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The 2013 Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit: A rare opportunity

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This weekend, I had the opportunity to take part in the third annual Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit (CLS). The first CLS, held three years ago, hosted 40 delegates from both Duke and UNC. This year, more than 120 students from schools as far as the University of California-Berkeley and the Beijing Royal School attended the conference, making it a fantastic opportunity to learn not only from speakers but from fellow delegates as well.

The existence of conferences such as CLS comes from China’s newfound economic and political prominence, which is an extensively covered topic that constantly appears in the media. As an Asian American with a keen interest in understanding Asian political and economic issues, I felt that this would be a terrific opportunity to delve deeper into many topics that most media outlets skim over in favor of stories that only brush the surface.

I was not disappointed; the keynote speakers were fantastic.

Thomas Fingar, a distinguished professor from Stanford who was involved in the process of normalizing Sino-American relations in the 1970s, gave a speech outlining the central question surrounding China’s development: is it sustainable, or does it merely resemble a house of cards ready to topple at any moment?


 Yukon Huang, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Asia Program, Former Director of the World Bank’s China division. Image courtesy of the Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit.

Yukon Huang, the World Bank’s former country director for China, questioned some of the most commonly held assumptions about China’s development.

changHan Dongfang, founder and director of the China Labour Bulletin, speaks to attendees about contemporary Chinese labor rights. Image courtesy of the Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit.

Han Dongfang, a winner of the U.S.’s 1993 Democracy Award, shared his own experiences and perspectives on trying to protect labor rights in an authoritarian society. He laments the relatively callous attitude that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains toward the labor force, but remains optimistic about the potential that labor strikes have as a bargaining tool to achieving better working conditions.

The individual panelists were extremely informative as well.  There was Nick Consonery of the Eurasia Group — a political risk consulting firm — who spoke about the prospects of continued financial liberalization.

Joseph Fewsmith, a distinguished China scholar from Boston University, gave us insight on the patterns of power succession and the workings of the inner politburo, the highest level of China’s government. For me, it was quite shocking to discover that the composition China’s leadership for the next 20 years has essentially already been determined. With so many qualified speakers, it was almost impossible for one to not obtain any new insights into China’s development.

Beyond the speakers’ insights, I also had the opportunity to meet and get to know my fellow delegates, many of whom were Chinese international students. I got to hear about what it was like growing up behind the “Great Firewall” and their perspective on island disputes at CLS. Attending CLS also made me  realize two things. First, there is a significant disconnect between the Asian American population and our knowledge about what’s going on in Asia. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, our cultural connections with Asia could potentially give us a leg up in understanding the complicated relationship between the United States and many Asian nations.

Second, the cultural gap between Asian Americans and Asian international students is extremely wide. For example, during the conference, some Chinese international students tended to gravitate towards other Chinese international students, and some Chinese Americans did the same. This isn’t necessarily too surprising either, but it represents a lost opportunity for a highly productive cross-cultural exchange. Such an exchange would allow Asian Americans to reconnect with their cultural homelands and gain a greater understanding of modern Asian society, and it would allow Asian international students to learn even more about life in America.

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