Michelle Obama wants to balance the US-China education deficit

Michelle Obama wants more Americans to come to China.

The focus of the U.S. first lady’s weeklong trip here is education, with Mrs. Obama both working to encourage American students to study abroad in China and promote the U.S. as a destination for Chinese students headed overseas.

Speaking to 58 students gathered at a high school in Chengdu on Tuesday for a Q&A session after delivering a speech to an audience of about 700—as well as to 20,000 more Chinese students from rural areas who were being connected to the talk via satellite—Mrs. Obama emphasized the importance people-to-people exchanges have on bilateral relations.

“You have to be comfortable traveling and living in all parts of the world, because that’s how you’re going to get jobs in the future,” she said in response to a question from one of the students. “We can’t solve these problems together if we don’t know one another. And the best way to learn about one another is to live together and learn each other’s languages.”

Education has been a big and increasing tie binding the two countries. China already accounts for the largest contingent of foreign students in the U.S., with more than 235,000 in the 2012-13 school year, a 21% increase from the year earlier.

The U.S. currently sends about 20,000 students a year to China, and those numbers have been bolstered by U.S. fellowships and volunteer exchanges like the Fulbright Program and the Peace Corps. Last year, private-equity firm Blackstone Group’s founder Stephen Schwarzman, a scholarship program that will bring 200 students each year, mostly from the U.S., to study in China.

U.S. President Barack Obama has focused on strengthening U.S.-China connections during his time in office: in 2010, for example, he launched the so-called 100,000 Strong Initiative to increase the presence of American students in China. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing notes that 600 times more Chinese study English than Americans study Mandarin, an imbalance that the U.S. says “can undermine strategic trust between the two countries.”

Meanwhile, both China and the U.S. are competing for the U.S.-educated Chinese graduates. The U.S. wants to persuade many of these highly trained grads, especially those in areas like science and engineering in which American enrollment has fallen, to stick around.


Last year, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would increase the number of professional working H1-B visas to 110,000 per year from 65,000. But the bill never passed the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, China is also trying to lure the graduates home and it is increasingly winning. A report published last week in the People’s Daily said that more than 350,000 Chinese students returned home after studying abroad in 2013, a 30% increase from the previous year.

Zi Ye, 18 and a student at the Chengdu high school Mrs. Obama visited, helped demonstrate tai chi for the first lady following her talk. She told Ms. Obama she’d been to the U.S. to see relatives in New York City and had mostly positive impressions.

“I think America is a really great country. They are really friendly. They don’t care which country you come from. They talk with you and they like Chinese things,” she said, noting that Mrs. Obama had welcomed her to return to the U.S. someday to study.

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