The Debate

Want to Reset China-US Relations? Bring Back Fulbright China

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion | East Asia

Want to Reset China-US Relations? Bring Back Fulbright China

Restoring the Fulbright Program could be a gateway to alleviating tensions and closing the China expertise gap.

Want to Reset China-US Relations? Bring Back Fulbright China
Credit: Depositphotos

The recent meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in California was heralded as an initial attempt to thaw relations. As part of that broader effort, both sides expressed interest in expanding educational exchanges. China’s announced goal of hosting 50,000 U.S. students in the next five years looks wildly ambitious compared to the current 211 Americans studying in mainland China today, but ten years ago, as many as 15,000 studied there annually. 

The drastic decline of American students in China is creating an expertise gap that threatens the United States’ long-term ability to navigate the complexities of the China-U.S. geopolitical landscape. If the Biden administration wants to bridge this gap, success hinges on increasing the number of Americans with firsthand experience in the country. Restoring the prestigious Fulbright China Program would be a significant step in this direction.

In 2020, then-U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order that, while appropriately abolishing Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law in response to China’s passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law, also terminated the Fulbright China Program, a detail buried in the order’s fine print. While China’s actions in Hong Kong demanded an American response, abolishing the Fulbright China Program undermined a critical diplomatic tool. 

The impact was twofold. First, it severed a critical channel of cultural and educational exchange that has acted as a bridge between the peoples of the United States and China since 1979. This exchange transcends academic collaboration; it embodies a subtle yet potent form of diplomacy, nurturing understanding in times when, as China’s ambassador to the United States recently noted, the bilateral relationship confronts “severe challenges” and faces a long road toward stabilization and improvement. 

Second, suspending the Fulbright China Program hinders the United States’ ability to cultivate in-depth expertise on China. Alumni of the program continue to have a profound impact on advancing American foreign policy and national security. Journalist Megha Rajagopalan earned a Pulitzer Prize for her work exposing Xinjiang internment camps. Current National Security Council staffer Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game” is a significant assessment of Chinese grand strategy in recent years. Fulbright China alumni are also go-to resources for Congress, providing testimony on Chinese policy in fields from cybersecurity and surveillance to energy and human rights. Reinstating the program will reestablish this vital pipeline of expertise, which will be indispensable for future administrations to tackle national priorities – such as enhancing cooperation to address climate change – and all Americans who rely on savvy foreign policy strategies.

It was back-to-back world wars that led the U.S. Congress to pass the Fulbright Act in 1946 as an alternative to constant military conflict, a move that has enjoyed long-standing bipartisan support. Restoring the Fulbright Program can provide a gateway to alleviate tensions and close the China expertise gap. Fortunately, Biden can do that with the stroke of a pen by overriding the section of the executive order that terminated the program.

In the midst of warming relations, championing the Fulbright China Program’s revival isn’t just a wise move – it’s an opening to reset relations with cooperation, competition, and scholarly exchange as the guiding principles.

Guest Author

Colleen O’Connor and Elizabeth M. Lynch

Colleen O'Connor is a former Fulbright China Scholar and a leader of the Protect Fulbright China Coalition, a grassroots organization advocating for the reinstatement of Fulbright China.

Elizabeth Lynch is a former Fulbright China Scholar, a legal services attorney in New York, the founder of China Law & Policy, and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Elizabeth has been published by Foreign Policy, Washington Post, The China Project, U.S.-Asia Law Institute, HuffPost, and more.

Edmund Downie, Laurel Schwartz, and Amanda Henck Schmidt contributed to this article.

The authors and contributors are all China Fulbright alumni and/or are members of the Protect Fulbright China Coalition, a grassroots organization of over 100 China Fulbright alumni advocating to restore the Fulbright Greater China Program.