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Americans get short end of intellectual trade deficit
Global Times | January 03, 2012 21:03
By Harvey Dzodin
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Illustration: Liu Rui

As a Harvard-educated lawyer, I have trained as an intellectual knight fighting in the tournament of ideas. So when another knight puts forth propositions with which I disagree, it really gets my adrenalin going.

Writing in Caixin online just before Christmas, the distinguished journalist and former Knight International Journalism fellow Nailene Chou Wiest's article "The Closing of Chinese Minds," contends that China is suffering from an "intellectual trade" deficit with the US, a country it doesn't really spend enough resources to understand and that it needs to make a greater effort to understand its partner and competitor. Chinese people, she contends, know less about the US than Americans know about China. "Not so," I say.

I certainly agree that the more funding of American-oriented and other think tanks, the better. If, however, in the real world there is a country that lets it all hang out - the good, the bad, and the ugly - it is indeed the US. As long as one has little more than an Internet connection, the country is about as close to an open book as one can find.

So I honestly don't know what Chinese and American people the author is referencing when she says that China has a comparative knowledge deficit about the US. Short of a handful of policy wonks in my country, we, the people, are utterly clueless about what goes on beyond our borders, and sadly in many cases, inside as well!

To cite one pathetic example: in a 2010 Shanghai Jiao Tong University survey of Americans administered by the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University, a mere 1.6 percent of Americans could identify China's current president as "Hu or Hu Jintao" and only 1 percent of Americans could identify the current prime minister as "Wen or Wen Jiabao." I bet that 99.9 percent of Chinese could identify US President Barack Obama, and that includes Shaanxi miners and Guangdong factory workers.

I also have anecdotal evidence to proffer. When I go to the English Corner at Renmin University, the place where I can discern the attitudes of educated Chinese. I am jaw-droppingly shocked at how much many of the participants know about my country from the Internet and other sources.

While the author makes light of the success of American cultural soft power and sarcastically asks how much the Chinese can learn about the US from Desperate Housewives, the fact is that they can learn volumes from watching our films and television programs, as well as from reading our books and magazines, whether in hard copy or online. I know that English Corners are hardly a scientific population sample but I think they are indicative of the educated Chinese who will be future Chinese leaders.

To go a step further I think that the imbalance clearly runs the other way, and nowhere more so than on the personal level. Perhaps I am one of the "self-satisfied people" to whom the author mockingly refers who cite the fact that China has now surpassed India as the country with the most foreign students in the US, 157,558 for the last academic year, an increase of 23 percent over the previous year.

By contrast American students going to China are only a mere one tenth of the number of Chinese.  Recognizing this critical imbalance, Obama announced his "100,000 Strong Initiative" to get more Americans to study in China. Recently I attended the launch of Project Pengyou, an NGO that supports this goal.

To me the bottom line is that there is an "intellectual trade" deficit, but it is the Americans, not the Chinese, who get the short end of the stick. One of the best ways to address the problem is to increase the number of Americans coming to China to study and maintain the Chinese students in the US at current record levels, as well as to promote other person-to-person exchanges in both directions at all levels for all sorts of people. There will be a large peace dividend for China, the US and indeed the whole world from this.

The author is former director and vice president at ABC Television. hdzodin@hotmail.com.


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