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Not Child's Play: The S&ED and U.S.-China Youth Exchanges

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On Tuesday, the United States and China marked the end of the first round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with a communique discussing progress made in the crucial areas of diplomatic, military, economic, and environmental cooperation. Importantly, the two sides did not overlook "cultural and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation, particularly youth exchanges..."

This singling out of "youth exchanges" is noteworthy and impressive. It shows that the United States and China recognize that promoting mutual understanding between young people in the two countries will lay the groundwork for a strong bilateral relationship during the next half-century and beyond. But what is the best way for the United States to conduct youth exchanges with China? Three types of youth-oriented interaction are most promising.

1. Traditional Exchanges
Traditional exchanges of young people -- sending U.S. students to China and Chinese students to the U.S., where they tour, study, or research -- are invaluable and must be expanded. The experience of seeing a country with one's own eyes can have a transformative effect on mutual understanding. My own experience of spending two high school summers and a gap year living in China confirmed to me that going to a foreign country plays a crucial role in gaining insight into that country's culture.

However, the reach of these physical exchange programs is limited, and they are expensive and complicated to organize. In the 2007-2008 academic year, the Institute of International Education reports that nearly 10,000 Americans were studying in China, an increase of over 25% from the previous year. But this is an unfortunately small portion of the nearly 16 million students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States. To expand the number of American high school and university students visiting and studying in China, both public and private institutions should increase funding for these exchanges. But they must do so with an additional goal in mind: instead of just visiting China's impressive tourist sites, young Americans in China should be encouraged to interact directly with their Chinese peers, many of whom speak excellent English (as I wrote in May, Premier Wen Jiabao has said that 300 million Chinese are studying English). Face-to-face interactions with Chinese youth is the most valuable exchange that can occur.

2. Language Training
The United States and China should accompany their focus on youth exchanges with a push to promote the most important activity that enables young Americans to understand and engage with China: language training. Language-learning experts agree that starting young increases the likelihood of reaching proficiency. And Chinese programs are increasingly popular in the United States. Last year, the Asia Society said that, in 2006, an estimated 51,582 students were learning Chinese at the higher education level, an increase of 52% from 2002, and that 779 Chinese programs exist at the K-12 level. These figures have likely only increased since then. The United States should make Chinese language learning by young Americans a centerpiece of its focus on developing a more positive relationship with China, not to mention preparing for our economic future.

3. Policy-Oriented Dialogue
Engaging young people in policy questions that the two countries face is an exciting third prospect for the "youth exchanges" pledged after the S&ED meeting. Many of the major issues addressed by the S&ED, from energy policy to economic cooperation, are profoundly important to today's youth. We are coming to realize that the United States and China are shaping the world that we will inherit--and we are informed stakeholders in these decisions.

Young people in the United States and China should be encouraged not only to learn about these policy questions, but also to discuss their opinions openly with each other and search for common ground and practical solutions. Face-to-face conferences and workshops, paralleling the policy collaborations typically undertaken by their elders, is a possibility--but an expensive one. In a low-cost and immediate way, the two countries could begin these exchanges online, perhaps through an interactive website with discussion boards, expert Q&As on important issues in U.S.-China relations, and suggestions for language learning. Indeed, the Internet makes this initiative easy. The two countries could also establish collaborative web-based efforts that would bring together American and Chinese college students interested in high-importance fields, such as environmental protection and financial savings patterns in both countries' households. These students could jointly learn about the relevant issues and make recommendations for effective cooperation. Such programs would benefit the U.S.-China relationship by building bridges between individuals and by preparing young people for vigorous engagement with China in the future.

Calling on young people to bridge differences and think seriously about issues may seem like a stretch, but adults sell us short at their peril. We are capable of such engagement when called upon. It is not fanciful to imagine that a team of university students from both countries could work together to issue reports that help chart the way for joint approaches to addressing climate change, energy, education, pandemics, and perhaps even national security issues. 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 participants to analyze policy in remarkably sophisticated ways. Promoting awareness and concrete involvement from American and Chinese young people would have a transformative effect on the two countries' future relationship, as well as potentially lengthening the view of the Dialogue's goals.

The prospects for engagement and bridge building between young people in the United States and China are remarkably positive. Many Chinese friends of mine have impressed on me that the lives and concerns of young people in China and the United States are quite similar -- not saving much money, having a hard time finding good jobs, and, most fundamentally, just wanting to lead happy, healthy, and interesting lives -- despite the profound dissimilarity of the societies in which we have grown up. If the United States and China can provide forums for these commonalities to emerge, mutual understanding that is positive, cooperative, and comprehensive will develop much more easily. And if the two countries can also encourage young people to participate in the major policy questions that the S&ED has declared must be addressed, the positive possibilities for the next half-century of U.S.-China affairs are, as the Chinese saying goes, as many as the hairs on an ox.