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The view from China: DKU reacts to the 2020 election

This is a special election edition of The Kunshan Report. Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.

On the morning of Nov. 4 in China, laptop screens on the Duke Kunshan campus glowed with the red-and-blue Electoral College map for the U.S. election. WeChat Moments—China’s equivalent of a Facebook feed—showed screenshots, words of encouragement and amateur commentary on the state of the race. 

“I’ve never seen Chinese people pay such close attention to a U.S. election before,” wrote Ray Zhu, a junior majoring in political economy, in a message to The Chronicle. “Even the news of one state flipping has ranked at the top of the most searched hashtags on Weibo [a popular social media site].”

As students on Duke’s campus watched the nail-biting election unfold, they were joined by their fellow students in China. DKU students watched nervously, knowing that the outcome, though thousands of miles away, would have effects close to home.  

“The whole world was on edge for this [election],” junior Elva Yu wrote in a message. 

Yu also expressed her surprise at the eagerness of Americans to vote amid a pandemic. 

“The American people have enough confidence and enthusiasm to actively fulfill their voting rights even when their lives and safety are threatened by disease,” Yu wrote.

A faculty member and an administrator who have returned to campus from abroad echoed these sentiments. 

“We all watched the news obsessively, and I woke up to scroll through the results in the middle of every night since Nov. 4,” wrote Zach Fredman, an assistant professor of history at DKU who voted absentee from China, in an email.

Fredman was relieved that Biden won. 

“There was a palpable sense on campus that DKU would have a difficult time surviving another four years of Trump,” Fredman wrote. “Everyone will be able to breathe easier now.”

DKU’s Dean of Students Raphael Moffett maintains a cautiously optimistic outlook for the months ahead, noting the difficulties facing international students unable to travel to China. 

“The environment on campus has been positive, but we are all ready for our community to be together again,” Moffett wrote in an email, adding that “we are definitely keeping an eye on what is going to take place with the presidential transition between now and January so we are mindful of the implications for students, faculty, and staff at DKU.”

In the lead-up to Nov. 3, DKU hosted a variety of events focused on the election, including “China Factor in the U.S. Election,” hosted by DKU’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China on Oct. 15. The event, headlined by Melanie Manion, co-director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, focused on the Electoral College, public perceptions of China in the United States and the future of China-U.S. relations. 

DKU also hosted a pre-election debate on Oct. 26 titled "The Downward Spiral in U.S.-China Relations: Can The Two Countries' Opposing Views Be Reconciled For A Better Future.” First-year Shanheng Gu, an attendee, expressed his surprise at the high level of interest in the election. As a student attending a Duke program in China, he was also concerned for the future.

“It was quite surprising that lots of DKU students (including undergraduates and visiting students) and professors took part. Students were most concerned about how the changes in U.S.-China relations will impact their studies,” Gu wrote in a message to The Chronicle. 

Though the new administration may be more open to engaging with China diplomatically, some believe there will be no decrease in tensions between the countries. 

“It’s certain that the ambiguous political strategy towards China that existed in the Obama era will be gone forever,” wrote Yu, who had planned to study abroad at Duke this year. “It will be replaced by an ongoing clash between China and the Biden administration.” 

Had President Trump won a second term in office, some students from China would have decided against studying at DKU or abroad in the United States. 

“If Donald Trump wins, I will probably exclude the U.S. from my destinations for graduate study,” said George Xu, a first-year who had been closely following the election, before the winner was announced.

Likewise, the outcome of the election will influence students in China’s parents’ views on allowing their students to attend the undergraduate program at DKU. 

First-year Ruiqi Chen said that Chinese parents were “very sensitive” to developments in China-U.S. relations. They fear that intensifying conflict between two superpowers would endanger their children’s education at DKU, not to mention their prospects of study abroad and graduate school in the U.S. 

Looking ahead, it’s unlikely the University’s position as a global hub will change under the Biden administration. International student enrollment has remained consistent, with about 80 first-years enrolling in the Class of 2024 from abroad even with COVID-19 and heightened China-U.S. tensions. The campus’s Phase II construction is underway, and there are plans to bring international students back to China in the coming months.

For now, Biden’s historic victory in the election has given DKU “reason to be hopeful,” Emily McWilliams, an assistant professor of philosophy at DKU, wrote in a message to The Chronicle. 

“Many of us feel like we can exhale for the first time in four years, and we should celebrate that!” McWilliams wrote. 

Charlie Colasurdo is Kunshan Report editor and a sophomore in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China. Jerry Zheng is a first-year in the third-ever graduating class. 

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