C-100 Conference: Bridges are Built One Student at a Time
Project Pengyou Leadership Fellow Kyle Obermann reflects on what he learned from the recent Committee of 100 Leadership Scholarship Program and Mentorship Forum
Last December, I found myself at the Committee of 100 Leadership Scholarship Program (LSP) and Mentoring Forum, an event held to celebrate 35 years of U.S.-China diplomatic relations and discuss cooperation in the future. But what made this gathering different was it focused on youth: me and you. Deeper than economic ties or political maneuvering, the emerging star player in U.S.-China relations are young people on the ground. By forging personal relationships through cultural and educational exchange we are building a stronger foundation for our two countries.
The conference brought together both established U.S.-China leaders and young people, many of whom had studied or were studying in China. Featuring a panel discussion on the importance of our generation’s role in developing U.S.-China trust, C-100 Chairman Clarence Kwan, C-100 LSP Co-Chair Richard Lee, and Greater China Regional Co-Chairs Howard Li and Dazong Wang pointed out that the energy and open-mindedness of youth across the U.S. and China are one of the greatest potential assets in strengthening relations across the Pacific.
In the upcoming decades it will not be the current politicians, business leaders, or parents who decide the fate of U.S.-China relations—it will be us. And in an era where “distrust is the norm between the people of each country” as detailed in the recent joint report by Peking University and USC entitled Building U.S.-China Trust Through Next Generation People, Platforms & Programs, we face these questions:
Will we be a generation that is ready to effectively engage and communicate with China? Did we take the risk to go study abroad? Did we attempt to study the language and engage with the culture? And did we share our positive experiences with others? We have the power now to actively work towards shaping the global environment of our future.
This was the main topic, during the second portion of the evening, of the keynote speaker Nicholas Platt, distinguished U.S. Ambassador, President Emeritus of the Asia Society, and one of the first members of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing when the United States established a mission there in 1973. A man who at a young age took the step to study Mandarin when most others chose to study Russian during the Cold War, it was as if he himself was now asking us those questions. We were all challenged to take the daring initiative to build cultural and diplomatic bridges.
Of course, this is not easy. My personal commitment to bridge building after attending the inaugural Project Pengyou Leadership summit this last spring has led me to leave family and close friends and land in Beijing in order to continue studying the language of this country and learn the heart of its people. A seemingly impossible and lonely task sometimes, but a worthwhile one.
The good news is is that I’m not alone. Although the amount of Chinese students studying abroad in the U.S. continues to far outstrip the number of Americans going to China, our numbers are growing. We are not content with the way things currently stand and we are willing to take the risk to fix it.
35 years after the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations the world still needs bridge builders like Nicholas Platt and the leaders of the C-100 to forge the way through navigating the challenges and opportunities of the future. Youth from both the U.S. and China are standing up and taking on the challenge to make sure that the mutual cooperation we saw during APEC 2014 does not remain the exception but become the norm. The C-100 LSP Mentorship Forum is just one example of this trend.
“The bigger the dreams the higher the cost,” my C-100 mentor told me and the other two Chinese students at my table during the mentorship portion on the conference.“What do you want? And how much are you willing to give up to get it?” He had just flown from Shanghai to spend one hour mentoring the three of us on an average Tuesday afternoon. Because he was willing to invest his time in us, our minds turned to our own dreams: what do we want for our tomorrow and what will we do now to get it?
If you are interested in China and want to see the future of our two countries improve, it might take an unprecedented amount of effort in your studies, it might take you stepping out and saying hi to the Chinese international students at your school, or it might even take you on adventures thousands of miles from your family and community. But as I happily chatted away with my new Chinese friends from the conference and arranged to meet again soon on the taxi ride home, I was reminded of this: It will be worth it.
One day we will be able to look back with fondness at the bridges we helped forge, but we will be most proud seeing how those bridges helped pave the way for others to build their own. And then we’ll be the ones organizing U.S.-China leadership conferences, being key-note speakers, and inspiring young people to take the risk to effect change.
And that is how we will improve mutual trust and cooperation between the U.S. and China. No special science; no special politics. We will not just build bridges for ourselves, but for others as well.
The Committee of 100 is an international, non-profit, non-partisan membership organization of prominent Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, and the arts that works to promote US-China relations and also addresses important issues concerning the Chinese American community.