Thousands of international students flock to China every year. A lucky and talented few belong to ultra-competitive, fully-funded degree programs. Leading the pack among these are the Yenching Academy at Peking University and the newer, shinier Schwarzman Scholarship Program at Tsinghua University — the alma mater of President Xi Jinping and his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Where Yenching hopes to “build bridges,” Schwarzman aims to “deepen understanding,” both “between China and the rest of the world.” This talk of transnational amity is compelling. However, in a world of tariffs, Uyghur concentration camps, racialized theories of conflict emanating from the U.S. State Department, alleged profiling of Chinese students at U.S. schools, Huawei bans and arrests, detained foreign nationals in China, and protests in Hong Kong, it is worth asking: How much “deepening” and “bridge-building” is possible, particularly between Western and Chinese students?
Having spent a year in one of these programs, I have my own sense of the critical limitations.
Before suggesting where deepening stops and bridge ropes fray, it must be noted that many students complete study programs in China enamored with the country. Many graduate with enduring friendship groups comprising Western and Chinese peers. Many are confident that their programs fulfill their missions. Students in the fold can attest to this. But speaking for myself, and for some others, I can say this: I left China more disillusioned than enamored. I did not make as many Chinese friends as I would have liked — very possibly at my own fault. And I believe there is some distance to go before any international study program in China can profess to have comprehensively deepened mutual understanding and built bridges, much as they are committed to this objective.