University delegation explores complexity and opportunity in China-U.S. relations
By Li Wenhan  ·  2024-02-26  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 29, 2024
An attendee of the Iowa caucuses is interviewed at Simpson College in Indianola, the United States, on January 14 (COURTESY PHOTO)

At minus 30 degrees Celsius, the bitter cold is more than just a number. Expose yourself to the cold for more than 10 minutes and your skin will start tingling and your eyelashes and hair will stiffen.

Since 1976, the U.S. state of Iowa has held caucuses, political party meetings to select U.S. presidential candidates every four years. The tradition, an important indicator of a candidate's likely success, usually takes place in the cold months of January or February. But January 15 this year saw voters head to the coldest caucuses ever, with wind chills falling as low as minus 34 degrees Celsius.

Nevertheless, the freezing gales could not dampen the fervor of attendees, nor did it deter a Chinese university delegation from observing the opening act of the U.S. presidential election.

Their visit, part of a 13-day educational tour of the United States, came at a time when both nations have recognized the urgent need to encourage more people-to-people exchanges to mend a relationship that has frayed over the years.

Political distance

The delegation led by Xie Tao, Dean of the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), consisted of six students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, who came from diverse academic backgrounds, ranging from language learning to political science.

Their journey was part of BFSU's new initiative, BFSU Going Global, designed to promote international study tours and broaden students' horizons. Xie selected six students from a pool of over 70 applicants, all with a keen interest in U.S. culture and politics.

Arriving at the student center on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola on January 14, where Donald Trump was scheduled to hold a rally, the delegation joined about 40 people already waiting in the biting cold. Once inside, it took another 2.5 hours for Trump to make his appearance.

Reflecting on the experience, Xu Chengcheng, an area studies student in the delegation, noted the palpable excitement and fervor among Trump supporters, marked by their loyalty and passionate "USA! USA!" chants. During Trump's speech at the rally, a handful of hecklers, one of whom stood next to Wang Jingli, a diplomacy student, protested with a banner reading "Trump Climate Criminal."

As the protesters were quickly escorted out of the room, Trump told them to "go home to mommy."

"Trump handled the incident in a calm manner," Wang told Beijing Review.

Despite the historical blizzard, approximately 800 people were in attendance. Based on their on-site observations, both Xu and Wang believed that neither of the other two Republican candidates, Ron DeSantis (who on January 21 dropped out of the 2024 presidential race and went on to endorse frontrunner Trump) and Nikki Haley, stood a chance against Trump in Iowa.

The group attended rallies for all three candidates that day. Trump's rally outshone those of DeSantis and Haley. "Haley's speech resembled a TED talk, focusing on feel-good messages, while her rally lacked the fervor of Trump's," Xu told Beijing Review. DeSantis, on the other hand, failed to make a strong impression altogether.

The rallies caused some concern among the delegation, as their Chinese faces really stood out in the crowd and especially given all three candidates mentioned China. Trump's pamphlet listed "stopping China from owning America" as one of his top policy priorities. At Haley's rally, she mentioned China just as they walked in. DeSantis spoke briefly about stopping China from buying land in Florida.

"In any case, the people there were friendly. Many of them attempted to engage in conversation with us," Xu noted.

Xie, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University in Chicago and had spent six years living and studying in the U.S., emphasized the importance of firsthand observation in understanding U.S. politics.

"Studying U.S. politics requires immersing oneself in the U.S. and feeling its heartbeat. Despite studying U.S. politics, I had never attended a presidential primary or caucus before. I need to observe this [process] firsthand at least once in a lifetime," Xie told Beijing Review.

Outdated perceptions

After a few days of assessing the vibrant political scene in Iowa, the delegation's trip led them to a different discovery—the cultural echoes between the two nations. During conversations with local academics and students, it became apparent that while China's interest in the U.S. was up to date, the American cultural curiosity about China seemed to hum a nostalgic tune.

During their visit to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the group encountered an undergraduate student who had picked up some standard Chinese and expressed a deep interest in Chinese culture. She shared that Emory offers a course on films in China, highlighting films such as revered Chinese director Zhang Yimou's 1987 classic Red Sorghum and Jiang Wen's 1994 In the Heat of the Sun.

The former is about a young woman's struggle as the head of a rural distillery for sorghum liquor in east China in the 1930s and the brutal realities of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). Adapted from parts of Chinese Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's eponymous novel, the film marked Zhang Yimou's directorial debut as well as the acting debut of film star Gong Li.

The latter movie, then, weaves a tale of young romance against the backdrop of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in Beijing.

The selection surprised the Chinese students, sparking a reflection on the cultural lenses through which China is viewed abroad. "These films seem somewhat disconnected from present-day China," Wang said, pondering whether they reflect genuine American interest or are valued more as subjects for academic analysis. She jokingly suggested that the American student might recommend an update to the university's Chinese film list.

But because there is curiosity, there is hope for more mutual understanding. "Engaging with us has made many students want to visit China. We all expressed an interest in learning more about each other's countries," Wang said.

Xu echoed Wang's sentiments and appreciated the warmth they received. "Americans, especially students with a background in Chinese studies or those planning to visit China, show a more nuanced appreciation for China," she said.

A frigid policy

When the delegation landed in Chicago, fatigue was to be expected after a 13-hour flight, but what followed was rather unexpected. They were taken aside for additional questioning by immigration officials, a process that lasted nearly three hours.

According to Xie, the immigration officer was professional throughout, never veering into hostility, and it seemed more protocol than personal. The questions were polite, but the scrutiny seemed to belie recent diplomatic overtures stressing the importance of people-to-people exchanges.

Before leaving, he asked the officer why he had been pulled aside. The answer was simple: They were a group of Chinese students. Xie picked up on a sense of heightened vigilance regarding Chinese students in the U.S.

The backdrop to this is the now-defunct China Initiative. In 2018, the Trump administration launched this initiative to investigate allegations that U.S.-based scientists were transferring advanced technologies to China. Academics criticized the program for chilling scientific cooperation and deterring Chinese academics from moving to or staying in the U.S.

Although the policy was scrapped in 2022 under President Joe Biden, its impact seemingly lingers.

Xie appealed to U.S. law enforcement to treat Chinese students with hospitality and fairness because they are "friends of America and go there to study." Unwarranted investigations and deportations only serve to sever these vital connections, i.e., the people-to-people exchanges that are the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.

(Print Edition Title: Getting a Close-Up) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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