By Shanielle Thompson
What do you get when you mix a love for tea and new cultural experiences with a passion for economic development? A person eager to experience China! The School of Diplomacy’s recent 8-day excursion through Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou this past spring break promised much more than just a vacation, though. The course and trip, titled “China’s Rise: Opportunities and Challenges” promised to explore Chinese culture, history, politics, economy and foreign relations. The opportunity to see the People’s Republic comes at a pivotal time: China has recently overtaken Japan to be the second largest economy after the U.S., necessitating firsthand experience of a rising global partner and competitor more than ever.
The thirteen-hour flight from Newark International Airport left us nothing short of excitement at the pilot’s announcement when we landed at Beijing Capital International on March 3. For the next eight days the Seton Hall University (SHU) team would journey through some of the most influential cities in the country, exploring everything from food and people to business and history.
In Beijing, the beautiful and enduring Great Wall of China was our first historical/cultural visit. Viewing the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the flesh cannot compare to the quintessential pictures and postcards of the Wall that we’d seen throughout our lives.
We next visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Though this visit was on the coldest day of our trip, learning about the courageous and revolutionary acts performed by students in the very place we were standing provided warmth. I couldn’t help but think of the current plight of students and other individuals throughout the U.S. currently demanding gun law reform.
We experienced official diplomatic business after being welcomed by the U.S. Embassy and the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Before an engaging presentation and panel discussion with representatives of the International Department of the China’s Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee, we were given a tour of the densely-populated photo gallery that documents the party’s achievements from start to present day. In addition, we participated in talks with think tanks – China-US New Perspective Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – and New Tranx, a start-up company that has sought to change the way people in China communicate since 2014.
We ditched the tour bus and opted for the High Speed Train as the chosen mode of transportation from Beijing to Shanghai. While in Shanghai, we were introduced to Chinese media outlet Sixth Tones, visited the Disney Headquarters and participated in a panel discussion and dinner with students and faculty at our “sister-school,” Shanghai International Studies University. Given the current restrictions and censorship of information and media, it was interesting to interact with representatives from Sixth Tones and learn about their mission to “show China to the world and the world to China,” even if it meant going against the grain. The restrictions are so steep that Google, certain social media applications, and other widely used technology are banned from use in mainland China.
With all the technological buzz surrounding this city, Hangzhou is often referred to as the “Silicon Valley” of China. However, after visiting the Alibaba Headquarters and the G-20 Summit Site, we were able to take in the natural views by enjoying a relaxing drift across West Lake, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that has influenced prominent Chinese artists’ work over time.
Observations and Takeaways
It was interesting to see how the dynamics of the culture, people, infrastructure and even the air changed as we traveled from city to city. A thick smog greeted us at the airport our first day in China. Even though environmentalists tried to reassure us of the improvements the country has made to its environmental regulatory system, the proof wasn’t evident until we left Beijing and moved onto cleaner cities.
Some cities were more familiar to our own cultural context, as well. As the high rise buildings and skyscrapers and insane fashion sense popped out at us in Shanghai, I couldn’t help but think of New York — though our tour guide said I wouldn’t have the same thoughts if I had visited during the 90s.
Though we visited a diverse set of organizations that represented different sectors of the economy, there was one shared concern among them all– especially for the representatives at the CCP. Questions on our view of Trump’s performance, in addition to what we predict for U.S.-China relations followed us from Beijing to Hangzhou. Though it was difficult to represent the U.S. at all times during our travels, Dean Halpin taught us how to best frame our responses every chance she got. When we asked questions back, some sentiments united American businesses in China, government officials, think tanks and NGOs alike: the U.S.-China relationship is the most important one among international relationships today, and should be continued while maintaining the most peaceful and corporative manner possible.
Editor’s Note: Every spring break, the School of Diplomacy holds one or more short-term study abroad trips open to undergraduate and graduate students. This year, one of the trips was an 8-day excursion in China, where students visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.