The agreement reached between the top leaders of China and the US during their meeting in San Francisco on promoting people-to-people exchanges is of great significance. There were corresponding actions to implement this later, which also reflects a common denominator in the relationship between the two countries. Although China-US relations have experienced ups and downs, they can still generally move forward. People-to-people exchanges, as one of the five pillars, play an indispensable role. The 50,000 American youths coming to China in the next five years are seeds of China-US friendship and cooperation, which can take root, sprout, and spread widely in American society.


Why does China stress the importance of people-to-people exchanges between China and the U.S.? The Chinese leaders and the Chinese state-controlled media keeps stressing the importance of people-to-people exchanges. Is there an overarching goal they seek to accomplish by doing so? I am curious, because I never hear Western leaders and think-tanks use the word ever while China seems to be in love with the word.

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    Unless they tell us their "real reasons", how are we to know, except by what they tell us? Possible motives come to mind - the benefit of openness may not be symmetrical - but whether those are the real reasons or reflect my anti-CCP prejudices is unknowable. Commented Mar 28 at 15:49
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    It's hard to do industrial espionage unless you have someone actually there.
    – Simon B
    Commented Mar 30 at 17:08
  • I've tagged this with 'freedom of movement' although exchanges might not quite rise to that level, it seems to be advocated, in spirit, to some extent. Perhaps we need a new tag for this... Commented Mar 30 at 17:24

3 Answers 3


As with such questions about intent, it depends whom you ask. The quasi-official position in China is that this is a good way [for China] to break through the official saber rattling in the West:

We also need to strengthen our people-to-people educational, cultural and sub-national collaborations and exchanges that have receded in recent years. These connections are the foundation of understanding and mutual respect, which in turn fuel the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

Too much of the current political narrative is vilifying more than amplifying the cooperation aspect of the US-China relationship on both sides of the Pacific. Today, roughly two-thirds of Americans hold a negative view of China and some politicians would like to drive up that number.

[...] China has resumed group tours to the US, and the two sides have agreed to increase passenger flights. Yet student exchanges remain significantly below pre-pandemic highs. The number of American students studying in China is frighteningly low.

There are even longer papers by Chinese academics on this, which e.g. point out that trade is not a good substitute for PPEs.

If you ask the China skeptics in the West... you might get a different answer.

Beijing is hampering people-level exchange efforts by harassing Chinese citizens in US-led programmes, senior US State Department officials said on Thursday.

“The [Ministry of State Security] has called out academic exchanges as an example of foreign espionage activities, which led PRC academics to cancel their participation in US exchange programmes,” one said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

The official added that China’s foreign NGO law had “systematically” reduced the number of people willing to work with US partners on people-to-people exchanges. The law, in effect since 2017, subjects foreign NGOs to close government scrutiny with stringent registration and reporting requirements.

[...] In recent months, China’s foreign ministry has spoken out about Chinese students facing increased harassment and deportation as they arrive in at US airports, noting at a January briefing in Beijing that there were at least eight such cases.

In response, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said that the percentage of Chinese students who have been detained “is less than one-tenth of one per cent” and that “the percentage has been stable over the past few years”.

The behaviour of Chinese security personnel drives the State Department’s travel advisory for mainland China, US officials said. Set to “level three” on a four-level risk scale, the designation refers to “reconsider travel” and cites the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, “including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions”.

[...] The security personnel appear to have “broad discretion to deem a wide variety of documents, data, statistics to be considered to be state secrets and prosecute people for espionage”, the official added.

In other words, the lack of freedoms in China makes this a one-sided deal, according to US officials. And that's before we even get to the accusations of China abusing the PPE programs for spying or at least for gaining an upper hand in science and technology (from a Trump-era assessment, but which probably hasn't changed much in the recent administration):

Beijing is leaning on expatriate Chinese scientists, businesspeople and students like Ji – one of roughly 350,000 from China who study in the US every year – to gain access to anything and everything at American universities and companies that’s of interest to Beijing, according to current and former US intelligence officials, lawmakers and several experts.

The sheer size of the Chinese student population at US universities presents a major challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies tasked with striking the necessary balance between protecting America’s open academic environment and mitigating the risk to national security.

While it remains unclear just how many of these students are on the radar of law enforcement, current and former intelligence officials told CNN that they all remain tethered to the Chinese government in some way, even if the vast majority aren’t sent to the US to spy.

It’s part of a persistent, aggressive Chinese effort to undermine American industries, steal American secrets and eventually diminish American influence in the world so that Beijing can advance its own agenda, US officials, analysts and experts told CNN.

[...] “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means,” according to the intelligence community’s World Wide Threat Assessment released Tuesday.

[...] Rather than having trained spies attempt to infiltrate US universities and businesses, Chinese intelligence services have strategically utilized members of its student population to act as “access agents” or “covert influencers,” according to Joe Augustyn, a former CIA officer with firsthand knowledge of the issue from his time at the agency.

[...] “In a world where technology is available, where we are training their scientists and engineers, and their scientists and engineers were already good on their own, we are just making them able to not have to toil for the same amount of time to get capabilities that will rival or test us,” a senior official in the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.

[...] Chinese state media has highlighted several high-profile cases of wrongly accused Chinese-American scientists to bolster the government’s claims that US concerns are vastly overstated.

“Such statements are completely untrue and made with ulterior motives. People-to-people exchanges form a basis for the promotion of China-US cooperation in all areas, which is in the common interest of both peoples,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN in a statement.

[...] Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the leading Democrat on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, stressed that it is important to recognize “that the Chinese government has enormous power over its citizens.”

“In China, only the government can grant someone permission to leave the country to study or work in the United States and we have seen the Chinese government use their power over their citizens to, in some cases, encourage those citizens to commit acts of scientific or industrial espionage to the benefit of the Chinese government,” he told CNN.

TLDR for the latter: decades of these exchanges have not resulted in China getting more democratic, by Western standards. In fact there's a reverse trend recently, according to Western sources. (Whether this will ultimately end up in a Russia-level of confrontation with the West over some war, is anybody's guess, at this point. The geographical loci for such confrontation definitely exist though.)


As noted in a comment, we can only hold opinions and hypotheses about the CCP's "true motivations". I will list possible motivations as I see them. No, this is not about the motivations of Chinese nationals, as individuals, for going abroad, it is why the government might want to promote those exchanges.

Individual Chinese citizens have plenty of reasons to want to be emigrate, work or study abroad, as well just be tourists and this answer is not concerned with their motivations, which are no better and no worse than immigrants and expats from other nations.

Standard reasons

Most countries are keen on securing safe passage and hassle-free travel for their citizens. There is nothing China-specific about this motivation and China's government can be assumed to operate in much the same way as those of Western governments.

China may also genuinely want to promote its culture abroad, with Confucius Institutes being the equivalent of l'Alliance Francaise or Deutsches Haus.

A lesson learned

China, as the CCP is wont to remind everyone, was a major, possibly the major, world power up until the 1500s, on many levels, such as wealth, technology (gunpowder), sophistication, etc... At some point in the 16th century IIRC the court bureaucrats decided that China had nothing to learn from the rest of the world and actively discouraged exchanges.

This self-imposed autarky and national withdrawal did not go well, making a policy of openness and "learning from the world" credible enough in the 21st century. Certainly China has quickly adopted, and in some instances, surpassed Western technology and is keen on avoiding those past mistakes. Again, a reasonable and above board motivation and likely far from negligible.

Spying, subversion

This where I am stepping into a contentious hypothesis. Again, do note that this answer is not addressing why an individual might want to live, work or travel abroad. I live in Canada, a country with many ethnic Chinese citizens and residents, the vast, vast, majority of which are exemplary Canadian citizens whom I deeply respect for their contributions to our country. And many of whom have longer roots here than myself.

Doesn't mean I need to like the CCP.

Anyways, you frequently read articles where someone of Chinese descent spied on a business or government, or exerted influence, presumably at the behest of the CCP.

We've also heard about "police stations", where Chinese nationals intimidate members of the Chinese diaspora that are critical of the CCP. We've seen reports of Chinese students being intimidated to toe the line, by others. Ethnic Chinese parliament members being bullied by Beijing as well. Australia has seen similar happenings as well.

If you believe that China's government, not the Chinese people themselves, are a threat to Western democracies, then it is easy to see how exporting a lot of people abroad, most of whom are perfectly legit and upstanding contributors to their host countries, can benefit China.
Certainly during the Cold War, there was a recurring threat from Soviet implants.

The difference was that the USSR was a negligible economic and technical power and one very averse to having its citizens emigrate. Whereas China is the opposite and ethnic Chinese people are at the forefront of business, scientific and technological innovation.

This a challenge for Western democracies.

How do weed out the "bad apples" from the good guys? We only have to look back at our shameful history of Japanese interments during WW2 to see the potential for abuse an racism. How do we avoid victimizing and vilifying people because of their ethnicity? Do we want to make our citizens who happen to be of Chinese descent feel second class?

Yet, it is clear that China is taking advantage of these opportunities.

Western responses have resulted in a drop in scientific cooperation that is frequently both unfair and unproductive.

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the 1980s, Fu Xiangdong was a young Chinese virology student who came to the United States to study biochemistry. More than three decades later, he had a prestigious professorship in California and was conducting promising research on Parkinson’s disease.

But now Fu is doing his research at a Chinese university. His American career was derailed as U.S.-China relations unraveled, putting his collaborations with a Chinese university under scrutiny. He ended up resigning.

China itself finds it considerably easier to deal with this type of issues.

Between 2010 and 2012, intelligence networks of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were dismantled by Chinese intelligence authorities in an intelligence breach. Intelligence gathering there was crippled for years afterward.

A large number of informants were killed, with one informant reportedly being shot in front of his colleagues at a courtyard of a government building,2 while many others were imprisoned.3

It was initially estimated that between 18 and 20 sources were killed;5 Later estimates concluded that at least 30 sources were lost.6


For the same reason as sending youth "down to the countryside", namely that people learn things and are shaped by being present within a milieu, that they would not get otherwise.

The reason China is probably more enthusiastic than the US, is because it has more confidence in its own society and political model than the US, and is telling fewer lies to its own citizens.

What backstops the participation of the US is probably the perception that it is a useful context (for both sides) for various kinds of intelligence work and training, and because it would have to come up with a plausible excuse not to participate.

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    telling fewer lies Well one difference is that the US govt may lie, but has a free press to hold them to account. China on the other hand... Commented Mar 30 at 16:26
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, the press are the ones telling the lies.
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 30 at 17:38
  • Can't wait to hear your exposure of the lamestream media and how Chinese media is much preferable. Holding my breath... Commented Mar 30 at 20:48
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, oh I'm not suggesting that Chinese propagandists are more honest than the next propagandist. I'm just suggesting they have fewer things they need to lie about - their society gets richer and more powerful every year, their industrialisation more extensive, their working class more capable, more skilled, and higher waged. In the West meanwhile, everyone knows there is total regression. The UK is about to shut its last blast furnace under the diktat of foreign capital - a steel-making capability it has had continuously for hundreds of years.
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 30 at 21:43
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, I wouldn't go that far. I'd just observe that the Chinese can point to consistent improvement. Western liberals cannot. Even Russia's total war economy is booming last year, whilst Germany's recesses under liberal control.
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 31 at 10:08

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