Author Profile Author Profile Hui Wang Prof. Wang, of China Foreign Affairs university, conducted a pre-and-post election survey of her undergraduate students around the question of "What do Chinese youth think about the next U.S. president and Sino-U.S. relations? Included is her essay paired with two of her students' observations on the impact of the U.S. presidential election on this new generation of elite Chinese students, in training to become the country's future diplomats.
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Beijing on Barack Article

"Uncertainty & Excitement Among China's Students"

By Hui Wang


Beijing time: I still remember Nov. 5, a routine but momentous day that saw the excitement over then-Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential election flow westward across the Pacific to China.
This presidential election had aroused extensive attention from my university colleagues and students whose research interests mainly revolve around foreign affairs and politics. That day I, together with others, rushed to the nearest computer during the brief class break to get an update on the progress of the election. Then, we excitedly shared with each other what news we’d freshly acquired as if this were an important domestic Chinese affair.

With the final electoral votes bringing Obama over the top, I believe most of us were more amazed than excited. The U.S., whose image has been tainted by the Iraq war, has yet another chance to redeem its reputation in the world by restoring a largely questioned faith in the “American dream.” The alluring promise of the U.S. as a land of opportunity has kindled awe in the international community.

Obama’s successful ascendance is the quintessential American success story. An African American man, emerging from the grassroots, beats his elite white rivals to rule a country where his African American brethren were bound as slaves until just a century and a half ago and where the discrimination against his race still persists in either obvious or concealed form.

Given all this, I remembered that just one year ago most of my compatriots thought that the odds were heavily against a black man’s winning. Obama’s victory, therefore, has a larger and symbolic meaning: It shatters the “glass ceiling,” an invisible socially constructed barrier against the advancement of a subaltern racial, class, gender or sexual group to the top. America, a nation that constantly commits itself to propagating its equality and liberty in other countries, yet remains deeply troubled and divided by its own domestic racial problems, economic inequalities, and obsession over guns, now has sufficient reason to live up to what it promises.

During this election period, I interviewed twenty of my students, undergraduates of Beijing’s prestigious China Foreign Affairs University. These students, attuned to international affairs, are training to become part of China’s future elite in the arena of diplomacy, foreign affairs and policy. I asked them about their perceptions of Obama in relation to the future of Sino-U.S. relations. Curiously, no matter how uneasy they felt about Obama’s stance towards China, the dominant sense of these Chinese students is that the election reinforces their vision of America as a land of opportunity.

Obama’s success has indeed become an inspirational story for Chinese youth. Compared with Sen. John McCain, they observed that Obama looked, and is, actually much younger. In the Chinese world where seniority and experience count heavily, it’s exciting for the youth to witness how a young guy smashed all barriers and beat his experienced rival to govern one of the biggest powers. Most students interviewed don’t disguise their bias against McCain’s old age, though some do support him for his comparatively beneficial policies towards China.

Obama’s image, closely associated with youth, hope and change, as the media portrayed, caters to the imagination of younger people. While some students question Obama’s political experience, they share the general excitement over his achievement at a young age. Obama’s biography has been translated into Chinese and aroused wide interest among the young people.

Recently, I happened to read an article, titled “What Shall We Learn From Obama” in Youth Digest, one of the most popular magazines among youth. It says that the Chinese youth who are faced with the same problems that once troubled Obama, like sense of displacement, confusion about future and lack of confidence in a vehemently competitive society, may draw inspiration from Obama on how to transform themselves into confident and competent people. The Obama-mania among the youth is not limited to China. An article says the African youth are also encouraged to emulate Obama to achieve self-perfection in the hope that they may be able to make history when the chance presents itself.

Obama’s popularity among young students owes a large part to his persona. Interestingly, though some students expressed concern and even disappointment toward Obama’s harsh stance over China, they all admitted being attracted to his personality. Most of the students interviewed didn’t hesitate to utter their penchant for Obama, claiming he was charismatic, confident and eloquent while McCain was too old.

These ideas that come out of those who may be involved in the international arena as diplomats in near future may seem a bit superficial, since their judgment is supposed to derive from in-depth study on the policies proposed by both candidates, rather than from a cursory general impression. Actually, what’s beneath the ideas is the mass media at play. According to China Daily, a major English-language newspaper in China, the local press’ coverage of the presidential candidates was lopsided, with excessive media attention given to the young and charismatic Obama. One of the students noticed this and voiced her disapproval: “I feel it’s like a show where the audience was attracted to the good-looking star while neglecting the significance of its meaning.”

In addition to his personality, Obama’s multinational background adds weight in the students’ perception of him. Having grown up in an ethnic and multicultural background, Obama, some students wish to believe, will be more understanding in dealing with foreign affairs.

Despite the students’ noticeable favoritism toward Obama, his hawkish stance on Sino-U.S. trade does stir up some concern among some younger Chinese, including a minor community of the young diplomats-to-be. Obama repeatedly criticized China’s currency practice to unfairly favor the nation’s exporters, and claimed that he would “use all the diplomatic avenues” to prompt a change in China's currency practice. With the belief that China’s competitively priced products have led to collapse of a plethora of U.S. companies, Obama may resort to protectionist measures to curb the exports from China.

If this were to the case, trade frictions will arise between two countries and then result in the regression of the bilateral relations, since the Renminbi appreciation, as some analysts point out, has already led to the closure of thousands of factories in coastal areas in China. Moreover, some students also conveyed their doubt of Obama’s experience of dealing with Asian countries. His lack of knowledge and experience about Asia may put Asian interests, and Chinese interests in particular, at risk. To avoid or minimize the possible frictions between the two nations, one effective way, according to the students, is for the two nations to seek a ground of common interest to develop their strategic partnership. Therefore, in the view of those who are cautious of Obama’s trade policies towards China, the picture of U.S.-China relations may not be so rosy at all.  

The majority of students, however, are not discouraged by Obama’s tough election talk on China. They agree with some Chinese political analysts and attribute it to his strategy in search of support among blue-collar voters. Most believe Obama’s hawkish stance on China will change when he takes office mainly because his administration needs to work closely with its major trading partners, like China, to stimulate its economy. Since Obama’s victory is due primarily to the perception that dealing with economic crisis is within his grasp, he cannot afford to risk the chance of quick economic recovery by losing such an important partner as China, which can help finance the U.S. stimulus package in this critical period.

What’s more, even if Obama persists in employing tough measures to impair U.S.-China trade ties as a protectionist strategy, it won’t work. As the students observe, Obama cannot decide policies alone and take one-sided actions. His policies will be adjusted and coordinated by a team of experienced experts who’ll consider American interests both in the short- and long-term and then secure a balanced stance over China.

The students who are optimistic about the future U.S.-China relations echoed Kenneth Jarret, former U.S. consulate-general in Shanghai, who said: “There’s usually a difference between what they say and what they do when they take office. But the Sino-U.S. relationship is characterized by continuity and less by personality.”[1] Some cited President George W. Bush to prove how his original harsh stance on China was changed to continuous dialogue and engagement between the two nations on the common ground of anti-terrorism. They believe the same scenario will occur in future U.S.-China relationship since cooperation and development have been the theme of the world and are beneficial to both nations.

Among divergent voices of optimism and concern, I noted a general cautious tone of students in anticipation of Obama’s possible achievements. They warn about too high expectations of Obama. Acute economic problems, coupled with record budget deficits of at least $500 billion, will be a severe challenge to Obama, and will take much more than eloquence and charisma to tackle. As to whether Obama’s rhetoric can become reality, most students are aware of how difficult it will be for Obama to fulfill his promises. While some optimistic voices correlate Obama with President Franklin Roosevelt in navigating the U.S. economy out of turmoil, most people maintain that the rescue will be a daunting task.

No other foreign presidential election in the world could have attracted such large-scale attention in China. Along with the young students interviewed, I applaud Obama’s victory, yet feel uncertain about U.S.-China future relations. Any decision Obama makes may produce an impact, either positive or negative, on U.S.-China relations, on people’s lives, and on the world. In a sense, Obama not only shoulders his people’s expectations but others’ since the world has never been so interdependent as it is today. Only through cooperation among all the nations, including China and the U.S., can the peace and prosperity of the world be achieved. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the U.S., for China, and for the world.

* At the suggestion of Premier Zhou Enlai, China Foreign Affairs University, the predecessor of which was the Department of Diplomacy of the Chinese People’s University, was founded in September 1955. Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi, was President of CFAU between 1961 and 1969. The University was forced to close during the years of Cultural Revolution and was reopened in 1980 under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping.

1 See “Changing Contacts” in China Daily, Nov. 10-16, 2008. The article involves both Chinese and American experts’ views of possible trade ties between China and the U.S. when Obama takes office.

[keywords: Barack Obama, China, students]


© Copyright 2009 by Hui Wang