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Reporter's log: Cultural exchanges pivotal in relationship, envoy says

By Zhao Huanxin | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-29 10:11
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Students from a Washington school perform a traditional Chinese dance at the premiere of the documentary Chinese Puzzle at the Chinese embassy on Oct 17. ZHAO HUANXIN/CHINA DAILY

As the clock ticks toward 2024, I am wondering if US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns would make speaking fluent Mandarin his New Year's resolution.

He literally said so half a month ago.

At the Brookings Institution in Washington on Dec 15, I asked Burns after a talk on China-US relations on his progress with his new language skill.

Back in May, the top Washington envoy in Beijing told a webinar that he had "only one personal goal", and that is to learn Mandarin, and that he had discussed the plan with his wife Libby.

Off line in Washington, Burns said: "Libby and I speak French. We learned Arabic, we learned a little bit of Greek. Mandarin is really difficult!"

He said the difficulty lies in the tones, but it is a beautiful language and they are both learning it.

"I tried to begin and end most of my talks when people come to us in Mandarin. I have broken Mandarin. I'm a struggling student ... I'll try to do better this next year," he said.

He then started speaking Chinese, nuggets of everyday conversation that flowed quite smoothly.

Turns out, Burns has been actually practicing what he preaches.

At the Brookings event, Burns said: "We need young Americans to learn Mandarin. We need young Americans to have an experience of China."

Proposing or even prodding others to study is almost an instinct for a teacher. But for Burns, a former college professor, the logic for learning one of the world's most spoken languages is also for national interest considerations.

Engaging the younger generation of the two countries is pivotal, he said, because if Washington wants to compete peacefully, people of the two countries have to understand each other.

The young people will be one day running the society, he said, adding if future US leadership is cut off from China, that has not had experience there, that does not speak Mandarin, then that is not in the national interest.

"We need to bring in more American students to China. It's a real passion of ours and of mine personally," Burns told Julia Chang Bloch, executive chair of the nonprofit US-China Education Trust.

Burns agrees with what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping's "big vision" that he put out during the San Francisco summit meeting with US President Joe Biden on Nov 15.

At the meeting, Xi announced that China is ready to invite 50,000 young people from the United States to China on study and exchange programs in the next five years.

"He said there should be 50,000 American students in China. I think he's right," Burns said.

"We've never had 50,000 American students in the history going back to 1784, which was when we began our relationship with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It's a big vision. Let's work toward it. I think we agree with this, that we've got to bring the people together."

In 2021-22, the number of US students who studied abroad for academic credit totaled 188,753, nearly three-fourths of whom chose Europe as the destination, and only 4.7 percent, or 8,892 students, went to Asia, according to the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Educational Exchange published in November.

During that period, there were 211 US students pursuing academic credit in the Chinese mainland, the lowest number in a decade.

Burns said there were 350 US students in all of China last year. That number has now doubled, but it is definitely not enough.

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