To strengthen ties with China, speak the language first

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 Act.

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.

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