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Society & Culture

Why We Need a Fulbright China Program

Oct 09, 2020

In July, the Trump administration released “The Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization,” adding to a bevy of mounting sanctions the United States has levied against China in response to Beijing’s increased security measures toward Hong Kong. Buried in this order was the explicit cancellation of the Hong Kong and China Fulbright scholarship programs, effectively terminating the plans of the incoming Fulbright scholars expecting to conduct research in China or Hong Kong. In response to the Program’s cancellation, China Fulbrighters past and present—myself included—have rallied together to launch a pressure campaign with the aim of reinstating Fulbright in China next year. We have written letters to our congresspeople and members of the presidentially-elected Fulbright board, and have started an online petition to raise community support and awareness of this pressing issue. Ultimately, cutting off people-to-people exchange benefits neither side of the Pacific; instead it furthers the chasm between the world’s two largest economies. 

I was unlucky enough to be awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to China this year, with a proposal in the environmental sciences. China leads the pack both in climate destruction, topping the charts in greenhouse gas and carbon emissions last year, and climate change mitigation strategies. These twin features made China a compelling country for my research; I had planned to design and publish a hardware platform and software ecosystem in Beijing for a distributed environmental sensing network, which would have allowed onsite monitoring of greenhouse gas levels in the public domain. Beyond the climactic and collaborative conditions, China was a perfect location for my research for another reason: it’s a fount of inexpensive and easily-sourceable electronics components. For me, being in China—the world’s manufacturing capital and home to massive direct-to-consumer marketplaces like Taobao—would have streamlined the prototyping process immensely. With the support of my host institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, prototypes of these environmental sensing devices would have been disseminated throughout Beijing– in colleges, schools, and other public locations. The Trump administration’s move to cancel the scholarship prevented these plans from becoming a reality. 

What the current administration seems to disregard is that scientific research relies on collaboration, often across borders and continents. To my dismay, a number of my scientist colleagues in the US have recently been instructed by their grant managers not to collaborate on projects with Chinese nationals. While the protection of national security is of the utmost importance, a blanket ban on scientific collaboration with another country is counterproductive and even harmful to the US. Science necessarily needs open borders, and those closed off to collaboration will be left behind. Unfortunately, this and the cancelation of Fulbright China are both part of a larger agenda to divorce the US from China, without regard for the damage that decoupling may create. 

I was baffled to learn of the cancelation because the Fulbright Program is patently good for US interests in particular. The Fulbright Program chooses scholars not only for their intellectual aptitude and scholarly output, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for their capacity for civic involvement. In fact, plans for community engagement is even a dedicated response field in the application. The micro-diplomacy of my project amounted to a bilateral contribution to climate justice: all humans deserve to know that they are living in an environment that doesn’t harm them; or, at the very least, all humans deserve to know the status of their environment. Community engagement provides citizens in a given Fulbright recipient’s host country with counter-narratives to potentially-damaging home rhetoric regarding foreigners and Americans. In this case, Chinese that have hardened their stance towards the US lost an opportunity to find common ground with individuals from a competitive rival, and this is ultimately a lost opportunity on the part of the United States. At the end of the day, Fulbright is an effective soft-power tool for the US during a time of heightened tensions across the globe. 

In 1946, Senator J. William Fulbright’s vision to build bridges between peoples and nations created the Fulbright Program. By fostering networks of mutual understanding between citizens of the US and countries around the world, he hoped the program would mend and prevent further devastation caused from WWII. Within his philosophy, bilateral exchange programs would lessen cultural boundaries and facilitate foreign policy on a civilian level. While most Fulbright exchanges have been successful and gone uninterrupted ever since that opening year,, China’s has had a rocky history. After only three years of running, the US shut the program down in response to China’s civil war and the formation of Communist China. Senator Fulbright, true to his namesake program, tamped down US plans to invade China when Mao Zedong led China into the Korean War in 1950. Only following Richard Nixon’s diplomatic overtures in engaging with China at the beginning of the 1970s was China’s Fulbright exchange reborn in 1979. Trump’s July decision sends us back into the Dark Ages. 

Trump’s July edict prompted an uproar from China Fulbright alumni and beyond. To date, there are over 2400 signatures on our petition to reinstate the program in China. At a time when carrying out American initiatives that cross borders has become increasingly difficult, the unique opportunities created by the Fulbright program are more important than ever. It is because of the state of US-China relations today that Fulbright’s work is needed more, not less. In the words of our petition this summer: “Our government’s investments in the Fulbright program directly benefits American citizens through disproportionate returns in contributions to the fields of US. public service and academia. Terminating the Fulbright program risks irreversibly setting back progress in the fields of science, culture, and education that has often been made possible only through Fulbright’s unique capabilities and mission… and sets a dangerous precedent for academic institutions, international organizations, and businesses who have long relied on the U.S.-China relationship.” 

That China Fulbright Alumni from many eras were able to rally together and produce a collective call to action is proof that the Program is effective in cultivating active citizen diplomats. Many past China Fulbrighters have made their way onto the National Committee on US-China relations; congressional staff delegations; have provided testimony before the Foreign House Affairs Committee; have written award-winning books; are editors at major publication companies; hold high academic posts; and are directors of US-China institutes and think tanks. The decision to cancel Fulbright China not only does away with the most prominent international exchange program in our country, but also stems the pipeline of talented Americans who will shape its future. 

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