About 400 high school students from Western Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio joined a heated discussion last week over "China: What Does the Future Hold?"
Braveen Ragunathan, a senior from an Ohio high school, was hedging his bets.
"It's either going to turn out really good or really bad - who knows?" said the teenager. And that perplexity behind it, the cloudiness is what makes China truly important to discuss.
To many young students from the United States, China remains a strange country. They do not have a clear view of Chinese society. (photo: China Daily)
All Americans are connected to something about China some how or the other.
The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh along with Rotary International hosted the forum to help American students learn more about the outside world. The focus this year was China, which has already affected the lives of people in Pittsburgh, a once-prominent United States industrial hub.
Schuyler Foerster, president of World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, said the parents or grandparents of many of the students attending the forum had worked in steel mills and have heard a lot about outsourcing and job cuts.
There were those too who grew up in rural areas and are now figuring out their future in the global marketplace.
"We try to make them realize that whatever they do they're going to be in a business in which they will be working with or competing against, or both, companies from all over the world."
A student from a high school in Seattle, Washington State, learns how to weave Chinese knots with a Chinese student at a high school in Hefei, East China's Anhui Province. (photo: China Daily)
One panel was entitled "Taking the pulse of the Asian Dragon" and featured Dr Pei Minxin, senior associate and director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr William Overholt, Director of RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy and the author of a new book on the United States, China and world politics, also took the stage.
Pei took the issue of the US concerns and made a very challenging comment to students summing up the importance of the day's program.
"A successful China is not something to fear, a China that fails is what threatens us," Pei said.
Elliott Blackwell, a junior at The Neighborhood Academy, a private school that provides low-income students college preparation, said he was impressed.
He said the forum let him know more about how China's economic development will affect America in the future.
Blackwell first learned about China when he did a school project on the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC) and also learnt about the Middle Kingdom's economic fall and recent rise. He hoped to visit China and learn firsthand from entrepreneurs "who are thriving there and want the US marketplace".
Some students, although impressed by China's economic surge, expressed uneasiness about the nation's practices and differences from the American ways of doing business or politics.
Paul Amon, a junior from Oil City High School, located halfway between Eerie, OH and Pittsburgh, has read about foreign policy and how China handles investments and says things favor China's economy to overtake the US.
Amon's mother is Chinese and has visited his grandparents, aunts and uncles in China many times. He wants to study in China.
"I guess the US should have concerns because China is a power coming up - we've been number one for a while so they might challenge us," Amon said. "I'd hope that China can be our partner but I think that we'd clash along the way because we're too different."
So did these American teens walk in the door with a positive view of China? Why or why not?
One teacher believed there was bias in the US media against China and he encourages his students to read reports in international newspapers about America in an effort to "get a look at our own country's way of doing things".
George Riley, a teacher of World History, Psychology, and American Civil War at Port Allegany High School, north of Pittsburgh, explained his position.
"Where I come from it's a very small community where they are racist and bigoted toward people who are different," he said.
"The view on China is usually negative and I think that's fueled by the media, also by a major employer cutting back because jobs are going to China."
Riley, who has attended the World Institute in Pittsburgh forums six times, said Chinese competition was a major issue in his community. One glass plant (Pittsburgh-Corning Glass) was cutting jobs because the rival products were being made cheaper in China, he said.
"Maybe some of the problems lie within ourselves and the media keeps pointing out - we want, want, want," he said.
"We want to get it cheaper, so we fuel our own problem and I think there's a lot of truth to that."
Echoing his opinion was one of the special guest speakers, Jan Berris, vice president of the National Committee on US-China Relations.
"It's very easy to blame everybody else for your own problems - it's a whole lot harder to take control of the situation," she said.
"My belief is that in the US today, we do too much blaming others rather than focusing on what we need to make ourselves stronger," she said, before outlining the possibilities for the US to educate children better or focusing on engineering and research and development.
Berris, who has worked with the Committee since 1971, said that one question she would address was, "Does the rise of China necessarily mean the decline of the United States?"
No matter which school they came from, most students said they did not have a clear view of China's society, culture and internal goings on other than its rapid economic rise and enormous population.
Merri Ebel is a senior at East Allegheny High School north of Pittsburgh. She's lived in various places, such as San Francisco before her family moved to the area.
"China was just a big country with millions of people that no one really knew about because it was so secluded and no one talked about it - class was more American history based," she said.
"I knew our Constitution before I knew how to spell China. China is just this big question mark."
Towards the end of the day a young lady posed a question to guest speaker Charles Freeman, a former assistant US Trade Representative for China affairs and former managing director of the China Alliance.
She touched on outsourcing as both her parents lost their jobs when the company they worked for pulled the US operation in favor of producing in China.
Freeman was sensitive and he tried to be comforting in his answer, explaining how the reverse has been happening as well, but he came to the conclusion that a blunt statement would be more effective.
"That's just the reality of the global economy. I'm not a politician so I can't tailor my response to make anyone feel better," he said.
(China Daily November 20, 2007)