Meeting again with Chinese students in Boston

From cybersecurity to Edward Snowden, Steve Kelman finds interesting patterns in visiting students' knowledge of the United States.

Edward Snowden

Most Chinese students recognize Edward Snowden on sight, Steve Kelman finds, and their opinions on his actions are as divided as Americans'. (Photo by The Guardian newspaper.)

Despite the economic slowdown in China, the number of student delegations coming to Boston from the Beijing-based China Future Leaders organization continues to rise -- two groups have come in the last month, and another group will come at the end of September. I enjoy meeting with these students and taking their pulse a little bit on issues involving how they see their society and relations between China and the United States.

During these last two visits, toward the beginning of my presentation I flashed a picture of Edward Snowden on a screen and asked if they knew who this was. Both times, rustles of nervous laughter and other sounds arose from the group; by show of hands, most everybody recognized him.

When I asked what they thought about him, a number of girls in the first group immediately reacted by saying, "He's cute." But most of both groups admired him for doing something he believed in, and/or for standing up for privacy in the Internet age. In my recent group, three or four of the 50 or so in the crowd stated that posts they'd put up on China's wildly popular Twitter-like site, China Weibo, had been taken down. (In one case, a post taken down seemed especially innocuous -- it was a comment about Chinese leader Xi Jinping's taste in food.) In the previous group, no students had heard about U.S. accusations against the Chinese army for organized economic espionage against U.S. company websites, though they all knew the word "cybersecurity."

There was a minority in both groups who called Snowden a "traitor." I was impressed -- independent of my own opinion on the matter -- by two students who said something to the effect of, "If I put myself into the shoes of an American and don't think like a Chinese, I would think he was a traitor." I think it was impressive that these students, though quite young, were able mentally to put themselves in the shoes of others. A good life skill.

I always ask the group -- the vast majority of whom are visiting the United States for the first time -- one thing they like and one thing they don't like about this nation. The consistency of responses over time is impressive. The students like "freedom," "democracy," and "innovation." Some say they like the rule of law.

Given these views -- and given the number of Chinese leaders who choose to send their children to the West for higher education (and even high school) -- it is hard to imagine China moving back inward toward itself, away from being influenced by the West. Indeed, Chinese leaders, not surprisingly from their point of view, seem to be much more worried about the opposite, judging from an Aug. 20 New York Times article discussing a secret directive from the country's party leadership warning against the influence of Western ideas such as constitutionalism, multi-party democracy and media freedom.

(By the way, over time the most common thing the students say they don't like about the United States is our food -- to my surprise, most students state they don't like McDonald's or KFC, the biggest Western fast food brands in China.)

The degree of knowledge many of these students display about the United States is impressive -- one even knew about some fairly obscure details of the immigration reform debate. A student from Tsinghua University, the MIT of China, notably knew the story of the foundation of Tsinghua at the turn of the last century: After Western residents in China were killed during an anti-Western uprising, the Chinese government was forced to pay reparations to Western countries whose nationals had been murdered, but the United States (alone among reparations recipients) returned the money to China and had it used to establish a university.

These students are a cause for optimism that there can be a constructive U.S.-Chinese relationship.