LIAUTAUD: Friending China

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in one of Peking University’s many crowded classrooms getting some work done, but I soon found myself logging on to Facebook. Before I could even check my notifications, I felt two PKU students tapping me on the shoulder, simultaneously whispering in my ear – in English that far surpassed my Chinese – “How did you get on the Facebook? It’s blocked in China!”

I explained that my university’s Virtual Private Network service allowed me to bypass China’s blockade, but I inquired about why their interest in Facebook was so impassioned even when China had its own social media sites. Their response: “We use those too but want to make American friends on the Facebook!”

Hearing many even highly educated people talk about U.S.-China relations, one might think our nations are on the brink of war. Hostile human rights accusations, trade tension, gamesmanship over resources in the South China Sea and military buildup near the Taiwan Strait all paint a picture of an escalating conflict. Of course, even in the particularly tense current climate, no serious thinkers fathom an actual U.S.-Chinese war.

Some do, however, predict another Cold War. Many commentators write as if the fate of this relationship lies in the hands of politicians in Washington and Beijing. The story on the ground could not be further from this superficial caricature.

Here in Beijing, at the Yale-Peking University Joint Undergraduate Program, I, along with my fellow Yale classmates, find it difficult to grasp why this zero-sum image of the U.S.-China relationship is so prevalent.

Whether through taking classes together, sharing a room, swapping stories about break over pizza or staying up late at night in the common room finishing whatever paper (the electricity shuts off at midnight in dorms at PKU), we have all easily developed genuine friendships with our Chinese counterparts. The generation we’re engaging with doesn’t wear Red armbands or shy away from conversations about June 4, 1989.

Our friends download the latest banned movies, tease each other about their girlfriends’ RenRen (Chinese Facebook) profiles and joke about how the government delayed the release of “Harry Potter” 7 so everyone could watch films about Chairman Mao. They tweet on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) from their cell phones. Many aspire to work for international firms, not the Chinese Communist Party.

In contrast to the usual exchange program camaraderie, however, our friendships extend far further. The Richard U. Light Fellowship says it doesn’t fund students for the Yale-PKU program because it isn’t a language program. That’s true: it is far more exciting and intellectual.

Unlike most exchange programs in China, Yale students live with Chinese roommates. Our mandatory Chinese language class, a range of social science and history courses and experiences outside the classroom provide us with a basic but crucial understanding of the social, political, historical, cultural and economic foundations of modern Chinese society. This international classroom fulfills President Levin’s vision and prepares us for engaged and informed discourse with our Chinese roommates and classmates. As a result, we foster truly productive relationships – or, as my roommate Liu Zheng would call it, guanxi.

There is an important role for social media in these exchanges. Tools such as Facebook and RenRen provide an unprecedented opportunity to maintain these unique relationships across the globe at virtually no financial cost. We must not be the generation remembered for overloading these platforms with mindless chatter or, worse yet, using social media to organize shop lootings in London. On the contrary, we must be the generation that uses these tools to host informed dialogue and foster productive relationships in a way never before possible.

Recent events in the Middle East highlight young people’s potential impact within their countries. Social media, alongside programs like Yale-PKU, offer opportunities to initiate and sustain such relationships globally. We no longer have to rely on closed-door diplomacy to define our international relations. In this case, we do not have to let aggressive and accusatory political rhetoric in the U.S. set the tone for our relationship with China.

If we, young people from the U.S. and China, take the right initiative not only to interact but also to keep ourselves informed about how people live across the world, we can responsibly contribute to the foundations for positive and constructive U.S.-China guanxi.

Cristo Liautaud is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at cristo.liautaud@yale.edu.

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