The Stanford China Scholars Program (CSP) is about to launch its fifth session this fall, with 20 high school students from across the country participating in the online course. The Northeast, South, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Texas, and California are all represented in this cohort of 10th through 12th graders. Thursday evenings, these high school students will log in and join a real-time session with a scholar from Stanford or another university to discuss an aspect of contemporary China—the U.S.–China trade war, perhaps, or the legacy of the Mao era, or internet censorship and surveillance technologies in China, or China’s efforts to combat pollution and climate change. The rest of the week is filled with readings on that theme, discussed online with classmates.
The Stanford CSP’s focus on contemporary China means that the course material is constantly changing, to keep up with the ever-shifting political landscape under the leadership of Xi and Trump. It also requires the students to engage with the idea of China as not only a thoroughly modern nation but a forward-looking one, challenging the tendency to essentialize China as an ancient civilization mired in the past. Former CSP student Angela Yang (Fall 2018) credits the online course with helping her “contextualize China’s transformation as it’s happening, which is something you wouldn’t really be able to study in any other kind of course.”
Although all of the high school students are exceptionally well prepared academically, their background knowledge on China at the beginning of the online course varies considerably. Some bring strong knowledge of international issues generally, but little specific to China; some have already studied China in some depth. A few come from Chinese families, and a third to a half of the students have been studying Chinese language for several years.
Over the past year, attention has gravitated towards the U.S.–China trade war, perhaps inevitably, and its roots and possible outcomes, as well as the PRC’s ramping up of censorship and surveillance technologies, particularly in Xinjiang. Yet overall, discussions with our guest experts and among the students are fundamentally optimistic: constructive change is possible, and the United States and China have far more to gain from peace than from conflict.
The students round out the program with an independent research paper. Students’ chosen research topics in 2018–19 were as diverse as they were. Example research papers included a discussion of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as it applies to China’s claims in the South China Sea; the mental health of rural “left-behind” children; China’s economic expansion in Africa; rock ‘n’ roll in the democracy movement of the 1980s; the international effects of China’s restrictions on imported waste for recycling; and many others.
In synthesizing knowledge this diverse, students come to understand just how complex China and the challenges it faces are. They can no longer reduce China to simple generalizations. “The truth is that all of China’s problems aren’t just limited to numbers, statistics or graphs,” Junhee Park (CSP Spring 2018) wrote in response to a documentary film on migrant workers. “They affect everyone of us, whether we are Chinese or not.”
The China Scholars Program is one of several online courses for high school students offered by SPICE, Stanford University, including the Sejong Scholars Program (on Korea) and the Reischauer Scholars Program (on Japan).