For the youth of China and the US, there’s no better time to study abroad and break down walls

Curtis Chin says young minds in the US and China need exposure to other viewpoints. While studying overseas has many benefits, efforts can also be made at home to understand all who lead different lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 6:39pm

Understanding begins with engagement. With that in mind, as 2017 unfolds, there is certainly more reason for greater US-China engagement, and, for that matter, engagement between Hong Kong and the mainland. This should include greater study abroad and student exchange programmes, as well as investments in evaluating and improving schools and teachers.

Last year, we saw rising levels of both anti-China and anti-US rhetoric on opposite sides of the Pacific. As the US election year unfolded, China lost an international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, and Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines. The aspirations of Hong Kong’s young people also gained global attention as youth activists took to the streets and, through elections, to the city’s Legislative Council.

The year ahead may well prove equally tumultuous, as the incoming US president Donald Trump threatens to revisit, if not overturn, accepted diplomatic protocols of the past. Tensions also continue to simmer over Beijing’s role in the selection of Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

Far away from the geopolitics, here is one suggestion towards greater long-term understanding. If the young are to inherit the Earth, then more effort and resources should be dedicated to ensuring our youth better understand one another – both at home and abroad.

Chinese and other foreign students threatening to crowd out Americans at elite US colleges

In our increasingly connected world, the right study-abroad programme can increase understanding of another culture and view, help with learning a second language, and give one a step up in a competitive workplace. By going abroad, students may also return with a greater appreciation of their own homes, including their rights and freedoms.

All this underscores the importance of America’s young people studying in China, and of China’s youth in turn studying in the US, given the importance of these two massive economies. Hongkongers and mainland Chinese should also make more effort to understand the on-the-ground realities that each other face, beyond the propaganda and official government rhetoric. Furthermore, expanded horizons need not always require moving or studying overseas. Indeed, there is much we can learn from one another within the United States, within China and even within tiny Hong Kong.

Divided Hong Kong is a perfect breeding ground for hatred and intolerance

In recent years, all three places have faced growing gaps between the rich and poor, and concerns about divisions and inequality. According to a common measure of income inequality known as the Gini coefficient, both Hong Kong and mainland China have some of the highest levels of inequality in Asia. Just as a student at a pricey private school in Manhattan might have little knowledge of the daily life of a struggling young person in an underfunded West Virginia neighbourhood school, so, too, there are young people living worlds apart within Hong Kong and certainly within mainland China.

The recent US presidential election underscored what seemed to be a growing divide between the urban and suburban and the rural, and between those who were benefiting from an increasingly globalised world, and those who saw themselves as being left behind.

Hongkongers and mainland Chinese should also make greater efforts to understand the on-the-ground realities that each other face

Government, business and civil society, and, most critically, educators and parents must come together to find a way for Americans, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese to better understand not just those overseas but also the lives of their fellow citizens.

There is a need for broadening what all students study and experience. This is true for high school students as well as those at college.

According to the latest “Open Doors” report of the Institute of International Education, only about 10 per cent of all US undergraduate students, including community college students, will study abroad by the time they graduate.

More than 313,000 US students studied abroad for academic credit in the 2014-2015 school year, based on the institute’s data, which was compiled with the support of the US State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. Some 22,000 other US students took part in non-credit work, internships and volunteer programmes abroad.

More than half of these students who studied abroad went to Europe, with about a third in the UK, Italy and Spain. France, Germany and Ireland attracted another 13 per cent combined. Some 4 per cent go to China, and 2 per cent to Japan.

The fact that 90 per cent of all US undergraduate students enrolled in the country’s higher education institutions are graduating without any international experience suggests there is some way to go in increasing young Americans’ exposure to other cultures and points of view.

Growing numbers of Hong Kong high school students applying for US universities – and paying thousands for ‘college prep’ tutoring

Advantages to be had for Hongkongers choosing to study in mainland China

Meanwhile, though Chinese students are going abroad in ever greater numbers, there is still room for growth. In the 2015-2016 academic year, 328,547 students from China were studying in US colleges and universities, according to Institute of International Education.

Today, even as young people explore the possibility of college or the chance to study abroad, let us also recommit to increasing their understanding of their own home regions or countries. That includes understanding racial, cultural and economic diversity, and the challenges that everyday people face beyond the worlds of the elite.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin