Dan Wright: We Must Strengthen our Civic Engagement with China

Editorial’s Notes: The Carter Center and the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament jointly organized a virtual dialogue to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations. Daniel B. Wright, President and CEO of GreenPoint Group, is one of the speakers at the webinar called “U.S.-China Engagement: Past Achievements & Future Adjustments”. (Click HERE to Access the Full Webinar.)

Thank you, Elizabeth. This is such an important time to come together. We live in a season of significant disruption and change, not just in the bilateral relationship but globally as well. The work of our organizers has never been more important.

In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a decision to send 3,000 students and scholars overseas. Later that year, US President Jimmy Carter famously said: “Tell him to send 100,000.” The initial group of 52 scholars left China for the US in December 1978. The next year, 8 American students went to China. 

During that period of time, I was a high school student in Atlanta, Georgia. Our church was across the street from Georgia Tech, just 3 miles from today’s Carter Center, and provided free English tutoring to those students from China. I volunteered. This was the deal: I would teach English for free and my new Chinese friends would reward me with home-made Chinese food and chopstick lessons. I still remember trying to pick up those slippery peanuts with my chopsticks. Since then, I have used those chopstick skills across the regions of China where I have lived … from Shanghai, to Beijing, to Nanjing, and Guizhou.

Today, I’ve been asked to talk about education and cultural relations over the last four decades: To review achievements and what has worked; and to reflect on lessons that can inform decisionmakers in the coming years.

Here is my bottom line:  During a time of increasing global disruption and bi-lateral tension, we must actually STRENGTHEN THE FOUNDATION of the relationship, which is our people. We best do this by increasing people-to-people ties and educational exchange. Rather than tightening, we must further open. The world’s emergence out of COVID will provide an excellent opportunity for all of us to recommit to this. This is the pragmatic, strategic choice we must make.

I have three brief observations to share.

  1. What are our achievements?

The numbers, like other parts of the relationship, are clear and amazing. In the 2018-19 school year, the number of higher education students from China in the US was about 370,000, comprising 1/3 of the 1 million international students in the US, according to the 2019 Open Doors Annual Report. 

And over the past 40 years, nearly 330,000 American students have studied in China.

Many of us participating in this event are included in those numbers. But you and I are more than just numbers, aren’t we?!

More important than student flow statistics are the ideas, the insights, the trust and personal growth that have resulted from exchange. 

The key ACHIEVEMENT here has to do with the DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INFORMATION AND UNDERSTANDING. These are not equal. Information is facts and data. You can find those online. Understanding is nuance and insight, which assists decision making, judgement, and effectiveness.

We live in an information age where we have an ABUNDANCE of information about each other, but an increasing DEFICIT in understanding. Information without understanding can be dangerous.

The MOST EFFECTICE way to move from information towards understanding is through INTERACTION WITH PEOPLE and FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE – this is what happens in education and cultural exchange.

As Doak Barnett, an American scholar who was born and raised in China and spent his entire professional career focused on the country, wrote in the preface of his book, “China’s Far West” back in the 1980s:

“… One must be extremely wary of generalizations about China that are not rooted at least partially in study, observation, and experience at the grass-roots level. Unfortunately, the images of China prevalent in the West have too often lacked such a basis.” 

This is STILL TRUE today. And I would argue that this is just as true for China’s need to understand the United States, especially during this period of turbulent change. 

  • What has worked?

Most fundamentally, OPENNESS and practical policies that support the movement of people and ideas are the keys to what has worked.

Openness is better than closedness because it supports the flow of people and promotes the mutual understanding I have been describing.

Both China and the US know from our own histories that GREAT, CONFIDENT countries tend to be more OPEN. We have flourished when we have been most open. Fearful, insecure countries tend to be more CLOSED. They do not prosper over time.

After COVID let’s up, I recommend we re-double our efforts to STRENGTHEN OPENNESS, especially where it has to do with education and culture exchange.

  • Finally, lessons for the future.

So we must protect and advance the flow of people. As the US-China bilateral relationship appears to be coming more competitive and, in some areas, more contentious, there will be pressure for this space to tighten. 

We will need to choose “STRATEGIC OASES” in our relationship, areas that can promote understanding and that set a floor in our relationship. 

To do this, I have a few practical suggestions:

First, TOP-DOWN: 

We will need to create a supportive environment:

  1. We will need high-level political signaling and support for education and cultural exchange, like when President Xi visited high school students in Chicago and Takoma. And when then-Vice president Joe Biden played basketball with students outside of Chengdu.
  2. In addition, let’s make sure a new high-level dialogue mechanism, like SED, affirms the importance of People-to-People exchange. I hope that both governments will re-constitute such a mechanism.
  3. And we will need practical policy support that facilitates openness – travel, study, and research. VISA policy is key to this.

Secondly, BOTTOM-UP: 

  1. We need to strengthen exchange at local levels in both countries: University programs, mayors, governors, communities, and non-profits. I am on the board of the United States Heartland China Association. We are seeing incredible appetite to engage. This needs to be encouraged and supported.
  2. We need to promote more areas of practical cooperation at local levels: to make specific   broad areas around climate, public health, education and commerce.
  3. And we need more events like this that promote and educate the general public. The general population in both the US and China need to understand that the relationship can work to their benefit.

Given public opinion in both countries, this will not be easy, but it is ESSENTIAL. 

I suggest we use a clear-eyed, PRAGMATIC approach. Our people make up the foundation of getting the relationship RIGHT – not simply because it’s nice, but because its necessary. Preserving, protecting, and advancing education and people-to-people ties will becoming increasingly important. 

Thank you!