Media coverage of President Obama's Shanghai Town Hall meeting with Chinese students has focused on the policy issues the President discussed: the need for U.S.-China cooperation on clean energy, climate change, human rights, and American's changed approach to foreign policy. But the media is missing the deeper message of the event, that building bridges between young people in both countries is the key to a positive U.S.-China relationship in the future.
The Shanghai Town Hall meeting with Chinese students was President Obama's only non-governmental event during his China trip. The fact that he chose Chinese youth as his audience made young people the verbal and visual focus of his remarks. He was right to do so, because young people represent the future of China and of the U.S-China relationship.
This decision was, in many ways, a risky one. Chinese college students today are not the pro-democracy activists of 1989. Nationalism is on the rise, and today's Chinese youth feel suspicion as well as admiration for the United States. But trying to build connections between these young people and the United States has major political and diplomatic importance.
Getting the U.S.-China relationship right in the 21st century is the most important foreign policy matter for each country, and probably the entire planet, given China's ever-growing power and importance in the world. Our governments are working to improve U.S.-Chinese cooperation, recognizing that virtually no large global problem will be solvable without it.
But as the President told the Chinese students in his opening remarks, "cooperation must go beyond our government." And President Obama was specific where this broader cooperation must be rooted. "[T]hese bridges must be built by young men and women just like you and your counterparts in America ... I'm absolutely confident that America has no better ambassadors to offer than our young people."
Thus, President Obama announced that the United States would increase the number of American students studying in China to 100,000. This is a step in the right direction. But the best way to build bridges between young people in China and the United States is to develop youth-to-youth interactions that go beyond conventional and expensive educational exchanges, instead engaging us with real policy issues, like those that Chinese youth and the American president discussed.
As an immediate follow-up to the summit, there should be an effort to set up new forums that call on young people in both countries to bridge differences and think seriously about the problems that will, as Obama said, determine the future of the world. It is not fanciful to imagine that teams of university students from both countries could help chart the way for joint approaches to addressing climate change, education, pandemics, and perhaps even national security issues. Groups of students from the U.S. and China could share ideas, look for common ground, and propose solutions that reflect the perspectives of both countries.
There are some small-scale precedents for these kinds of activities. In high school, I founded a small organization that worked to build bridges between young people in China and the United States through online policy-oriented exchange, and the eagerness of the participants impressed me enormously. Even largely pedagogical Model United Nations programs, popular on campuses across the country, have led students to analyze policy in remarkably sophisticated ways.
Friends of mine in China have impressed on me that the lives and concerns of young people in our two countries are quite similar, despite the profound dissimilarity of the societies in which we have grown up. Promoting collaborative thinking about policy issues by American and Chinese young people could have a positive effect on the two countries' future relationship, as well as potentially lengthening the view of today's policymakers. We may not have the full knowledge, experience and wisdom of our elders, but we have ideas to contribute in the search for common ground -- and the policy issues facing our two countries address the world that we young people are about to inherit.
If, as President Obama said, there are "no better ambassadors" than our young people, then we should start developing an ambassadorial portfolio that includes policy exchanges suitable to our junior status but also fully reflecting what we have to contribute.