Sino-American relations are continuously in the spotlight. On Monday, cybersecurity allegations involving Chinese tech giant Huawei led Google to restrict the company's access to its products. And earlier this month, the U.S. raised tariffs on Chinese goods once more, boosting the already ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Yet, in this context of diplomatic instability, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. continues to grow. As of 2017, more than 360,000 Chinese nationals attended American universities, an increase of 3.6% since 2016. At Northwestern, many of the nearly 1,500 Chinese students on campus engage on discussions on Sino-American relations, adding new layers to a heated debate.  

Growing up in Beijing, Weinberg senior Wenyi Xu recalls how his family would always come together during dinner time to watch the news and discuss current events. His family’s “strong culture of debating political issues” led him to pursue a triple major in political science, economics and international studies. With a special interest on U.S.-China relations, Xu has taken various classes on the topic and has even studied abroad at the University of Hong Kong, experiences he says allowed him to “learn more about the topic from a different perspective.”

“I feel like growing up in China gave me a different perspective,” said Xu. “I’m probably more critical towards both countries’ foreign policies. I love comparing news stories from different media outlets. For example, recently CNN and Washington Post reported that China tried to renegotiate the trade terms that both sides had previously agreed on, but Chinese media stated the exact opposite. Learning these different perspectives has made me more objective and definitely more critical.”

SESP sophomore Cherie Zhang is the vice president of the Northwestern Council on Chinese Affairs, a student group that holds weekly discussions on Sino-American relations and quarterly speaker events on Chinese politics and history. As a Chinese national, Zhang says students from China can contribute to the debate on the topic.

“I think Chinese international students should be the bridge between the two nations,” said Zhang. “But to serve this role it’s better for me to first know more about the bilateral Sino-American relation, and that includes topics such as the trade war and each side’s foreign policy.”

Associate Professor of Political Science William Hurst discusses the future of U.S.-China relations on a Wednesday event. / Photo courtesy of the Council on Chinese Affairs

Associate Professor of History Peter Carroll, who teaches numerous classes on Chinese history, is confident students from China bring new layers to his classroom. He also believes Chinese history classes can help Chinese students, who often come in with a good grasp of the course content, deconstruct some of their own biases.  

“They usually arrive knowing quite a lot more than the non-Chinese students,” said Carroll. “High school students everywhere learn a particular national narrative about history, but in university-level classes, we want to talk about those things, but we also want to question some of these celebratory national narratives. A lot of the students take the class because they figure it would be a different discussion, and it usually is. That’s mostly because of the high school- versus university-level discussion, but also a discussion in China of Chinese history differs from one in North America, or Europe, or elsewhere.”  

Besides History courses, Zhang says departments such as Political Science and Asian Languages and Cultures also offer academic resources for the ones who wish to explore Sino-American relations. However, although she says these resources help students become more “educated on all sorts of heated topics related to the U.S.-China relationship,” she thinks Northwestern still lacks resources for students interested in the topic.

“If you ask me whether I think the on-campus resources are sufficient, my answer would be no,” said Zhang. “But it’s inevitable. There’s always a demand-supply relationship and I don’t think people will pay more attention to US-China relations than to Dillo Day.”

To change that, student initiatives are working to encourage the discussion about the issue on campus. On Wednesday, the Council on Chinese Affairs presented “China’s Future Path,” a conversation with Sino-American relations specialist William Hurst, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern. On Saturday, the Chinese Students & Scholars Association will host the U.S.-China Forum on the topic.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Xu with she/her/hers pronouns instead of he/him/his pronouns. NBN deeply regrets the error.