An Urban's Rural View

The US Needs More China Hands

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Only 800 Americans are currently studying in China. Given the size and importance of China and the tense U.S.-China relationship, that's too few. (Google Earth image of China)

In 1929 the U.S. Navy sent a group of intelligence officers to Japan for three years to study the language. In retrospect, it was a far-sighted move.

Fluent in Japanese, two of those officers would go on to play a critical role at a critical moment in World War II. Having partly broken Japan's military code, they were able to give the Navy's Pacific commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, advance warning of the June 1942 Japanese attack on Midway Island. The resulting U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway was a turning point in the war.

The moral of the story: Knowing a country's language is fundamental to competing with it. And it's much easier to master a language if you live in the country and are constantly hearing and speaking it.

That moral remains relevant today. The current competitor -- hopefully not on the battlefield but certainly in technology, economics and diplomacy -- is China. It's especially relevant because, unfortunately, the Chinese seem to have learned this lesson better than we have.

There are only 800 Americans studying in China. That's up a tick from the pandemic, when there were 500, but down from the 2011-12 school-year peak of around 15,000. There are 300,000 Chinese studying in the U.S. (…)

Of course, many Americans are studying Chinese at universities in the U.S. But to perfect and retain the language, they need to use it every day. They need time in China.

Study-abroad and other people-to-people exchange programs are often touted as promoting mutual understanding and avoiding war. It's harder to demonize another people when you've gotten to know some of them personally, the theory goes.

But learning a foreign language and culture is also a big plus when competing with a foreign country, militarily and otherwise.

Militaries everywhere have long done what the U.S. Navy did in 1929. Isoroku Yamamoto, the admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, had studied at Harvard and served at the Japanese embassy in Washington. His sneak attack battle plan drew on his knowledge of America.

Japan's only hope, Yamamoto thought, was a knockout punch; in a long war, America's industrial might would prevail.

Some historians regard Pearl Harbor as a tactical triumph but a strategic blunder. Arguably, though, it was Japan's best chance. Had the U.S. aircraft carriers been in port at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Yamamoto's plan might have worked. By the time the U.S. Navy rebuilt, Japan could have taken Australia, Midway, even Hawaii and parts of Alaska.

We can be reasonably confident that our generals, admirals and spymasters know they need China specialists. They've undoubtedly trained some themselves, just as the U.S. Navy did in 1929. But it's a safe bet they could use more.

And the competition between the two countries isn't just -- or at the moment even primarily -- military. The U.S. needs more China hands in a wide variety of fields, from business to agriculture, from journalism to academia.

Then there's science. China has become a scientific research powerhouse and many of its scientists publish their papers in Chinese. Scientifically trained Americans who can read the language are likely to be in increasing demand.

And no, software translation programs aren't an adequate substitute for fluent human beings. A machine can translate words, but when a human learns a country's language she learns its culture. That deep understanding of the country is critical.

As important as it is for more Americans to study in China, convincing them to go won't be easy.

For one thing, China's "exit bans" have prevented some foreigners from leaving the country. The U.S. State Department currently urges Americans to "reconsider travel to Mainland China due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions." (…)

China's President Xi Jinping says he wants to welcome 50,000 American students over the next five years. To make that happen, China will have to assure Americans they will be free to leave.

Another hurdle: Some American businesses are pulling out of China. Young Americans contemplating a career doing business with China may fear there will be fewer opportunities in the years ahead. (…)

And then there's the unfortunate reality that China's propaganda purveyors have been working overtime to influence American politics. Most of the Chinese-supported Confucius Institutes on American campuses were shut down after Washington raised questions about what besides language they were teaching. The same suspicions could be directed at studying in China.

Yes, the U.S. and China have a tense relationship. But that's all the more reason for more Americans to master Chinese. The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu put it best. "Know thy enemy," he advised.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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