A year after the Obama administration pledged to send more of its students over to China, the Chinese capital has expressed it would love to gain an additional 129,000 foreign students over the next decade.
Beijing currently holds 71,000 foreign students in its universities and the new education plan is to increase that to 150,000 in 2015 and 200,000 by 2020. Look out, Wudaokou. The government is actively pursuing foreign exchangers in hopes it will increase the recognition of its universities internationally but they might not have to court America as much as other nations. China is already a popular study abroad destination for Americans and since last October, the US government has jumped in to encourage it even more.
It was one year ago to the day that I spoke with Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. I was studying Mandarin on a scholarship grant at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Campbell was visiting Beijing to, among other things, introduce Obama’s study exchange iniatiative. The US embassy had arranged a type of meet and greet and I was one of four students to talk with Campbell about the new campaign.
We were given twenty minutes and Campbell was lovely throughout, speaking about the pledge with a can of Coke in his hand. The basic gist? To see 400,000 American students sent to China over the next 5 years. And as to the reason why? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. You can’t possibly ignore something as massive as the China phenomenon. “What better message could we send China than to send our own children to live and study there?” Campbell asked.
The conversation in the room meandered for a while and he told us nice tidbits like how his daughter is best friends with Sasha Obama and he spoke proudly of his alma mater, UCSD. Then he was whisked away to field more questions at an official press conference. I followed into the next room to watch. October 2009 was a tense time for Sino-American relations because of North Korea’s nuclear foul play and Campbell was taking a lot of flack for it. Dart after dart was thrown by reporters and I watched him lean back away from the mic, brow furrowed. It was certainly a different atmosphere than what we had just been in, but in all honesty, it made the conversation we’d just had even more pertinent.
Despite the fact that the two behemoths, US and China, go head to head constantly, both powers it appears now understand that they need to understand each other better. They are partners whether or not by choice and exchange students on both sides are intrinsic to cooperation on an economic and political level.
“Growing educational exchanges can only help relations, says Zhu Feng, a professor of international studies at Peking University. “It’s the right time for both sides to take a more serious look at each other. Part of that is for ordinary people to understand what the U.S. is and what China is.”
So yes, part of that is lounging at Sculpting in Time cafes for hours on end, consuming copious amounts of Tsingtao beer and even those late-night bar crawls from Tongli Studios to South Sanlitun too.