How the super-connected youth of China and America can build bridges
Austin Lowe calls on the millennials of both major countries to step up and work for positive change, not just at home but also for the bilateral relationship
This year, both the US and China are in the process of determining the future direction of politics in their countries, and in turn the future of US-China relations. The rise of Donald Trump has been seen as shocking to some and inevitable to others, given the currently divisive political climate in the US. Meanwhile, China also faces challenges that pose risks to its future.
What is the common element that will determine the futures of these two countries, and in turn the future of their relations? I and those of my generation are called millennials, and we have been characterised as entitled, lazy, narcissistic, entrepreneurial, well-educated and risk-averse, to name but a few traits. But I would prefer to call our generation, along with the technological tools at our disposal, the checks and balances of the 21st century.
While we certainly have our differences, American and Chinese millennials are much closer to each other than previous generations were, in our shared use of social media and access to the free flow of information, at least in the ways that our respective countries allow it. In China, more than 700 million people now access the internet. It is this very tide of voices that has enabled the rise of supposedly fringe political candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, and that resists censorship and challenges the government to act in China. Access to social media platforms allows us to question our leaders and build support for political movements. In both countries, political leaders must recognise the opinions and demands of this vocal population.
The question is how our generation in each country will use its position to effect positive change in our political systems. Domestically, we are both faced with economic uncertainty and the growing role of identity politics. One course of action would be to turn inward, a move chosen in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and reflected in the US in support for Trump’s policies. The Chinese government’s campaign against Western values in education is an example of such inward thinking.
Another option is apathy, which is no solution.
Millennials in the US must not become the generation to “lose China” by turning inward, for fear of the foreign or unknown. For a better future for both countries, a Trump presidency is not the solution, nor is the Chinese Communist Party’s current push to consolidate power. The right course of action is engagement.
There is no question that millennials will have a significant impact on the political future of both the US and China. According to a number of Pew Research Centre surveys, young people in the US and China are more likely to have a favourable view of the other country than the previous generation. This bodes well for the future of the bilateral relationship. In our increasingly globalised world, political engagement at home goes hand in hand with engaging the rest of the world.
A thorough understanding of China is necessary for engagement on an equal footing, and more US millennials should learn Putonghua and study in China to further this aim.
Likewise, China should not close off its society and limit the influence of Western values and ideas, and those of its own citizens. This would be folly; it does little good trying to hide the world from a generation that has studied abroad in the hundreds of thousands and continues to subvert government censorship on the internet in increasingly creative ways. Additionally, China must make more significant efforts to engage with the US and its people – not attempt to reduce the exposure of its students to Western values and ideas or pass laws that restrict the activity of foreign non-governmental organisations.
Both US and Chinese millennials must recognise our role as a force of checks and balances in our countries. We must reject apathy and participate in politics at home to improve transparency and effect positive change – both online and in person. We must do the same on the international level by engaging with our counterparts abroad to further cooperation and peace. Most importantly, we cannot accept the bellicose nationalism gaining traction in both countries as the future framework for the US-China relationship.
Austin Lowe is an MA candidate in the Asian Studies programme at Georgetown University