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Educating China’s Future Leaders: Local Impact of Global Knowledge

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Trans-Pacific View

Educating China’s Future Leaders: Local Impact of Global Knowledge

Insights from John Holden.

Educating China’s Future Leaders: Local Impact of Global Knowledge
Credit: China college students image via EQRoy /

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with John Holden – associate dean at Yenching Academy of Peking University, nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former president of the National Committee on United States’ China Relations, former chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Chamber of Commerce, Beijing, and advisor to Vermilion Partners, Ltd. as well as a number of philanthropic and educational organizations  – is the 55th in “The Rebalance Insight Series”.

In contributing to U.S.-China relations over several decades, you understand the complexity of bilateral relations. Identify three key challenges facing this relationship under a new U.S. presidency.

Continuity has been the hallmark of transitions between American administrations when it comes to U.S.-China relations. The next American administration will have to tackle the challenge of managing an increasingly complex and mutually dependent array of issues that has evolved over decades, and is not susceptible to radical restructuring. Whether that remains the case when the dust has settled from this election is especially difficult to say, but my bet is that the 45th American president’s approach to China will not be a drastic departure from that of her or his predecessor, the 44th.

It is useful to think of U.S.-China relations as falling into three baskets – bilateral, regional, and global. With trade in goods and services totaling $659.4 billion in 2015, and Chinese investment in the United States growing rapidly, the most important bilateral issue is clearly economics. It is essential that U.S.-China commercial relations proceed in ways that are fair – and are perceived to be fair – to both nations. This does not mean that trade or investment must be balanced, but that markets need to be open, flexible, and largely unfettered by trade distorting, mercantilist practices. Much work remains to be done by both countries to ensure that their trading and investment relationships are healthy.

The regional dimension of U.S.-China relations is the most troubled. In the Asia-Pacific, China’s territorial disputes with American allies have spotlighted shifts in the two countries’ relative power, and thrown into question whether they are operating with mutually incompatible ambitions. North Korea’s increasingly threatening behavior adds to concerns about security in Asia, and complicates the politics of the region.

The two countries’ relations are healthiest when global issues are at stake, whether they concern climate change, counterterrorism, health, or a host of other matters. While it has proven unrealistic to call their relationship a “G-2”, it is nonetheless true that many critical global issues would be unmanageable without cooperation between the United States and China.

I think that an ebb and flow in competition and cooperation between China and the United States is inevitable, for two reasons. First, trade and investment relations are continually adjusting to new technology and changes in relative competitiveness among nations. Second, it will be a major challenge for the United States, the incumbent global leader, and China, the rising power, to work out how to accommodate one another. Although the management of U.S.-China relations will not get easier, I do not accept the deterministic conclusion of Professor John Mearsheimer, who believes that China and America are destined for armed conflict. Rather, I side with China’s former Premier Zhu Rongji, who was fond of saying, “Sino-American relations will never get too good, nor will they ever get too bad.”

What is the role of education in strengthening U.S.-China relations?

Knowledge and understanding lie at the heart of all successful foreign policy. For the U.S. and China to maximize cooperation and minimize conflict, their actions must be founded on accurate knowledge and insight about one another, which implies that their leadership elites and opinion leaders need to be well educated about the other country. Given the many differences between China and the United States, this is not an easy goal to achieve. Sometimes this learning is achieved through the efforts of individual actors. I am reminded that it was not until James Sasser, a former senator, served as U.S. ambassador to China (1996-1999) that Chinese leaders fully grasped the significance of Congress’s role in the American system.

Educational institutions have enormous roles to play: academic study leads to in-depth understanding, which can mitigate the negative influence of today’s swift but superficial information flows. An American who is familiar with Chinese history and politics has the ability to see the latest news flash in context, as would a Chinese whose knowledge of the United States is grounded in an understanding of American history and politics.

How are both countries cultivating current and future generations of leaders who can steer this relationship in a constructive direction?

Significant efforts are underway. For example, U.S. President Barack Obama has set a goal of having one million Americans learning Chinese by 2020, and growing numbers of Chinese families are sending their children (over 300,000) to the United States to study. The number of Americans studying in China is considerably lower (just over 13,000), but partly in response, Chinese universities have been creating programs to attract them. One example is the Yenching Academy of Peking University, which provides full scholarships for high achieving students to pursue a graduate degree in China Studies.

Yet, more can be done. I would like to see China relax the rules that prevent young foreigners from seeking employment there. This would allow them to consolidate and practice their language and cultural skills, benefiting these young people and the Chinese companies where they would work.

Explain differences and similarities between Chinese and American concepts of leadership.

Both countries are large and diverse. I’ve observed as many different styles of management in China as I have in the United States; they range from autocratic to consensual, and from effective to dysfunctional. Oftentimes what may seem to be cultural differences can better be explained by how power in leaders’ organizations or governments is structured. Nevertheless, there are differences in emphasis. To broadly generalize from my observations, people in China are accustomed to think that leaders should be decisive and “strong,” and tend to view a consultative leadership style as ineffective.

How might the next U.S. administration more effectively facilitate people-to-people diplomacy between the United States and China?

Americans and Chinese make friends with one another easily, and any program that brings them together is to be encouraged; there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations, which can so effectively break down stereotyping and facilitate deeper understandings. But the impact of such encounters is limited to the individuals involved, and to those that they in turn influence. I would like to see the U.S. and China jointly develop programs that use the media – both traditional and social – to enable people-to-people diplomacy to reach broader audiences.  If the program participants felt able to discuss any and all subjects as individuals, unconstrained by official talking points, I believe that both countries would develop a more nuanced understanding of one another, and that the foundations of the relationship would be strengthened.