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Leading Chinese American expert warns that US policies are alienating China’s young generation, and highlights the importance of dialogues between Chinese and American youth

By Chen Xuelian Updated Jun.1

The Sino-American Youth Dialogue is held at Tsinghua University, Beijing, October 8, 2021

Among China experts in the US, Chinese youth have become a major focus of study in recent years. There have been several influential books focusing on this group, including Zak Dychtwald’s Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World (2018) and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip.  

Among China experts focusing on youth is Cheng Li. Born and raised in China, Li went to study in the US in the 1980s and is one of the most renowned experts on China studies. Li has served as the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution since 2014 and is a director of the National Committee on US-China Relations. As the first Chinese American director of the center, Li has a profound understanding of both the US and China, and has recently focused his studies on Chinese youth.  

Unlike Dychtwald, who Li said focused on Chinese millennials, those born from 1980-95, Li said he focused more on those born after 2000, known as Generation Z. In an op-ed published in November 2021, titled “How Washington’s hawkish China policy alienates young Chinese,” Li argued that China’s youth are more individualistic and socially progressive than perceived in the West, but Washington’s recent antagonistic moves against China have led to rising anti-American sentiment among China’s youth. If these policies continue, the US would lose its leverage in influencing China’s future.  

NewsChina talked with Li about his observations on China’s youth and the importance of people-to-people exchanges between the US and China against the backdrop of intensifying strategic rivalry.  

NewsChina: Why do you focus on China’s youth? As someone who grew up in China in the 1960s and 1970s, what do you think makes contemporary youth different from previous generations?  

Cheng Li: What drives me most is the long-held stereotype [among Westerners] about China’s youth that they lack critical thinking and that they’re not innovative and imaginative. 
On the contrary, China’s youth, as the first generation to grow up in the digital age, have a lot of access to outside information. Many studied in the West, and on average, they have a deep understanding of Western cultures. But while their Western education and Western movies and sports heavily influenced them, they have their own perceptions about the West. Under the prevailing narrative of China in the US, Chinese youth are typically described as ‘brainwashed nationalists,’ which is far from the reality.  

The second reason relates to my experience of studying in the US as a Chinese student. It was in the 1980s when China had just launched its reform and opening-up policy and the Cold War was not over. I still remember US president Reagan’s speech at [Shanghai’s] Fudan University in 1984 and the next year in 1985 I embarked on my trip to study in the US.  

Back then, there were few Chinese students in the US and the difference in infrastructure between the US and China was quite a shock when I came out of Los Angeles airport. When the US already had a national highway network in the 1980s, China didn’t even have a single highway yet. I had only some US$30 when I landed. My experience was quite typical among the first generation of Chinese overseas students back then.  

In the 1990s, the US witnessed a second generation of Chinese students studying overseas. It was a period of rapid globalization as China’s reform and opening-up was in full swing. Educational exchanges between the two countries peaked during the Obama administration. During this period, Chinese students studying overseas perceived the West on level terms.  
With the development of the Chinese economy and the rise of the middle class in China, they are more confident about both themselves and their country. I was once concerned that the rise of China could make Chinese students more narrow-minded and biased, but my studies show that Chinese students studying overseas are very diverse in terms of their family background, what subjects they study, their values and opinions. But it is unfair to make a simple generalization about the new generation of Chinese students. Their experiences are so different from my generation that I want to learn more about them.  

The third reason is that in the past dozen years or so, I have served as an editor of the Thornton Center Chinese Thinkers Series published by the Brookings Institution Press. One of the latest books in the series is China’s youth: Increasing Diversity amid Persistent Inequality by Li Chunling of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). As the book was recently published, I have written several articles on the topic.  

NC: According to several recent polls, Americans under 30 have a more favorable rating about China than those between 30-40 and 50-60, by roughly 20 to 30 percent. Why is this?  

CL: The generational gap on ratings in China you mentioned accords with my own studies in the past 15 years and other surveys conducted by polling agencies. The latest figure is about 15 percent. I think there are several reasons. First, American youth do not have a strong Cold War mentality like older generations who lived through the Cold War in the 1980s, or even the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.  

Second, contemporary American youth tend to be more liberal and open-minded. The major support base of Senator Bernie Sanders is younger generations. They are less influenced by conservative and ultra-religious thinking. Third, American universities have high ratios of Chinese students, who could account for 30 percent of all foreign students in some universities. Many American youngsters may formulate their opinions about China through direct engagement with their Chinese peers, with whom they may find more similarities than differences. Through technological and cultural products from China, such as TikTok and Chinese movies, they may not consider China as alien or threatening as they would otherwise. 

But one thing I want to highlight is that unlike ordinary American youngsters, the younger generation of politicians in Congress and officials handling the bilateral relationship in the White House is more hawkish toward China than their predecessors.  

There are two reasons for this. One is that the US has officially designated China as a strategic rival, probably even a foe. The other is that when they study China in universities, they followed quantitative research methods, which has been the dominant methodology in the academic circle in the past years, which could be misleading for country studies. To study a country, you need to understand its culture, geography and history, and you need to live in the country and communicate with its people. You cannot rely on figures and statistics alone to study a country. 

Young Chinese and Americans participate in the finals of the 2019 China-US Youth Maker Competition, Beijing, July 25, 2019

Cui Tiankai (C), former Chinese ambassador to the US, presents a gift to a recipient of the top prize during a Lunar New Year celebration event at the Chinese embassy in the US, February 16, 2019

NC: Based on your studies on China’s millennials and Gen Z, how are their material and moral values different from previous generations and why?  

CL: When I taught at Harvard University on China, I told my students ‘your Chinese peers in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Suzhou may be very much like you.’ There’s no doubt that China’s youth hold very different material values from their parents’ generation.  
China’s younger generations grew up in a much more prosperous society. From 1978 to 2017, China’s GDP increased by 33.5 times with per capita disposable income up by 22.8 times. In four decades, China transformed itself from one of the world’s poorest countries into a country with the world’s largest middle class.  

China’s younger generations have received much better education than before. In 1998, only 9.76 percent of college-age students enrolled into universities. In 2018, the ratio increased to 48 percent – about half of the young generation can receive college education now.  

Since China launched reform and opening-up 40 years ago, much of its rural population has migrated to cities. In 1978, only 17 percent of its population lived in urban regions, and the figure reached 62 percent in 2020. Most of those moving to cities are the younger generations. Next, China’s young generations are mostly only child in their families, which is unprecedented not just in China’s history but in global history. By 2010, the number of only children in China reached 150 million.  

Finally, as China’s young generations are digital natives, their rise transformed China’s societal structure, social space and social relationships. Not only has the traditional kinship-based social relationship based on an agricultural society collapsed, younger generations have also brought the entire society into the digital age. In the meantime, the center of the young generation’s public life moved from big physical public spaces to more intimate and smaller spaces, and to the virtual world. These changes mean that there has been a revolutionary change in material and moral values compared to older generations.  

NC: Your studies show that China’s youth are more patriotic and care more about issues concerning social progress. Does that make them more like their American peers? 
CL: Both Chinese and American youth care more about social justice and personal rights than their older generations, which results from demographic changes in the two countries. In the US, older White people tend to be more conservative and minorities, including Black and Asian people, tend to be more sensitive to social justice issues. As minorities are more marginalized, they tend to emphasize the right to suffrage and are more vocal in protesting against racial discrimination and racially motivated hatred and violence.  

In China, there is mass migration from rural to urban areas. In the urbanization process, those from rural areas are very sensitive to discrimination from urban residents. In this context, Chinese youth have changed and are paying more attention to social issues than older generations. Moreover, given the income disparity in China and the diverse background of China’s youth, some of China’s youth now live a more prosperous life, while many others are much less welloff. From this perspective, the younger generations in the world’s two largest economies face similar problems.  

Among the more educated, young people in both countries are more aware of progressive issues such as climate change, gender equality and gay rights. Compared to the older generations, they are also more vocal about their opinions. This is good news not only for the two countries, but for the entire world. The reason the world has not been able to tackle the ongoing global pandemic lies in that different countries cannot unite against a common enemy. 

NC: How can youth from the two countries cooperate with each other to steer the China-US relationship into a better future?  

CL: Even prior to the global pandemic, growing economic disparity within and between different countries had already prompted calls for de-globalization, which led to rising populism, racial discrimination and ultra-nationalism. The global pandemic exacerbated existing economic disparity and polarization. Not only is there uneven distribution of vaccines between countries, the uneven development of the digital economy means that the global pandemic has dealt more serious blows to less developed economies.  

In such a situation, China and the US should focus on the factors that could unite people from different countries, rather than those separating different peoples. They should respect each other and adopt more sympathetic and empathetic attitudes toward one another, instead of demonizing one another. To achieve this, the two countries should promote mutual communication. People-to-people exchanges, including educational exchanges, have long been a major driving force for development of the bilateral relationship, which can help the two countries have a better understanding of each other and reduce the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation. Younger generations from both countries can make significant contributions to such exchanges.  

Historically, Sino-US sporting exchanges played a significant role in promoting the bilateral relationship. Fifty years ago, Ping-Pong diplomacy helped thaw the bilateral relationship. More recently, the NBA has made a significant impact among Chinese youth. When NBA star Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, there was widespread mourning among Chinese fans. There were over seven million queries about it that day on China’s search engine Baidu, which is over six times more queries than for the coronavirus when it first emerged in early 2020. On Sina Weibo, hashtags about Bryant’s death had over one billion views, more than double the coronavirus.  

Bryant’s popularity in China stems not just from his talents as a top basketball player, but also from his engagement with Chinese people. Partnering with China’s Soong Ching Ling Foundation, the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation launched the Kobe Bryant China Fund in 2009, which made its first donation to communities hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Moreover, it is well known that Bryant’s [13-year-old] daughter Gianna, who also died in the helicopter crash, spoke Chinese well. All of this touched the hearts of Chinese fans. Similarly, Chinese basketball player Yao Ming is very popular among Americans.  

Cultural exchanges between youth from the two countries have played similar roles. In the realm of music, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historical visit to China in 1973, the first Western orchestra to ever perform in China’s recent history, opened the door to Western music for the Chinese people. In the following decades, many Chinese kids studied Western music, playing the piano or violin, which gave rise to new generations of Chinese musicians. Many worldfamous musicians with Chinese heritage, including pianist Lang Lang and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, served as a bridge for cultural exchanges between the two countries.  

These developments show that people-to-people exchanges in education, culture and tourism can promote cross-cultural understanding and friendship. Between the US and China, younger generations are the driving force of these exchanges.  

NC: You called on policymakers in the US to take serious consideration of Chinese youth’s attitude toward the US. What are your suggestions?  

CL: US policymakers have disengaged with Chinese youth, and many of their policies fed the anti-American sentiment among them. The question is: Are these policies in the interests of the US? Will they help the development of the bilateral relationship? They should reflect on their policies, and I do have some suggestions.  

First, the US should focus on fixing its own problems. If the US wants to influence China, it cannot adopt a double standard. Fixing its own problems should be the top priority. Second, the US government should condemn all kinds of racism, particularly anti-Asian hatred and violence. The FBI should stop adopting racial profiling in programs like the ‘China Initiative’ against scientists and researchers of Chinese origin.  

The US should promote people-to-people communication with China, including lifting the limits imposed on Chinese students and researchers to study in the US. In the meantime, the US should encourage more American students to study in China to conduct engagement in the long term. Finally, the US government should establish dialogue mechanisms between youth from the two countries, especially on issues related to global governance such as climate change, pandemic control, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, economic disparity and social inequality.

Cheng Li