Youth have sunnier view of China

Updated: 2012-10-04 11:08

By Zhang Yuwei and Wei Wei in New York (China Daily)

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For Veronica Hernandez, a 25-year-old Texas native, China has become more than just a place to study since she married her Chinese sweetheart in Beijing in September.

"I cooked with my husband's mother and made a big dinner to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival," she said. "I make really good dumplings."

Hernandez, who received a master's degree from Seton Hall University in New Jersey in August, began dating the man she would marry while she was enrolled in a Chinese-language program. But her romance with the country started even earlier.

She began taking Chinese courses in 2008, her final undergraduate year at the University of Texas in Austin. There were only seven students in that class; the university's Spanish-language classes typically exceed 30.

"American people actually know little about China," Hernandez said. "My parents have seen some terrible headlines, like [about] the Sichuan earthquake, and believe China is really unsafe. Knowing that people can't get access to Facebook in China, some of my friends came to the conclusion that they may not be able to go to the cinema, either. That's absolutely not true."

Such fears were found to be fairly common in a recently published Pew Research Center survey of Americans' attitudes toward China. Among the 1,004 respondents, 52 percent said they viewed China's emergence as a world power as a major threat to the United States, while 56 percent want the US government to take a tougher stance toward Beijing on economic matters.

The country has also figured in the 2012 US presidential campaign, in the form of criticism over China's trade and currency policies leveled by President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Last week, Romney's campaign issued a new TV ad accusing Obama of being soft in dealing with China on trade, allegedly causing the loss of American jobs.

But there were positive views about China in the Pew survey. While 66 percent of respondents described China as a competitor, only 15 percent said it was an enemy of the US. And younger Americans have an even sunnier view, with 43 percent of those between ages 18 and 29 regarding China as trustworthy, while less than a quarter in older age groups feel that way.

"China is complex and hard to describe. It takes many years to understand and necessitates one traveling there and discovering it for oneself, said Mazen Shomali, 23, who studied at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics as an exchange student in 2009.

Before his first trip to China, Shomali knew a few basic aspects of Mandarin such as numbers and greetings, which he taught himself. After his six-month exchange program followed by a year of teaching English in Macao, he can read Chinese newspapers.

Recent years have seen growing interest in China among US students. According to the Institute of International Education, 13,910 Americans studied in China during the 2009-2010 school year, compared with only 1,400 in 1995-96.

Governments in both countries have promoted this trend. Apart from the venerable Fulbright scholars program established after World War II, the 100,000-Strong Initiative that Obama introduced in 2009 is designed to increase the number of Americans studying in China to 100,000 by 2014. The China Scholarship Council, affiliated with the country's Ministry of Education, is offering 25,000 scholarship opportunities to foreign students, a number set to reach 50,000 in 2015.

Hernandez is among those who have benefited from such efforts. She initially arrived in China as a Boren Fellow, financed by the National Security Education Program to help US graduate students "add an important international and language component" to their studies.

Through her fellowship, Hernandez undertook a project interviewing 60 students from five universities in Beijing about their opinions of the United States.

She was surprised by their knowledge about of her country and their optimism about the future of Chinese-US relations.

"To my surprise, they think China and the US are partners and believe China won't take the place of the United States in the next three decades," she said.

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(China Daily 10/04/2012 page1)