REPORT: Finding Firmer Ground: The Role of Higher Education in U.S.-China Relations

The Carter Center China Focus is pleased to announce the publication of its third issue of the Finding Firmer Ground report series. This latest issue, titled “Finding Firmer Ground: the Role of Higher Education in U.S.-China Relations,” details the past, present, and future of U.S.-China educational exchange. Elucidating both the merits and challenges of such exchange, it offers important recommendations for the United States as it seeks to compete and collaborate with China in the realm of higher education.

To download a full copy of the report please click here. The preface of the report, authored by Elizabeth Knup, can be found below.


Elizabeth Knup is the Ford Foundation’s regional director in China.

Today we find ourselves in a world beset by existential challenges that can only be solved through collective global action, including fundamental questions of war and peace, human migration and displacement, climate change, and pandemic response and preparedness. As we seek to solve these challenges, distinct national interests that are mutually misunderstood or insufficiently articulated drive greater global divergence and undermine the power of diplomacy and compromise to achieve solutions in the interest of the greater good.

In the face of such enormous challenges, the act of studying abroad may seem small and inconsequential. But, as the papers collected in this report, “Finding Firmer Ground: The Role of Higher Education in U.S.-China Relations,” conclude, the awareness, knowledge, and empathy gained through the act of studying abroad are critical underpinnings of stable international relations and contribute to reducing misunderstanding, enhancing clear interest articulation, and strengthening the power of formal and informal diplomacy in the pursuit of global peace and security. While these papers focus on educational exchange aimed at deepening American and Chinese understanding of each other, the lessons drawn can, and should, be applied more broadly.

The clear, well-researched, and comprehensive analysis in this collection spans nearly two centuries. Chronologically, the papers begin with Li Hongshan’s exploration of the history and legacy of U.S. missionaries and higher education in China in the 1830s. Tom Gold provides a detailed history and analysis of American investment in centers for the study of Chinese language and culture in Taiwan and Hong Kong beginning in the early 1960s. And a set of papers by Paul Bell, Julia Chang Bloch, Robert Daly, Cheng Li, and the Committee of 100, examine the rise of academic exchange between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, beginning with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979. Yongling Gorke’s analysis of the history, role, and impact of Confucius Institutes in the United States provides an antidote to dominant narratives on this topic and reveals the complexity of implementing educational exchange models. Kathryn Johnson and Amy Hebert Knopf explore the merits of educational exchange with China for those with disabilities. And, finally, Ma Yingyi, along with Miao Lu and Mei Qu, elucidate the diverse motivations for study abroad that help explain what drives students on both sides.

An exploration of educational exchange focused on the United States and China cannot avoid a recognition of the political dimensions of this exchange across the centuries, and these papers do not shy away from this reality. At the same time, the authors in this volume resoundingly conclude that the tendency toward politicization of academic exchange should be resisted and that the clear benefits to both societies far outweigh any perceived risk that could accompany increased openness.

Mutual understanding is never as easy as it sounds. And some may believe that the era for pursuing mutual understanding between the United States and China has passed. What these papers reveal is that consistent efforts to create knowledge and engender empathy have long been part of the U.S.-China relationship and that these efforts have resulted in a long period of peace and stability for both countries. Now is the time to strengthen this critical dimension of the U.S.-China relationship.