Promoting China Studies thru academic exchanges

By Lucio Blanco Pitlo III / October 18, 2016 / This article appeared in the Manila Bulletin print edition

As it continues to build its comprehensive national power and assume greater international responsibilities, interest on the study of China is expected to grow further in the future. In an effort to engage scholars and experts specializing in this increasingly important interdisciplinary field, platforms for interaction need to be fostered. To this end, Chinese academic institutions and think-tanks had been actively organizing/hosting conferences, fora, seminars and workshops covering various dimensions of China, sometimes in cooperation with foreign counterparts. Such initiatives are helpful in promoting a better understanding and appreciation of the evolving dynamics inside and outside China and how it affects the rest of the world. These present opportunities to connect with and learn from the international academic community – understand criticisms, concerns and apprehensions about China and obtain relevant objective inputs that can be considered in policymaking.  

One such initiative is the Visiting Program for Young Sinologists (VPYS), which is now in its third year. This year, VPYS had been staged in 3 cities – Beijing (July), Shanghai and Xian (both September). VPYS Shanghai ran from September 4-23 was sponsored by the Bureau of External Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Culture and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and co-organized by the Institute of China Studies, SASS. The author had been selected as one of the 26 participants from 23 countries – Afghanistan, Armenia, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, and Vietnam. Participants came from diverse backgrounds – academe, think-tanks, and government –  pursuing a broad range of research interests from Chinese language and culture, philosophy, history, economics, politics and international relations. Participants were assigned to an adviser that provided mentoring and advice in completing a brief research on a chosen topic which were then presented on the Program’s last day.

Aside from the valuable lectures, participants were also toured to the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, Xintiandi (site of China’s first Communist Party Congress interestingly located in the heart of a commercial district), Shanghai’s old Chinatown, Headquarters of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd and Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Company, Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone, Shanghai Stock Exchange and an evening cruise in the Huangpu River. There was a field visit in neighboring Quzhou in Zhejiang Province to see traditional Buddhist and Confucian temples and rural communities, as well as to appreciate the scenic West Lake of Hangzhou, the city that played host to the recent G20 Summit.

VPYS Shanghai 2016 was a fulfilling three-week program that stimulated greater appreciation and interest on the different facets of China. It provided a great opportunity for participants to see China’s diversity and fast-paced transformation – enabling first-hand life experience in one of the world’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, as well as that in the simple rustic countryside, which are nevertheless served with good infrastructure and provision of basic community facilities despite considerable distance from the city center. Participants benefited from the wealth of lessons and insights shared by the invited speakers, as well as from interaction between and among them during the open forum and recess. As a China Studies scholar, specializing on Chinese economy, politics, government and foreign policy, I find the Program intellectually enriching. Programs like VPYS demonstrate China’s increasing openness to learn from and interact with the world. It also shows China’s deep interest in making the world understand and appreciate it better.

As educators, researchers and public intellectuals who help shape the minds of young people, contribute to a healthy exchange of ideas on pressing issues and even provide policy advice to government when solicited, scholars have an important role to play in promoting better analysis of emerging developments. Programs like VPYS enabled Sinologists and China Studies scholars the world over to network and contribute in the growing global discourse on China Studies. Sustaining and expanding such programs can help bridge differences and promote better understanding.

Many countries the world over had been deepening their understanding of China through education, academic and people-to-people exchanges. In 2009, President Obama launched US State Department’s 100,000 Strong Initiative with the goal of increasing the number of American students studying in China. By 2014, the original goal of sending 100,000 US students to China had been achieved. Another initiative called 1 Million Strong seeks to expand to 1 million the number of US K-12 students learning Mandarin in US by 2020 which presently stands at around 200,000. A third initiative is the US-China Alumni Network which seeks to develop future leaders of US-China relations through professional development and engagement opportunities. The proposed network will bank on a Student Ambassador program that mobilizes over 500 young leaders involved in US-China relations to encourage more Americans to learn Mandarin and study in China. This year, 100,000 Strong Foundation was rebranded to US-China Strong Foundation to continue carrying out the goal.

As Philippines-China relations continue to improve, both sides may consider setting up an institution that will run programs similar to US Strong Foundation initiatives. Both sides have a strong stake in better understanding one another to improve relations and find better ways of addressing disputes. Interestingly, encouraging Track II (think tank) exchanges on relevant issues of mutual concern and interest was also identified as one of the key areas for bilateral cooperation during the August 2016 meeting of former PH President Fidel Ramos and CH National Peoples’ Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Madame Fu Ying. The youth will inherit this world so it is important to instill in them the importance of appreciating cultural diversity and the values of cooperation and peaceful resolution of differences – towards this end, scholars will perform a critical role.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Lecturer of Chinese Studies at Ateneo de Manila University. He is teaching courses on Modern Chinese Economy, Chinese Politics, Government and Foreign Policy

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