The Voices of Chinese Students

Oct 20, 2023

Back in China for the first time in nearly seven months to speak at a forum at Nankai University in Tianjin, I set aside some time to meet with a small group of economics and international relations grad students. I was particularly curious to hear what was on their minds regarding the Chinese economy and the US-China relationship. Our discussions were open-ended and candid, with five very interesting conclusions:

  • First, their views on the economy were heavily influenced by China’s Covid shock—from the initial outbreak in early 2020 to the draconian rolling lockdowns that persisted through late 2022. Nearly a year after the end of China’s Zero Covid policy regime, the students stressed the likelihood of a long period of post-Covid scarring that could have lasting impacts on the behavioral norms of their communities—on campus as well as in their hometowns. As one student put it, “After Covid-19, I feel almost shattered by a new sense of insecurity that probably won’t ever go away.”
  • Second, there was great concern over the youth unemployment. When I queried the group over their job prospects post grad school, the room grew silent. One student finally spoke up and said, “there is greater opportunity now in working for the government or going back ‘down country’ to the farms.” The subtext, of course, was the inference that private sector job prospects were especially discouraging in looking to the future—notwithstanding recent government policy initiatives to address this problem. One of the students longed for “the old days of 10% growth to provide better choices for human development.“
  • Third, the students were perplexed and disturbed by the US-China conflict. To them, the root cause of this conflict is traceable in large part to the contrast between two very different political systems. China’s one-party system, they argued, was less about contentious internal debate and more about the uniformity of consensus support. A polarized US, they countered, was more prone to sharp divergences of opinion between two political extremes that emphasized the lightening rod issues of internal conflict over compromise.
  • Fourth, and related to the third point, the Nankai students blamed a conflict-prone US for the worrisome escalation of tensions between our two nations. China was seen as largely an innocent victim of an increasingly hostile US government. The students took the view that the US always “feels it needs to be number one”—unwilling to accept the possibility that anyone else might present a legitimate challenger to the hegemon.
  • Fifth, the students placed considerable weight on the potential role of national leaders in resolving conflict between the US and China. They recognized that political pressures in both systems might prevent leaders from “seeming to appear weak in taking the first step” to offer compromise proposals. They admitted this was probably true for leaders in most countries, including China and the US. That concurred with a point I stressed in Accidental Conflict that leadership in conflict resolution may ultimately be an act of political courage.

Obviously, I hesitate to generalize on the basis of sentiments expressed by a small group of eleven grad students at China’s highly regarded Nankai University. But many of their points were very well taken. I pushed back on their notion of one-sided blame, stressing arguments in my book that found both nations equally culpable of embracing the false narratives that at lie at the heart of the US-China conflict. However, as noted in the fourth point above, the students saw China as more of a victim than an instigator of tensions with its once friendly partner.

As I walked outside after our meeting, I was in a large quad centered around an imposing statue of Zhou Enlai, Nankai’s most famous graduate. The deep-thinking Premier Zhou did, in fact, exercise great courage in the early 1970s in negotiating with Henry Kissinger. I found myself wondering what it might take to recapture that spirit today.

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