S.-China exchange programs do to ensure that our next generation is ready to open their minds and understand issues that they will have to contend with in the future. Completely blocked lines of communication serve only to drive mistrust and dehumanization at all levels, which will continue to exacerbate U.S.-China tensions in addition to domestic xenophobia against Chinese-Americans.
The University’s J-term program is a sign that these tensions can slowly be resolved if an effort is made. After all, sports diplomacy is a genius step towards filling the gap that panda diplomacy left behind just last November. Sports — much like pandas — are a beloved universal language — they traverse international borders to unite people of different backgrounds and empower youth with lessons on health, confidence and teamwork. During a time when most Americans still feel negatively about China and anti-Asian hate is rampant in the U.S., the University has become a brave model among U.S. academic institutions in taking this enormous step toward mending political relations.
The University can continue to set the standard for cultural exchange and diplomacy by gradually opening up its former semester and year-long exchange programs with renowned Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University and East China Normal University. Perhaps a summer session should be in the cards as well. Additionally, the University and other academic institutions should voice support for reinstating the Fulbright programs to China and Hong Kong. This move could enable hundreds to become experts on China and reestablish scholarly exchange and collaboration.
As I read the J-Term students’ reflections, I share their excitement for new experiences as they recount trying foods that my family has cooked at home for years and visiting landmarks that I had marveled at as a kid. I remember the summer where I participated in a U.S.-China exchange program for Chinese students around the world to better understand their roots. I see the revival of U.S.-China exchange programs as an invitation for scholars to embrace the same values I learned that summer — listening and understanding. A future in which cultural animosity will be replaced with genuine progress is awaiting us if we can only set our table with openness and cross-cultural communication.
Songhan Pang is an opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.