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Society & Culture

Chinese Students in America

Nov 11, 2022

The 1990’s were a fruitful period for Chinese academics writing about America. The scholar Wang Huning, now a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, published “America versus America” in 1991 after six months “observing” American political culture while visiting college campuses in California, Iowa, Michigan, and other parts of the United States. 

In 1996, the polemical, “The China That Can Say No,” co-authored by Song Qiang and several others, came out to a mix of controversy and acclaim. Modeled after the similarly incendiary “The Japan That Can Say No,” published by Ishihara Shintaro and Morita Akio of Sony, fame it was a hit. 

Yet despite the leftist, xenophobic leanings that hit a raw nerve at the time, the authors of this anti-American book had trouble with the authorities and the book ended up being banned in China. 

“Chinese Students Encounter America,” which came out in 1996, was also an instant bestseller, and continues to enjoy relevance to this day. The book, written by Qian Ning, son of former Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, has lasting value precisely because it is an exquisitely balanced and well-rounded take on a difficult bilateral topic. 

Qian spent five years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, studying and teaching, while conducting surveys of Chinese students. 

He recounts that the traditional Chinese mindset “is to try to convince people of what is right and what is wrong.” He knows the didactic and moralistic side of Chinese political culture well, having grown up in the Cultural Revolution, but he credits his American education for changing this mindset. He does his best to take both Chinese and American views into account because “China needs information and communication, not hasty judgments.” 

Wang Huning’s writing also exhibits a similar scholarly discipline, if not humility. He too expresses the desire to present facts instead of lofty ideas, but his writing style is dry and his work remains bound by a kind of social science technical jargon. Still, it is to Wang’s credit that he couches his conclusions with the admission that he has not seen the whole forest but only some of the trees. 

Qian Ning later went into consulting and wrote a novel set in the Qin Dynasty. But it is his seminal 1996 work that is especially valuable to consider in light of the precipitous downturn in current Sino-American relations. He doesn’t have an answer to today’s seemingly intractable problems, but I do believe he’s found the tone appropriate to the task. The political radicalization and hardening of party lines on both sides mirrors the deleterious effect that the echo chamber of social media has on its audience. 

What used to constitute an exchange of ideas has become a take-no-prisoners call to arms, in which each side takes a position, doubles-down on that position, digs in and hardens the position, all the while surrounding the bastion with a chorus of voices in support of that position. 

Dialogue is near impossible in such circumstances. The dialectic of battling ideas, which under more conciliatory circumstances could help both sides grow and attain a new synthesis drawing on the comparative strengths of competing schools of thought, is dead on arrival. There is no growth, learning curve, cooperation or harmony. Nuance and tender feelings for people on the other side have been jettisoned in the struggle. 

Consider how Qian shows a willingness to question some of the ideological baggage he brought from China to America. “All too easily we come to accept without question everything in our society as ‘normal.’ Our encounter with another society reveals to us the limitations of our own.” 

But Qian is far from a convert to the American way of seeing things, for that too, has its idiosyncrasies and inherent limitations. 

He notes that the democratic system “Americans see as the model for the world is just one case, and perhaps a very special case.” He is unafraid to note that he sees American exceptionalism among his own colleagues at Michigan. “This American prejudice can be found in the work of American scholars who enjoy ‘academic freedom’ and in the supposedly objective U.S. mass media.” 

Well said. 

His interviews with U.S.-based Chinese students produced a wealth of pithy observation: 

“Sure, America is free, but nobody cares about you either.” 

“America is a pitiless society that has no sympathy for failures.” 

On the other hand, what an opportunity it was for students of his generation to cross borders and experience freedoms unknown at home. He cites the case of one young Chinese woman who had been expelled from her Chinese university for being caught in her boyfriend’s room. After coming to America she realized that she wasn’t a bad person but an individual with legitimate feelings and rights despite the attitudes of Chinese society. The same goes for homosexuals from China who found acceptance in the U.S. that eluded them at home. 

Qian notes with irony that many of the Chinese students who petitioned for protected status after 1989 (ostensibly for fear of persecution) returned to China immediately after getting their green cards! 

He has a point about the often insular nature of Chinese students abroad. “They live within a small, closed Chinese community that is not open….yet they cherish a feeling of superiority over their fellow Chinese.” 

Qian’s study plans were delayed by June 4, 1989, which he pithily describes as follows: 

“It shook Beijing, made the rest of China tremble and sent shock waves throughout the world…” 

He perceptively adds that “the tragedy of the Chinese student democratic movement overseas is…having only a partial understanding of western thought, yet also filled with ideas and ways of acting learned during the struggles of the Cultural Revolution.” 

Despite serious worry that few Chinese were returning to their homeland in the 1990s, Qian presciently noted that it was too soon to say how things would play out. 

“In this world made ever smaller by science and technology, China cannot be said to have lost these students either. They will make their contributions to Chinese development in the future.” 

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