“A generation ago, Chinese students started coming here in large numbers. Part of the theory behind that was, and this is somewhat naïve, they’ll come to our great country where we have all these wonderful values and we have openness and we have freedom and democracy and free enterprise, and they will absorb our values and take them back to China and change China. This was a piece of the thinking. So we’ve had a generation almost of this experience and guess what? It didn’t really altogether change China. You could argue that at the margins it did have some important effects, but certainly not to the extent that people who had this grand vision of it believed.

“So here comes the other shoe. We let hundreds of thousands of them into here in the belief that this would draw the two countries closer, and perhaps make China more like us and help change China in positive ways and show China the value of our values. The other shoe is, let’s send hundreds of thousands of our students there. So far it’s been a one-way street, though one thing that we have definitely gotten out of this arrangement, and it is no small thing, is an influx of brainpower of academically ambitious Chinese students who have remained in this country in large numbers after studying here. But most Chinese students came here and were exposed to really good education in things that—and I don’t begrudge this—helped China become more competitive and accelerate its economic progress. China benefitted hugely by sending this generation to the United States. They were really smart. So let’s do that with them. Let’s send hundreds of thousands of American students to China.

“What does that do for us? It may in fact achieve another piece of that original idealist vision—it’ll draw the two countries together, will expose them more to our ideas and ideals. But if you’ve accepted the notion that China is a nation very much on the rise, and it’s going to be our major competitor in the world and perhaps the dominant power in the foreseeable future, we have a real interest in understanding China—deeply. So let’s do that. How do you do that best? Not by having a few hundred or a few thousand weirdos like me go and become China-philes at some point in their life and are then are squirreled away in some faculty, but send wave after wave of Americans over there. And understand in a deep sense what makes this place tick. How is it put together, where do the fault lines lie, what’s the cast of characters here, to build relationships, to embed themselves in the economy.

“This strikes me as being a brilliant idea, and I don’t know whose idea it was — Obama announced it — but to the extent that he embraces it and makes it real, this is really a genius stroke. All the other stuff, you can see any administration talking about the same things. ‘Yeah, we have some human rights stuff, we have some trade stuff, we have some dollar stuff, some environmental stuff.’ This is the one meaningful innovation I see in the whole spectrum of issues that was discussed. And I think twenty years from now, if it is implemented, people will look back and they will say this was an important moment. ‘This happened then.’

“You see none of that in the press. Not even asking the question, and saying, so could this be important? Or what could this mean? Or how does it work or what is the history of this, or will it be real? It was just kind of dropped in the list like; here are the various talking points. . Some enterprising reporter somewhere in that world of Obama coverage in China should have jumped on this with both hands and said, ‘this is important’ or ‘this looks like it could be important or this is new and different. We knew all those other issues; we didn’t know this one before. What’s really behind this?’ The first question is, ‘So it sounds great—is it real? What kind of flesh are you going to put on those bones?’ Didn’t hear any of that.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.