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Beijing on Barack: China's Elite Students and Professors Look at Obama and Future U.S.-China Relations

History was made in November when Sen. Barack H. Obama was elected to become the 44th president of the United States. Now, with the Jan. 20 inauguration ahead, change is coming not just to the White House but to relationships the U.S. has with other nations around the world, including China.

As a result, the following question was posed by Professor Russell C. Leong, director of UCLA's U.S./China Media Program, which produced the U.S./China Media Brief, to students of English and international relations at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing: "What do Chinese youth think about the next U.S. president and Sino-U.S. relations?"

The prestigious university, founded in 1955 at the suggestion of China's premier, Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), trains China’s elite students to become future diplomats and trains foreign service officers from developing nations.

The students' professor is Wang Hui, a recent Fulbright scholar and M.A. graduate of the UCLA's Asian American Studies. Professor Wang agreed to interview 20 of her undergraduate students during the pre-and post-election period about their feelings toward the young president-elect.

Wang's findings and pair of student essays in their entirety, together with commentaries by her colleagues, including Professor Sun Jisheng, dean of English and professor of International Studies at the university, will be posted on Jan. 14, 2009 on UCLA's www.uschinamediabrief.com, whose mission is to present more balanced and accurate views of U.S.-China relations working with its affiliate media and university hubs in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong.

As Wang told Leong during a presentation of the U.S./China Media Program in Beijing during this election period, "In the Chinese world where seniority and experience count heavily, it's exciting for our youth to witness how a young guy smashed all barriers and beat his experienced rival to govern one of the biggest powers. Obama's image, closely associated with youth, hope and change, as the media portrayed, caters to the imagination of younger people."

Furthermore, even Chinese students at Beijing's elite universities can feel uneasy about their own future. Wang continued: "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."

More candid insights into the Chinese response are provided in an interview with Professor Luo Xuanmin, the Tsinghua University translator of Obama's "The Audacity of Hope," a bestseller in China.

These latest findings are part of the work of the media program, funded by philanthropists Walter and Shirley Wang, who have pledged $1 million to UCLA's Asian American Studies Center to establish the nation’s first program and endowed academic chair focused on U.S.-China relations and Chinese American studies.

"UCLA's Asian American Studies Center is the premier research institution on these issues in the nation and the world," Walter Wang said. "Shirley and I are impressed by the quality, range and impact of its scholarship and significant policy research and by the positive contributions it has made and can continue to make in the years ahead."

'Effective communication is one of the biggest barriers to achieving greater understanding and appreciation of U.S.-China relations, and mass media is a vital vehicle for changing perceptions," Shirley Wang said. "By educating the public about the historical significance of these cultures and the important economic, social and political changes they have helped create, we can enhance cross-cultural communication and achieve a deeper understanding."