The US-China Perception Monitor’s student journalists YuXuan Chen and Xiaoyi (Baker) Lu recently conducted an in-depth Zoom interview with Professor Frank Wu on a range of issues related to Chinese Americans and US-China relations.  Wu is president of Queens College, City University of New York. He previously served as the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor and Chancellor & Dean at University of California Hastings College of the Law. Wu was the first Asian American to serve in those positions at Queens College and UC Hastings.

USCPM: Do you think China’s scale problem has influence on the United States’ disengagement with China academically? 

Wu: That’s part of it. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Even if you didn’t care about Chinese-Americans or Asian Americans, even if you didn’t care about racial justice, even if you didn’t care about civil rights, even if you were hostile to China, you should welcome Chinese immigrants. I’ll explain why. It’s in the American national interest. Take a look at Silicon Valley or take a look at the physics department of any American campus, who are the entrepreneurs and professors? They are either foreigners who intend to stay which makes them immigrants or they are people who come here for a period of time and would be exposed of American values. Let’s take these as two groups. They blend together: some stay when they didn’t intend to, others leave when they didn’t want to. Many immigrants, Asians and Chinese win Nobel prizes for America as naturalized US citizens. If all the Chinese Americans vanish from Silicon Valley, half of the coding and engineering workforce would vanish (the other half is South Asian – for each, not exactly half but about half). This is such a huge proportion. Overnight, you would see the collapse of research and development in virtually every significant tech-based sector of the economy. There is a joke going around on Chinese social media, I am told. “The Americans are afraid of the Chinese coming and stealing secrets. If the Chinese don’t come, there would be no secrets to steal.”

My point is that if you want to promote America and its interests, then its comparative advantage historically, has been its ability to welcome people and turn them into Americans. My parents became Americans. They are taxpayers and productive citizens. When my mother passed away, she was buried in the US. I asked my father about it. He said, the family is here now.

This is not my unique family story; it is the American story. You go in one generation from foreigner to citizen. Thus, it’s in the American national interest to continue welcoming people, otherwise it’s not just those people don’t prosper, it is that the American society doesn’t prosper and the American dream is over. New York City was rebuilt by immigrants. There’s this famous headline about New York City in the 1970s, “Gerald Ford to Big Apple Drop Dead” and then the city came roaring back. Why? It the line from Hamilton: Immigrants got the job done. And so do their children and grandchildren.

It is also true that the people who go back, they are foreign agents, but not in the direction we might think. They are foreign agents because they’ve been exposed to American freedom and American opportunity. They go back and take American values such as self expression, self fulfillment, individualism, with them. That’s the soft power. It is what America is exporting. Yes, video games and Hollywood. But within that, the First Amendment and a set of ideals.

USCPM: But we are not seeing this kind of welcome now. In your article ‘Attacking Chinese on Our Campuses Only Hurts America,’ you wrote ‘A decade ago, partnerships with China were heavily promoted…Now those contacts are deemed negative and trigger suspicion.’ Why do we see such a U-turn in the US-China academic relationship?

Wu: I would say this goes back to Samuel Huntington. He wrote a famous article that he turned into a book. The article was published in Foreign Affairs in 1993. I would not call him a bigot. I want to be clear. His ideas regrettably can produce racism and xenophobia. He had a big idea. His central thesis was a cataclysmic clash. He predicted the West, led by America; Islam; and China would have an ultimate showdown. This isn’t just trade war or culture war, but a military war, a shooting war, a giant conflagration with millions dead, devastation. It would grow out of trade war and cultural war, and you’d have military war because of irreducible tribal impulses. After 9/11, people rushed to the book and said he was right, he predicted it. People forgot he envisioned three contenders, with China.

More recently Harvard professor Graham Allison wrote a book about Thucydides Trap. He is definitely not a bigot. He is a thoughtful guy. Most people had not been thinking about Thucydides, but he studied all these cases using as inspiration Thucydides is a Greek general and poet. He said in the most instances – not all – throughout human history when you have an established power and a rising power, usually there is war and in a few instances there wasn’t – why would that be? People who haven’t read him exaggerate and say he said all, but he didn’t; he said most. He wanted to analyzed the differences between when you had war and when you didn’t. Similarly, Rand, the think tank, it has produced the white paper, study of war between the US and China. Rand is highly respected, associated with war games, during the Cold War era analyzing nuclear war with the former Soviet Union.

So, there are people who are warning there is going to be war. There is a problem with a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of these nations is going to attack the other maybe it’s a pre-emptive strike and both have nuclear capacity or maybe it’ll be a proxy war like Korea and Vietnam (fought through allies – but proxy wars can expand into global wars). My point is, serious thinkers who are not conspiracy theorists or alarmists or cranks, not crazy people living in caves, thoughtful people are modeling the possibility of a war.

There was a follower of Huntington, Dr. Skinner, who was at the State Department. She was president Trump’s big picture policy thinker in the State Department and she wrote an interesting internal memo that was leaked to The Washington Post. She wrote about why China was a different threat than the Soviet Union. Her answer to this question is that because China isn’t Caucasian. Let’s put aside whether it’s racist or not. I never want to say that’s racist and dismiss it; I’d rather engage with it. Many people pointed out it’s not clear that this framing is the best description of what’s happening here. It echoes some of the thinking about the Pacific Theater during World War II and it’s actually not correct that US hasn’t faced a non-Caucasian great power. In WW2 it faced Japan. (One of the most interesting things about Japan is treated and has been ever since the Russo Japanese as part of the West. Japanese as people and Japan as a nation in this equation of which side are placed the American side not the Chinese side.)

People also point out Taiwan historically a staunch US ally not only is not white but also racially, ethnically, culturally Chinese. You could look at Skinner’s argument and say the factual premise for this argument is incorrect. It is not true that United States has never faced a non-Caucasian enemy. It’s also not true that every time it faced non-Caucasian Asian countries that that has been was problematic.  The United States and various Asian nations have been great allies.

Therefore, my answer to the question why now and why this, why Chinese Scholars and students are targeted like this, is because there is a fear of war. There is also just a general wariness about the rise of China.

There’s a rise of ethnic nationalism all around. I make clear to people. I’m not an ethnic nationalist for a lot reasons. One of which is my ethnicity and my nationality don’t match up. My white American friend say to me, hey, if China becomes dominant, you’re going to be all set. My reply is are you kidding? But I’m doomed if China becomes the dominant world power. It means my family, in the past three generations, turns out to be wrong, and I bet wrong and chose poorly, and we lined up on the wrong side. I picked America! No offense to my friends or my relatives who are Chinese. In terms of political loyalty and citizenship I’m part of America. I’m respectful people who are part of China.

I think it would be a mistake or a tragedy for humanity if United States and China ended up in a military war. The trade war is bad enough. Now internet and cell phone technology are going to be divided in two. Everyone is going make a choice they will be forced to make this choice. I would think there is some better way to structure the world.

USCPM: To the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who are or will be studying in the United States, what do you want to say to them?

Wu: Keep coming.

This is a dangerous moment in human history. We’re always living through history. We’re not self-aware. We don’t stop ourselves to say this is historical. But right now, we know. This is historical. It’s a trauma. There are historical moments in the United States like when John F Kennedy was shot, 9/11, this pandemic, and the black lives matter movement (the twin pandemic of what many always knew but some would deny, about racism). Sitting here I know 50 years from now people will be asking what it was like. This is undoubtedly an historical moment. You can add rising US-China tension to these moments. We know we are living in the hyper accelerated moment of history. If you’re religious, this is eschatological – that’s a Biblical term for the end times; there’s even a plague of locusts. It feels fraught. So, this is exactly the moment we need more people like you to come and to make friends.

I do have a piece of advice: when you come to America, embrace the experience. If you come to America and everyone whom you sit with at the cafeteria is also Chinese descent from wherever you came from, you’re not actually coming to America and getting that experience of being here. Make some American friends; they could be Asian Americans or African Americans, Jewish – make lots of friends.

I was talking to my father, who came in United States in the early 1960s. When he grew up, in his family, they weren’t impoverished; they were not rich, but they were not poor. In general my father did not go to bed hungry, but he explained to me that dinner would be a bowl of rice and a stalk of vegetable with a little meat – like meat as a condiment. And usually there was not meat but tofu; if there was meat, it was just like sauce. So he comes United States and he realized he could buy 8 ounce steak. You don’t have to be a king. He couldn’t do that every day but once per month, and 8 ounces is as much meat as he would have eaten in a year. In the 1960s the material advantage in America was astonishing if you just use the measurement of how much meat could you eat. When you came to America as a poor graduate student, you could as much meat in one meal as would have eaten in one year.

Now let’s think about today. Where are luxury cars, French impressionist painting, first growth French Bordeaux wine being auctioned and bought in large quantities? In China not the US. It has been an entire reversal within the span of a lifetime, actually just a generation, twenty years.  China has moved up in the world in a way that is unprecedented in the annals of human history and no nation has demonstrated such rapid sustained economic growth. For people who left and thought they were leaving behind poverty and strife and coming to the shining “city upon a hill,” it turns out that in material terms China is on the edge of surpassing the US in the aggregate.

Teachers always say you’re the future. You are really the future because you’re bilingual in a meaningful way. The standard keeps going up. When I was your age, I could say I was bilingual but I’m really not. [Wu said a few phrases in Mandarin about his language skills being middling.] I can’t read or write but only speak a little. But you can read and write. You are monolingual that means you’re an American and it means you’re not going to be prepared for a multilateral world. United States has been, is and will continue to be a great power and a great nation and I’m proud to be an American. What has changed – most Americans, myself among them, were not ready –

is that America will not be the only great power.

Yuxuan is a college student majoring in International relations at New York University. Baker is a student in master’s program at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.