Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the population of foreigners and international students in China has decreased dramatically. How has the drop in international students impacted education in China? Jeremiah Jenne visits the United States from Beijing for the first time since before Beijing’s COVID lockdowns and discusses the importance of people-to-people exchange in 2023.
How has the decreasing number of internationals in Beijing changed the culture of the city?
Jeremiah Jenne: Well, I think anytime you have a city that wants to be a global city—in a city like Beijing that has professed a desire to be identified as a global city—a lot of that requires an international community. We think about the great global cities around the world. We think of London, Toronto, even a city like Tokyo, which does not have a huge foreign population as a percentage, but has a lot of people living there from other countries. Generally, they help to create a very vibrant and diverse environment for a city. They organize things, they open up businesses, they bring their own culture, their own ideas, and they make a city a much more interesting place to live.
A city like Beijing, where you’ve had such a sharp decline in the number of people living there from other parts of the world—you feel it. You feel it as you walk around the street, and you also lose the experience of interacting on a regular basis, if you’re a resident of that city, with people from other parts of the world. I feel like when that happens, you lose a window into what’s happening globally as well.
Why is people-to-people exchange important in educational settings?
Jeremiah Jenne: I’m a big believer in people-to-people contacts being so crucial to help and to foster understanding between different countries, particularly at a time like right now between the U.S. and China. As fewer students from the United States are going to China, they’re missing out an opportunity to realize that China is much more than the headlines, much more even than a government, and there’s a lot of ideas. There’s a lot of vibrant culture there that exists kind of below the level of this geopolitical static that’s been going on right now.
And not to take away from these issues, the really important things happening in national relations, but without the students being there on the ground to see the totality of what China is like, I worry about what the next generation of leadership in the United States on China is going to look like. Who’s going to be the person who’s going to be working for the State Department, helping other people, helping our government understand China if we don’t have more people getting that initial experience as undergraduate, as graduate students being there, learning the language more than just learning the language in a classroom, learning the language by hanging out with people that they meet.
What role do you think education and academic exchanges play in fostering mutual understanding and cultural appreciation between China and the rest of the world?
Jeremiah Jenne: Sure. I think this goes both ways. I think it’s great to see the large number of Chinese students who continue to follow their educational dreams in other countries. And when those students, many of whom do return to China, they do so with a perspective on the rest of the world is different from the students who never got that opportunity.
It’s true, too, with the students who want to go to China. One of the things I try to talk about often is that it’s important to try to understand a place, not necessarily agree with everything you see, but to understand why things are the way they are, understand why people think the way they do. That doesn’t mean you’re going to convert your ideology, doesn’t mean you’re going to change your whole worldview. Maybe that happens. If it does that, that’s great. But at the same time, that’s not the goal of these kind of exchanges. The goal of these kind of exchanges is to hear that other perspective, is to hear those other voices. Often when we live in a big country, whether it’s China or the United States, we grow up surrounded by people who, as diverse as the United States is, generally think a certain way on a lot of things, surprisingly.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.