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Trump killed the China Fulbright program. Biden can bring it back

Keeping students from traveling overseas for even a year is undermining our understanding and appreciation of each other.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Last summer, President Trump terminated the China Fulbright Program using a provision buried in an executive order relating to Hong Kong. President Trump’s unilateral decision to cancel the China Fulbright Program in the context of escalating U.S.-China tensions has eliminated a crucial vehicle for soft power diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange.

As a China Research Fulbright recipient, I spent 14 months between 2018 and 2019 examining the social mobility of female migrant workers in China’s urbanizing labor market. I witnessed first-hand the intellectual exchange afforded by Fulbright. In ending the program, the U.S. has lost a uniquely valuable medium for U.S. and Chinese citizens to get to know one another, unburdened by media hysteria.

The elimination of the China Fulbright program, coupled with vitriolic ideological warfare aimed at asserting U.S. dominance, called into question the motivations of academics, researchers, and scholars. This decision by President Trump was lost in our 24-hour mainstream media coverage, with narratives of rising Cold-War tensions saturating the news cycle instead. By closing one of the only channels left for potent citizen engagement, the perceptions of both nations now rely on each government’s characterization of the other, bred in respective silos of self-interest.

This move was dangerous and politically charged. The Fulbright Program operates in 160 countries, with all other Asia-Pacific Fulbright Programs set to run in 2021 and beyond. The Trump administration’s decision was not strategic or accompanied by effective U.S. policies to challenge China’s growing influence — rather, it has stifled opportunities for apolitical cultural exchange. The unilateral decision has not only thwarted those seeking to advance their understanding of U.S.-China relations, but also threatened to truncate all academic discourse.

The decades-long relationship between Shaanxi Normal University — my host institution — and its Western counterpart was jeopardized as a result of Trump’s trade war. After President Trump raised tariffs on Chinese goods in May 2019, local Chinese Communist Party members visited my research center, took private meetings with my Chinese colleagues, and banned all foreigners from accompanying our research center in the field. This decision made Americans’ access to data and insights for the purposes of academic collaboration highly political. It was clear that mentalities and perspectives were changing. The divisiveness and skepticism sewn into the fabric of U.S.-China relations by the Trump administration has bled into academia, which for the sake of analytic integrity, should remain non-politicized.

The decision to end this program revealed the lack of responsible analysis in political and academic discourse regarding U.S.-China relations. It reflected a typical American misperception: the conflation of the CCP with the Chinese people. Sociocultural anthropology tells us that in times of societal strife, the realities of everyday people will reveal far more about their ruling parties than any textbook or op-ed.

The majority of Chinese people I encountered spoke relatively highly of President Trump. They viewed him as a businessman who, despite his consistent undermining of their country, had the potential to “make the U.S. economy strong,” which in fact would be good for China. Even as the trade war’s repercussions greatly strained my time in China, my Chinese colleagues viewed conflict with the U.S. as something temporary. They were more interested in sustaining and building a stronger U.S.-China relationship and saw America as a valuable partner.

But halting the Fulbright program even for only a year will undermine Americans’ understanding of China, given the speed with which China is changing. Each visit to China is unique, due to rapid urbanization, innovation, and development.

Having studied abroad in 2017 when cashless payments and ride-hailing had barely gained traction, returning two years later revealed vast differences in everyday life. With the role of WeChat, the explosion of waimai delivery apps, and the transition to a seemingly cashless economy, the interconnectedness of Chinese society was unlike anything in the U.S. This transformation was unaccounted for in the news and journal articles I read in preparation for my Fulbright experience. In my Xi’an apartment complex, elderly residents who had lived through the communist revolution resided in high-rises that resembled those of midtown Manhattan, used their smart-phones to buy produce from the local night market, and practiced the ancient meditation form of qigong in the town square by sunrise. These social dichotomies revealed the reality of an urbanizing Chinese society, invisible except through in-person observation, yet crucial for American policymakers to understand.

The characterization of communism as an existential threat is habitually used to embed fear among the American public, emboldening those in power to strong-arm foreign entities when politically advantageous, while they furtively benefit from ongoing economic relationships. The current rhetoric from both Republicans and Democrats reflects this fear mongering. As recently as the final presidential debate, President-elect Joe Biden promised that if he were elected he would ensure China “played by the international rules,” whatever those may be. U.S. foreign policy toward China consistently reflects the need to “take a stand” against China’s growing influence with militant urgency, and the discontinuation of the China Fulbright Program is an act that fuels this narrative. If we continually and publicly paint China as a “thug” that needs to be checked on the international stage, and subsequently reject cultural exchanges like Fulbright that seek to enrich Chinese people’s perceptions of Americans and vice versa, we leave the portrayal of the U.S. for the CCP to mold.

The Fulbright Program has been consistently questioned as an unnecessary use of taxpayer dollars and a wasteful academic pursuit. However, for decades it has remained funded by both Republican and Democratic congresses, fueled by the notion that Fulbright offers an invaluable opportunity for Americans to gain insights and engage in intellectually diverse conversations with individuals who view life through different lenses.

When governments demonize one another as the “largest threat of our time,” ordinary citizens are left without a means of person-to-person interaction and left only with the threat of the unknown. When scholarship is politicized, the seeds of autocracy are planted. Insecurities and misinformation can arise, quickly devolving into militant, reactionary policies which are the bedrock of the mindless wars and conflict all too familiar to the U.S.

More than ever the U.S. needs a program that promotes immersive experiences in China. In order to begin to understand Premier Xi Jinping and the CCP, we must seek to understand the inner workings of Chinese society and its people. When misinformation is the new normal and cross-cultural exchange and scholarship become impossible, this leaves the U.S. in a dangerous and vulnerable position.

Upon his inauguration in January, President-elect Joe Biden will be faced with the difficult task of managing U.S.-China relations and ensuring that the two countries do not spiral towards conflict. While this will require extraordinary work, bringing back the China Fulbright Program is a good place to start.

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