U.S.-China Relations in Context: An Interview with Alec Nash

Alec Nash has worked in the field of international education exchange for five years. He is currently a Coordinator at the University Advising Department at the International School of Beijing, a K-12 school for international students in Shunyi District, Beijing. In this role, he organizes virtual university visits, coordinates and researches standardized testing, and analyzes data for the school. Prior to ISB, Alec worked at an American-owned company as an application consultant for Chinese students applying to universities in the United States and at a D.C.-based NGO that facilities education exchange programs between the U.S. and China. Alec graduated from Emory University in 2016. He will begin a masters program at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Fall 2021.

Thank you so much, Alec, for having this interview with me. And to begin with, could you please share a little bit about yourself and your job experience in China? Specifically, what inspired you to come to China and work in Beijing?

I have been working in China for a couple of years. Right now, I work with International School of Beijing as their University Access Coordinator, where I coordinate standardized tests and set up university visits. Most of our interactions with universities are online this year, of course, so I do a lot of liaising with universities back in the States, setting up virtual visits with them just so they can have a chance to talk to our students while the pandemic is still happening. Before this, I worked with a company that does private education consulting. It was kind of similar, where I worked with a lot of high school students in Beijing who were applying to a university in the States, but I was working with them closely to help with applications and teach them about the essay writing process. In terms of why I chose to come China in general, I studied abroad here over the summer when I was at Emory University, and I came here again the summer after graduation as a tourist. While studying abroad at Beijing Normal University and Nanjing University, I was excited by the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit that I never saw in the US. Everything changes really quickly. People accept change a lot more than I feel people would in the US, which was exciting to see and to be around. Even if I wasn’t working in a specific field that I would see changing that much, it’s just interesting to see the world moving so fast.

Another thing that I’m pretty curious about is how was your transition back here during the worst time of COVID-19?

Ah, it was a high-pressure transition. I came back a few days after the quarantine was required, back in March when the whole thing was starting to pick up in the States and before the borders were closed to most foreign nationals. I did the required quarantine for two weeks. There were a lot of questions I had because, in China and all around the world, quarantine policies were popping up and people really didn’t know what to do. When I arrived back in China, it took a long time to get assigned to a quarantine location, just by the sheer number of people who were returning to the country. I was one of the very, very few foreigners in the crowd. A lot of the people back in America I spoke with told me, “Don’t go back to China. It’s so much worse now. They’re just not telling us the truth.” Personally, I had a lot of confidence that things were improving in China. I did the quarantine just as everyone else who returned to China did. It was actually quite relaxing just to be able to sit it at a hotel for two weeks, lie around in a nice bed, and have room service delivered at regular intervals, especially after the uncertainty of the weeks leading up to my flight. When I got out, it was still a little bit intense in the Mainland, but slowly but surely everything stabilized by May.

Are there any common Western conceptions and misconceptions about China that were either confirmed or debunked by your five years of experience here? How has living in China changed your view?

I think it’s hard for a lot of people in the West to catch up in their perceptions of how fast China has moved. A lot of people’s perceptions are still stuck in the 80’s and 90’s. Prior to the last couple of years, when many Americans though of China, their perception was a little behind. They’ve been either scared by or indifferent to the idea of China. The country has progressed so fast that Americans’ conception of China has not really kept up to date. Maybe we’ve had some windows into China over the past 30 years, such as the Olympics and the trade war, but in general, China was not really on people’s minds back then to be able to tell. But this has started to change: China is in the news a lot more recently, so I think people are more curious about what is going on here. As I mentioned, living here has really made me realize the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that people have. In the West we often hear the phrase, “China doesn’t innovate”. I think you can come here and stay only a couple days to realize that’s totally untrue. There are so many changes and innovations going on every day.

Working in the field of international education exchange, what is your take on China’s education system? How is it different from the US education and what can be learned?

When I worked at the counseling firm, majority of my clients were students at domestic schools. While I didn’t see what their life was like at the school, I learned through working with them a lot about how their schools operate, and I saw huge differences with American-style education. I think this is a stereotype that I’ve seen to be true for the most part: STEM is a really, really big focus among Chinese high schools, so much more than the US. I think there’s definitely something to this that American schools can learn. It’s always good to have those core STEM skills as a foundation. That’s one reason why I think a combination of a Chinese high school and American university is a good pursuit. Students get these core math and science skills from high school and then develop those further while developing their creative side from US universities.

Statistics shows that American students’ “Love affair” with China is cooling as political tensions rise. Why are fewer American students going to China?

I think there are two things going on. First, there’s not going to be any student coming to China to study if pandemic-related restrictions are in place. That’s just going to be a fact of life for the next few years. And I think that’s the similar with the US as well. It’s going to be hard for the two countries to maintain high levels of people-to-people exchange when it’s tough to travel between the two countries. And that’s something you can never predict how long it’s going to last, of course. But even before the pandemic, you probably also saw a decline in American students going to China as well. And why that is? Even before the pandemic, the bipartisan consensus on US antagonism towards China was solidified. Maybe several years ago, the political left, with which most college students sympathize, was more friendly towards China. Now even most of them have soured.

Many people believe that US-China relations are at the lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties. Do you feel and agree with that? Do you see any possibility of meaningful cooperation between US and China? If so, where?

I do think it’s at the lowest point, but it might also at the highest point of attention too. Unfortunately, it seems like more attention China receives in the US public discourse, the more negative people’s attitudes are. However, I definitely think there’s always room for cooperation. It has to be looked at sector by sector. I attended an event hosted by the Carter Center and the Intellisia Institute a few weeks ago about people-to-people cooperation. Dr. Jeffery Koplan from Emory Global Health was saying that the cooperation in the public health field had barely diminished at all; they are so focused on their sector that they aren’t influenced by the trends of politics. I think it’s vital that the people who have an interest in stable bilateral relations are still stable continue to have their voices heard. In addition to climate change and pandemic prevention, I think that education will continue to be an important space for cooperation as well. There are so many high school students in China that have been planning for their whole lives to go to the US to study. It would be really tough for most of them to suddenly change course and to throw out their plans. Plus, we also just in general have so much to learn from China. When you have two starkly different societies, we have no choice but to cooperate and learn from each other.

In recently years, the US is becoming increasingly tough on China—technology and trade war, visa cancellation for researchers and students, restrictions of Chinese journalists’ activities, the closing of the consulates and the cutting off of cultural exchange programs…What do you think are the problems involved?

The problem is a vicious cycle in some ways. The American public is sour towards China, so I think a lot of politicians are under a lot of pressure to match that attitude. But whenever the US ends up doing something, especially on the government level, China is often pressured to respond. Just look at the Houston and Chongqing consulate debacle last year. I don’t think the Chinese side ever had any intentions of closing the US consulate in Chongqing on their own, but after the US decided unilaterally to close China’s consulate in Houston, they had no choice but to respond in kind. I hope at some point somebody on the US realizes that every action will be met with an equal reaction. Isn’t this a law of physics? I wish that the American side would realize that we’re not going to reduce tensions by creating more tensions.

In addition to those related to COVID-19, there have been an increasing number of false allegations and conspiracy theories in the US around Chinese students and scholars acting as spies for their government. With the development of the Internet, when people can “see what they want to see”, the troubling gap of communication between different groups is also likely to widen day by day. What do you think is the best way to encourage the Chinese and American people to view China-US relations in a rational and comprehensive way? What can young people do?

This is a huge issue in the US anyway, not just in the field of US-China relations, but in a lot of fields. There’s so much misinformation and echo chambers on social media. People toss around ideas and they just get louder and louder. Like you said, people only really hear what they want to hear. You could have one idea that starts off relatively benign and then it gets tossed and becomes a hurricane. As a society on a domestic level, we don’t have a solution yet. So, it’s hard to say how we can solve that problem from a bilateral relations perspective. However, continuing to have an academic interest in each other’s countries is still a great thing. Even if we can’t travel to countries, having some venue for educational exchange on grassroots can be something strong just to keep the connection alive.

So currently, what is your view on China’s global role? What kind of superpower would you think China will be based on your interpretation?

The prevailing view is that the US is the established superpower and China is the up-and-coming superpower. In my view, on a global level, China has actually been a responsible world power. I think there’s a lot of overstatement about how Chinese entities are acting in, say, Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Chinese companies overseas have been, for the most part, benign and not as big of a presence as some analysts have tried to say. I think most large Chinese companies make most of their money domestically while trying to maintain a marginal presence overseas. Ideas like the Belt and Road are great ideas to increase connectivity between countries. But in general, I really don’t see China as being an aggressive power overseas. I think it focuses on benign commercial relations.

Lastly, I would like to ask what inspired you to continue your pursuit of an education in advanced international studies?

Right. At Emory, I really enjoyed learning about specifically China’s role in the world and how that’s changing, and how China interacts with various countries, particularly the US. Working here has only deepened this interest. I’m excited to keep learning about this topic in even greater depth this fall when I start at SAIS.

Great to hear and thank you so much for the interview!