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To strengthen ties with China, speak the language first

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Despite talk of trade wars and military confrontation, polls show that more Americans have a favorable view of the Chinese than five or 10 years ago. Regrettably, this has yet to translate into any large-scale effort to engage anything besides Chinese factories.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee want this to change. In May, they introduced the United States-China Cultural Engagement Act, a bill to provide a modest but symbolic $1.3 billion over five years to tackle shortages of Chinese language classes in the US, as well as strengthen cultural, educational, and commercial exchanges with China. These senators are wisely suggesting that the United States take a policy of "engagement" with China seriously.

Congress and the public must not let terrorism abroad and political controversy at home blind them from the long-term implications of this legislation. More than 30 years after opening diplomatic contacts with the People's Republic, we are still woefully unprepared to work with a China whose rise increasingly laps onto our shores. Our government leaders have been too slow to acknowledge that mutual understanding grows out of classrooms, not just trade volume, and their complacency has kept the most significant bilateral relationship of this century in a retarded state.

Gauging current interest in China and future capacity to engage China is as simple as looking at our students. The findings are distressing.

Cross-cultural studies are down

During the 2001-2002 school year, before the SARS epidemic hit China, the number of Americans studying in China was 2.4 percent of the total number of American students abroad, merely tenths of a percentage point higher than the percentage in Costa Rica.

The dearth of Americans on Beijing's campuses is obvious even today. Tsinghua University, one of China's most elite and internationally minded academic institutions, hosted only 92 Americans in 2004, or just 7 percent of its foreign-student total. In contrast, other countries, primarily South Korea and Japan, have led a massive student movement to China. There are as many South Koreans studying and doing business in Beijing as there are Americans in all of China.

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