On-campus diplomacy

With a large Chinese student population, we should take the opportunity to be citizen diplomats.

by Ian J Byrne

Walking around campus, one might notice that there are quite a lot of Chinese students.

In October, the Minnesota Daily published an article titled, “U sees surge in Chinese enrollment.” According to the article, Chinese undergraduate enrollment at the University of Minnesota increased from 22 students to 570 between 2005 and 2009. According to 2009 figures, Chinese students comprised about one-third of the UniversityâÄôs international student population. Fall 2010 enrollment statistics have not been officially released, but a source privy to the statistics said that the number of Chinese students enrolled at the University last fall, both undergraduate and graduate, stood at about 1,700.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, speaking about U.S.-China relations on a recent episode of the Charlie Rose Show, said that “the key longer term [is] understanding people from a heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind standpoint.” He stressed the need for more cultural exchanges and noted that China has 130,000 students studying in the U.S., recently surpassing India with the highest number of students here.

At the end of January, President Barack Obama hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao for an official state visit. During a joint press conference, the two presidents cited the importance of increasing interaction between Chinese and American young people. Obama spoke of efforts to increase the number of American students studying in China to 100,000. Hu said, “The young people hold the future of this relationship.”

With an already-large Chinese student population, the University community doesnâÄôt need to wait for Obama and HuâÄôs pledges of greater cultural interaction to manifest. We have the opportunity to engage with ChinaâÄôs business leaders, innovators and politicians of tomorrow right now.

As China is a rising power, there is bound to be some friction between the U.S. and China. Tensions do exist due to ChinaâÄôs currency manipulation and increasing military bravado. ThatâÄôs not to mention human rights, which even Hu said need to improve.

The U.S. has the right to be irked by the Chinese position regarding those issues. But this demonstrates the need to create and take advantage of opportunities for dialogue between the people of our two nations. The better we know each other, the easier itâÄôs going to be to smooth over differences and have a constructive relationship that benefits both sides.

Zicheng Li, a University psychology major from Beijing, sees getting to know American students as an indispensable part of his education but expressed a bit of frustration about doing so.

“I still feel that there is something between us, maybe the cultural difference, maybe the way we think is different. I donâÄôt know what it is yet,” he said.

Alex Renner, a global studies and Asian languages and literature sophomore, is off to Tianjin, China next year through the UniversityâÄôs International Reciprocal Student Exchange Program. He has become friends with many Chinese students, even working to help create the Chinese American Network, a student group that aims to foster closer ties between Chinese and American students on campus.

He shared LiâÄôs sentiment, saying that it can be hard for a lone American to approach and befriend Chinese students because they hang out in groups.

“I think that there needs to be a sense of integration from the very start, whether that be new student orientation or even living situations,” he said.

Zhenqing Zhang, a political science doctoral candidate, studied at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies after receiving his undergraduate degree. The program paired American and Chinese students in the dorms and required that American students conduct their coursework in Chinese and Chinese students conduct theirs in English. Zhang said the help he gave and received with his roommate from New Hampshire was an unforgettable learning experience.

A Living Learning Community that aims to house Chinese and American students together would be a great addition to the UniversityâÄôs housing options. I imagine there are plenty of Chinese students looking to improve their English and learn about the U.S. from an American roommate, and vice versa.

Housing and Residential Life does offer a Living Learning Community called Students Crossing Borders that houses about 130 students. The community lets local and international students room together. Considering there are French, Italian and Spanish language communities, the fact that a Chinese language community does not exist implies that weâÄôre missing out on a great opportunity.

Zhang said that when he first arrived at the University in 2001, it was a nightmare. At the time, he was the only Chinese graduate student studying political science.

“I realized my value as I reached out to the community outside my department,” he said. “I participated in the local Chinese-American community, speaking to local residents in Minneapolis about China.”

While a government can be anonymous, we must remember that it is people who make up the government. We must realize the opportunity that we here at the University have to foster the future of U.S.-China relations and realize it is as easy as saying “hello.”

“A solid country-to-country relationship is not only about senior leaders shaking hands with each other [but] about the exchange between common people, particularly the youth,” Zhang said. “I believe that I am a tiny but integral part of this great enterprise.”

We should all work to be part of that great enterprise.


Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at [email protected]