To strengthen ties with China, speak the language first

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 30 12:50:04 UTC 2005

>>From the Christian Science Monitor,

from the September 30, 2005 edition -

To strengthen ties with China, speak the language first
By Matt Williams and Jerome Cohen

WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK - Despite talk of trade wars and military
confrontation, polls show that more Americans have a favorable view of the
Chinese than five or 10 years ago. Regrettably, this has yet to translate
into any large-scale effort to engage anything besides Chinese factories.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of
Tennessee want this to change. In May, they introduced the United
States-China Cultural Engagement Act, a bill to provide a modest but
symbolic $1.3 billion over five years to tackle shortages of Chinese
language classes in the US, as well as strengthen cultural, educational,
and commercial exchanges with China. These senators are wisely suggesting
that the United States take a policy of "engagement" with China seriously.

Congress and the public must not let terrorism abroad and political
controversy at home blind them from the long-term implications of this
legislation. More than 30 years after opening diplomatic contacts with the
People's Republic, we are still woefully unprepared to work with a China
whose rise increasingly laps onto our shores. Our government leaders have
been too slow to acknowledge that mutual understanding grows out of
classrooms, not just trade volume, and their complacency has kept the most
significant bilateral relationship of this century in a retarded state.
Gauging current interest in China and future capacity to engage China is
as simple as looking at our students. The findings are distressing.

Cross-cultural studies are down During the 2001-2002 school year, before
the SARS epidemic hit China, the number of Americans studying in China was
2.4 percent of the total number of American students abroad, merely tenths
of a percentage point higher than the percentage in Costa Rica. The dearth
of Americans on Beijing's campuses is obvious even today.  Tsinghua
University, one of China's most elite and internationally minded academic
institutions, hosted only 92 Americans in 2004, or just 7 percent of its
foreign-student total. In contrast, other countries, primarily South Korea
and Japan, have led a massive student movement to China. There are as many
South Koreans studying and doing business in Beijing as there are
Americans in all of China.

But that is only half the problem. Foreign enrollment in US universities
dropped last year for the first time since 1971. The number of Chinese
applying for student visas to the US fell 15 percent in 2003 and another
17 percent last year. Interestingly, despite persistent tensions between
China and Japan, Japan has surpassed the US as the foremost recipient of
Chinese students. Yet, contrary to the media buzz about post-9/11 American
visa restrictions, the percentage of Chinese granted visas has actually
risen. Accordingly, the number of Chinese studying in the US last year
fell only slightly, still hovering around 60,000.

This decrease in the number of Chinese students is largely attributed to
rising US tuition costs and effective recruitment by other
English-speaking nations, as well as the erroneous perception that
international students are no longer welcome in the US. The proposed
US-China Cultural Engagement Act will alleviate both the problem of too
few Americans studying in China and too few Chinese studying in the US by
facilitating the expansion of language classes and exchange programs.
Structurally, it allocates funds to establish 10 National Resource Centers
at leading universities and a Foreign Language Resource Center to channel
money into elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools. It also
provides grants directly to state education agencies or local school
districts that offer Chinese language or culture courses.

Mastering a difficult language The road to successful communication with
China is a long one. Only 2.2 million of 290 million Americans speak
Chinese, and at least 85 percent of them are of Chinese descent. This
deficiency should be unsurprising given that 98 percent of US higher
education language enrollment is in Western European languages. Creating
interest in one of the most difficult languages in the world requires
exchange programs for numerous parts of society. The proposed law
allocates money for both physical and virtual exchanges at all levels of
education, as well as for NGOs and entertainers. In addition, Fulbright
Scholar grants both to and from China will be more than doubled.

Those up in arms at the thought of spending $1.3 billion on language and
exchange can relax: The US-China Cultural Engagement Act is not all
cultural. Most notably, it allows for more foreign commercial service
officers in the American Embassy and consular offices in China, more
international trade experts at small business development centers
throughout the US, and partial funding to American state export assistance
centers in China. Indeed, with $350 million directed toward building two
new consular offices and upgrading resources that foster commercial
activity, this bill might be more simply named the US-China Engagement

Two-way enrichment Thankfully this engagement is not one-way, as the bill
also ensures improved handling of Chinese visa applications, and even
inquires into the feasibility of expedited process for Chinese high school
students and scientists. This year has already marked a period of change
for visa policy. Since January, Chinese businesspeople and tourists have
been able to obtain 12-month, multiple-entry visas, an extension of the
previous six-month limit. This policy recently expanded to include those
traveling to the US on academic exchange and vocational training visits.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing will reciprocate this
policy for Americans.

The legislation proposed by Sens. Lieberman and Alexander, thus far
largely unnoticed in the media, deserves immediate and strong public
support. Matt Williams was a 2004-2005 Fulbright Scholar at Tsinghua
University and is a student at Georgetown University's Master of Science
in Foreign Service program. Jerome Cohen is a Law Professor at New York
University and an Adjunct Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- | Copyright  2005 The Christian Science Monitor.

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