One of the best ways for the United States to promote its form of democracy is to recruit students from other countries to study here. This is referred to as “soft power.” There is some evidence that over the last century, some foreign students returned to their country with a new motivation to move their system toward a more democratic system based in their history but inspired by their experiences here.
Times are changing. Many European students who now come from countries where everyone gets health care are puzzled by our unwillingness to provide equitable health care for all Americans. They also witness our growing rates of poverty, with one-third of our school children now being food insecure. Our recent foreign policy toward their countries has become one of economic threats.
More international college students arrive here to find much lower standards of living than they had assumed from the imported films and media about America that they had watched. Many are alarmed by the lack of U.S. economic development, especially in small towns and rural areas. More now finish their degrees and return to their home country where they often find opportunities are now greater than staying in the United States.
This year, Professor Yingyi Ma of Syracuse University released her in-depth interviews of Asian students who have come to the United States. In her book; “Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education,” she records one college student who came here thinking “Everything about the U.S. was ideal to me.” But she was soon disillusioned.
She continued: “I realize that ‘one person, one vote’ is not necessarily a good system at all. It might work sometimes, but it will not work for China. Even here [in America], such a system has not worked so effectively. Now Americans have to live with the Trump presidency. Everybody around me is complaining. I thought, ‘Hey, Trump was elected by the American people. What is wrong with you?”
The interviewer asks: “So you desired democracy before you came to the U.S.?”
She replies: “Certainly I did. I felt it was an equal and effective system. But now I do not think it will work for China.”
The interviewer asks: “Why not?”
She replies: “Because people are not as informed, and may not make good judgements. Look at Trump voters. Now they have to suffer from the bad choices they made and all the bad policies. Chinese leaders are not elected through a democratic system, but that does not mean they cannot govern well Even some Western scholars...consider Chinese society to be well governed.”
The pandemic has brought the incompetence of the current American system to the forefront.
A researcher from York University in Canada surveyed 19,816 people across 31 regions in China in April 2020, and summarized his results in “The Conversation.” Respondents were assured their responses would be anonymous. “Taken together, it’s evident that Chinese citizens hold very high levels of satisfaction with the performance of their national government during the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, surveys by Reuters/IPSOS show levels of American public confidence in our government’s handling of the pandemic to be much lower, about half the China number.
Of course some of this effect is not governmental but cultural. America is by far the most extreme in “collective individualism.” While many tolerated “no shoes, no service” policies, they consider requirements to wear a mask to protect other’s lives to be a violation of their “freedom.”
China on the other hand is an Asian collectivist-oriented society, and has been wearing masks each winter to protect others from colds and the flu, long before SARS and COVID-19 arrived. Sheltering in place in China for this serious pandemic did not require force or coercion; it is what you do in a crowded country. And it is why China has eliminated the coronavirus and returned to normal (except at certain entry points). Along with the collectivist cultures in democratic South Korea and Taiwan, their economies are back up and life is returning to normal.
“Soft power” requires leading by good examples. To outsiders, the U.S. is a bad example.