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A chalk country map of China, colored in red with yellow stars to match the Chinese flag, drawn on a blackboard.

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The U.S. Department of State recently announced the 2023–24 list of Fulbright top-producing institutions for the Fulbright U.S. Student and Fulbright U.S. Scholar Programs. Each year, roughly 2,000 U.S. students and more than 800 U.S. scholars study, teach or research around the world with awards from Fulbright, the State Department’s flagship program for cultural diplomacy and academic exchanges. The program, which also brings international students and scholars to the U.S., operates in more than 160 countries worldwide.

China is not one of those countries. In July 2020, then president Donald Trump signed an executive order ending Fulbright exchanges both to and from China and Hong Kong in the midst of a presidential campaign and rising U.S.-China tensions. Since 2020, no U.S. Fulbright students and scholars have been able to study or research in China, and no Chinese students and scholars have received Fulbright awards to come to the U.S.

It’s time for that ban to end. 

Perhaps Trump could be forgiven for being uninformed about the fact that Fulbright programs have benefited Americans as much as the Chinese. Disappointingly, the Biden administration has not reversed Trump’s ill-advised decision. This makes no sense, since the Biden administration has identified China as the competitor best poised to usurp America’s dominant position in the world.

If China is indeed, in the words of U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the “pacing threat” to the United States, then the rational and logical policy for the U.S. government should be to encourage and send tens of thousands of American students to China to study Mandarin and examine how that country operates. If China is the biggest national security threat, shouldn’t Americans, especially America’s future leaders, learn more about China now?

Pathetically, only 211 American students studied in China in the 2021–22 academic year (the most recent data available), down from more than 11,000 before COVID. This is bad for American students and bad for America’s future in its competition with China.

The Department of State’s travel advisory for China places the country in the Level 3 category of “reconsider travel,” essentially discouraging Americans to go to China “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

Arbitrary detentions of American citizens could happen anywhere but are extremely rare except in enemy countries like North Korea. It’s clearly a gross exaggeration to warn that average Americans would be randomly detained in China.

While the U.S. government is not encouraging Americans to go to China, a confident China keeps its door open and continues to send large numbers of students to study abroad. Despite declines caused by COVID and political tensions, nearly 300,000 students from China are enrolled at colleges in the U.S.

Chinese president Xi Jinping said during a visit to San Francisco in November 2023 that China is ready to invite 50,000 Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years to increase interactions between the two peoples, especially young people. The U.S. government and colleges around the country should take this opportunity and send students to China now.

U.S. representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington State and a champion of pragmatic engagement with China, joined with Representatives Don Beyer and Judy Chu in March 2023 to introduce a bill to restore Fulbright exchanges with China and Hong Kong. This effort should be supported by other members of Congress who can help promote constructive and friendly relations between the United States and China, especially among young people, rather than introduce one anti-China bill after another. American politicians must overcome Sinophobia and paranoia and encourage, not obstruct, American students who want to study in China.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu said, know yourself and your opponent and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. Restoring Fulbright programs in China and supporting the growth of cultural and educational exchanges with China serves long-term U.S. interests and should not be further delayed.

Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University.

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