US-China Misperception and Educational Exchange: An Interview with Zoe Jordan

Zoe Jordan is a Research Associate at the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan policy research institute. She works in the South Asia program where she leads the Track II and Simulations project. Previously, Zoe was a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, where she received her MA in China Studies (International Relations) and chaired the Yenching Global Symposium, the institution’s flagship academic conference on China studies. Before moving to Beijing, Zoe was based in Shanghai for four years completing her bachelor’s degree at NYU Shanghai in Global China Studies. Her current research focuses on China-South Asia strategic relations, South Asian security, and Chinese politics. She is proficient in Mandarin. 

Thank you, Zoe, for agreeing to this interview. Can you provide a bit of background about yourself and the academic program you completed in China? And talk a bit about what influenced you to attend college abroad?

Sure. So I did my undergraduate at New York University Shanghai, which is a half international half Chinese school that’s about one fourth American, at least when I was there. I majored in Global China Studies, which is an amalgam of history, culture, and Chinese politics. I spent some time abroad in Abu Dhabi, Washington DC, and New York because NYU Shanghai requires studying abroad in at least one of our 14 global campuses. So  I was based in Shanghai for four years, but did several semesters abroad. And then for my graduate program, I completed my masters at a program called the Yenching Academy of Peking University. This is an international program but at a Chinese institution. So basically, in this way I was able to do my undergrad at a US institution in China, and then transitioned to a Chinese institution in China for my graduate program.

My master’s was in China studies, I concentrated in international studies, and then wrote my thesis on Chinese versus US influence on deterrence in South Asia. Now, I work in a think tank working on South Asian security and China-South Asia relations. So mine wasn’t a linear trajectory, but I think undergrad was a nice foundation in history, politics, culture, language, et cetera. My graduate program was a little bit more honed down in a Chinese context.

In terms of why I went abroad, in  high school I mainly wanted to study far away, and I took some Chinese in high school, and felt like Shanghai was probably the farthest I could get from Maryland! I think a lot of ex-pats who end up in China tend to go there on a whim or by accident and then stay for a very long time. So six years later I left Beijing when COVID happened, and was not able to make it back when the borders closed.

While you were studying abroad, what were some of the most rewarding moments? What were some of the most challenging moments?

Rewarding things: I think it’s like a feeling of comradery with people whose backgrounds are so qualitatively different from your own. I think that’s something that as you’re evolving into an adult and becoming a person that was very rewarding–to be in an international community that isn’t in your home country. And I think that amplifies the feeling of success or satisfaction you get when you overcome a problem that might be simple in your home country.

College is hard, but when you’re 19 years old and your Chinese is poor and little daily tasks become exponentially more difficult. Being able to have those little wins was very rewarding. Because I think that it does take a lot of persistent time and effort to understand the more amorphous or qualitative elements of culture that we don’t read about in a textbook but you might just encounter on the street. That was true for both undergrad and grad school.

Learning Mandarin is really hard, I mean, I’m not perfectly fluent now, and that will be a lifelong endeavor. Maintaining friendships and relationships from afar is difficult. At my college, we pretty much go abroad every semester for your whole junior year and sometimes part of senior year. So learning how to be intellectually and interpersonally adaptable was a challenge, but useful. Being at a Chinese institution for graduate school was challenging in several other ways, definitely for reasons I did anticipate like censorship or the more ethical questions researchers in China must face. So those weren’t new or surprising challenges but they were certainly present ones.

Were you able to make friends with people outside of your cohort of American students at NYU Shanghai? And did you feel as though studying abroad for college gave you a fully immerse experience?

Yeah, that’s a good question. Many foreigners, typically American ones and myself included, don’t tend to have a fully immersed experience. I will say most of my like close friends now were also ex-pats and foreigners, many of whom were American. I certainly did make Chinese friends during my time there. In undergrad it was quite hard. I did an immersion language program in Hebei for a summer as well. So I did spend some time being on my own there having to make friends.  I think as undergrads there tended to be a bit of a wall between the Chinese students speaking Mandarin during non-class hours.

And I think from my Chinese friend’s perspective, it was really hard to anticipate or to ask students to do all their college level coursework in English and then criticize them for wanting to speak Chinese with their friends after hours. So I think there were natural barriers to creating the types of friendship that you can naturally make with people from your own background. And the institution attempted to overcome those by measures such as pairing international and Chinese roommates, and to some degree that worked.

How did completing your undergraduate degree in China influence your decision to continue studying international affairs and specifically US China relations?

I will say neither my master’s nor my undergrad specifically focused on US China relations. What my main research interests in and what I work on now is China-South Asia relations. So that tends to be China-India border disputes, China-Pakistan relations, and general China-South Asia security issues. Certainly China-US relations was an underlying trend line through the entirety of my higher education. But I think my undergrad definitely cemented a desire to try to study China as a career.

I will say there were a lot of people at NYU Shanghai in similar institutions who were not there to specifically study China. For example, they may have wanted to do computer science and just happened to be in China. That’s fine, but that was not my trajectory, which was very much wanting to learn Chinese and to get that type of education. I was interested in learning from a Chinese institution like NYU by necessity. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to a Chinese university for undergrad, but NYU was one level more insulated than I would say Yenching Academy. So I thought it was important to learn from the top tier of Chinese institutions as well.

I think for me personally, Yenching was the natural extension to my undergrad. That is probably just more specific to my own research interests, and Yenching did have its drawbacks. I think it prepared me well for what I’m doing now hopefully, and it felt like a natural extension.

What factors convinced you to attend graduate school at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing, as opposed to at an American graduate program?

I think for people who want to do China Studies, it’s not enough to be an American doing China. You can be a student of China but that’s not quite enough to develop a niche. And it’s certainly not enough if you don’t have regional experience. There are a lot of folks in DC and the spaces that I interacted with now who have read about China a bit, but didn’t get the chance to do something like you and I did and go abroad.

And so, that type of regional experience I think is critical. For me it was staying in China for as long as I could to develop that knowledge. I thought the Yenching Academy program was very compelling. And I wanted to do the degree in China Studies. I wanted the ability to like take classes in Mandarin. I was excited about the people and having an interdisciplinary base of friends. My program included people who came from an economics background or a science background, that sort of thing, but then all came together to study the same thing. Because like I said, at NYU Shanghai, a lot of people were interested in China but a lot were not. And the defining characteristic of Yenching was that we were all getting masters in China Studies, even though you can concentrate in different things.

What, in your view, are some of the most common misperceptions Americans have about China? Which of these were confirmed and which were debunked during your time abroad?

First, it bears reiterating that China is not a monolith. People are different, people have different ambitions and there’s a very wide chasm between government institutions and individuals. But I think another one I’ve been thinking about more recently is this perception that Chinese people and even highly educated coastal folk, like young, highly educated people, should defacto resent their own government. And it’s a surprise when these very well educated Chinese people don’t actually hate the CCP. I mean, obviously that’s not an endorsement of the CCP. But I think that often an American-centric worldview makes us surprised at things that we find anathema to American values. And it shouldn’t be surprising that young educated, smart, Chinese people are patriotic and supportive of something we find diametrically opposed to our own beliefs.

I should also discuss the flip side of that, which is the idea that everything in China follows an Eastern Confucian philosophy and everything can kind of be reduced down to some predefined, very neatly structured worldview. And that is also not true. Chinese people think like we do and are interested in the same brands that we are and use the same apps and learn from Western sources and that sort of thing.

Were there certain moments during your time in China that allowed you to come to these conclusions? Or were you aware of these perceptions and misperceptions before going abroad?

That’s a good question., I don’t know what my mindset was in 2014 when I moved there. I was 18, I’m sure I had many misperceptions, I’m sure I had really wrong ideas. I think it was probably a slow growth born out of day-to-day interactions rather than seismic or paradigm shifts. Having friends and having people that you admire and care about that come from a worldview so different than your own will help with that.

And I should also note that my privilege was very apparent in China. I was a white woman at a wealthy institution in a coastal city, also surrounded by more or less wealthy, smart young people. If I were living in the middle of Hubei, in a village with people that were several other layers divorced socioeconomically, then that probably would have been different.

Conversely, after living in China, what are some of the most common misperceptions that Chinese people have about the US? What would you like to tell these people about American society?

Yeah, that’s kind of similar to the last point I made, which is that I had a very small and skewed sample size. It’s hard to say all the majority of Chinese people think X, Y, and Z about the US. I do think from that small sample size, most of my Chinese friends, professors, et cetera, have a better understanding of the US than vice versa, which is to say that most people in the US know far less about China and Chinese people know about the US. It was interesting talking with them during the Trump era. I think there was a substantial cohort of folks that really supported what they viewed as a strong-man leader. And I got into a lot more debates than I had anticipated, trying to explain why that was bad.

I don’t think there’s like a uniform or single message I would have. I’m always skeptical of these “what about isms.” Now it seems like the discourse tends to be reduced down to “there’s genocide in Xinjiang, but the US was built on slavery.” And these what about isms seem to go both ways and not really help anyone.

In your view, what role do people to people exchanges–such as Confucius Institute language study and joint-venture educational programs–play in fostering positive U.S.-China relations?

I mean, I think first it depends on the type of institution. Confucius institutes are one thing,  joint universities are another, civil society and business groups are another. I do think you’re right in that these joint venture university programs are becoming harder and harder to open. I think the problem is constructed at one like institutional layer and those who it affects, and the people that are most effected by that. And we’re at another layer–there’s a chasm there between the ways we can affect what is put upon us. So that’s kind of a shame because it does everybody a disservice, but the layer where the policy changes are happening does not overlay with the layer that of folks that are actually affected by that at an interpersonal level.

I think that, in total, these institutions have certain tangible goods that are a net benefit to everybody, like language skills. That’s huge, that’s critical. Networks are really important, especially for think tanks where people aren’t in the government. I mean, a lot of people in the government can’t have these networks, but it is still essential to have friends and contacts in China. Do I think that these things can alter the negative big trends, like having more people speaking Chinese and having more people befriend others from China? Probably not. Unfortunately, my cynicism is just that policy change is not going to be effected if more universities keep their China programs open.

And I also don’t think that a hardening stance against China is a bad thing, per se. I think that it’s important to stand up for all of the terrible things that are happening. But I do think that the things the Hawks really want through these policies won’t achieve their ends and the types of net goods won’t be obtained.

According to a recent study published in Global Times, the number of Chinese students studying overseas in the US–now at 373,000 students–could start to decrease due to the COVID-19 pandemic and worsening China-U.S. relations. Many believe the number of American students studying abroad in China may also stagnate. What do you think needs to happen in either domestic politics or U.S.-China relations to encourage more students from both countries to continue studying abroad?

I do think a lack of students and a decreasing number of students is definitely categorically a shame. And you’re right that this is probably a result of COVID and other more unavoidable factors. And then a lot of that is also a result of hardening policy trends and the deterioration of bilateral relations, which for the people, again, who were affected by that is more or less unavoidable. I do think at the end of the day, studying abroad is a very personal decision. And I have a hard time criticizing people who don’t want to go study in China and do a program like I did because they don’t feel comfortable taking Chinese government money. That’s fine.

And I think, by the flip side, people who think it’s really important to go and have access to their data and have access to their field of study…it’s a personal moral trade-off. And so, I don’t criticize them for that and I’m glad I did the program that I did. There are certain things that are categorically bad that both sides could do, like sanctioning entire think tanks and scholars, which I’m sure you’ve seen in the news. It’s important also in a non-government level, that universities protect the academics in the face of sanctions. But that goes back to the level of leverage or power that civil society has versus where the policy is happening at a top-down level.

And also, on the flip side, US universities need to maintain the type of culture that’s welcoming to Chinese students and academics,. So those are things that individual institutions can do. I don’t want to pontificate on when we’re going to go to war over Taiwan or something like that. But it doesn’t look optimistic. I’ve done a lot of thinking about when I will be able to get back to China and if I should do that, and whether there is a safe way to do that. But I do also maintain at the end of the day for people who want to continue to do good research on China, which is good no matter how dire the state of bilateral relations. Having access to the place that you’re studying is critical. You just can’t do good research otherwise.

Many students who studied abroad in China draw a distinction between the narrative of worsening US-China relations and their study abroad experience–often saying that the tense political relationship did not match their experience on the ground. I’m wondering, did you feel the effects of the worsening bilateral relationship or was the environment very welcoming throughout your time in China?

Yeah, I think that’s a really smart and important dynamic to identify, which is the discrepancy between what’s happening at the macro policy level and the individual experiences of those who are there. And one is probably a result of privilege and being a foreigner who can speak a little Chinese and being interested in culture and history. I think the ways that the increasingly repressive environment manifested for me related to ways that the environment kind of trickled down into things you do or don’t feel comfortable talking about. I probably pushed the boundaries more than others, in that I would want to talk to friends about politically sensitive things. I’m sure there are many others who would just assume things aren’t safe to talk about, which I also kind of think does a disservice to the agency of our Chinese peers.

These are very smart people who grew up in the political system that they were put under. And they will say when they are not comfortable speaking about things. So, as long as you’re being tactful and asking people their real opinions on sensitive subjects–that is critical. There were probably a wider scope of issues that were not good to talk about towards the end of my time, which also was probably just a factor of being in a Chinese institution. And a whole other conversation could be how people circumnavigate censorship, and still are able to have those conversations, which they do. But in general, I didn’t feel forced out because there was a deteriorating bilateral relationship. But I also respect that that was the case for many academics, usually people who are higher level and well-connected.

Thank you, Zoe.