My China Story | Ethan Paul (United States)

Ethan Paul, raised in the small town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, graduated from Penn State University in 2018 with a Bachelor's of Arts in political science and a minor in economics. His senior honors thesis sought to apply power transition theory to the U.S.-Sino relationship, and offered policy recommendations meant to ensure this transition is both peaceful and mutually beneficial. Ethan's primary academic interests include U.S. and Chinese grand strategy, the role that racism plays in American politics and culture, and the relationship between technological change and societal disruption. As a Yenching Scholar, Ethan researches Chinese grand strategy in the era of Trump and America's growing political dysfunction. After his time in Beijing, he hopes to work as a journalist, as a Foreign Service officer, or on Capitol Hill, and would eventually like to write his own book and run for office.

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Growing up as a young boy in one of the many small, deindustrializing towns that dot the United States, I had never given much thought to China, other than to recognize it simply as the source of my massive toy collection. This distance between myself and the Middle Kingdom remained as I entered Penn State to study political science, where I was initially seized by questions whose boundaries I confined primarily to American life: How will the U.S. deal with the inevitable wave of widespread automation? Why can’t we get our political systems to actively tackle the threat of climate change? How much are we going to allow technology to alter our way of life?

This narrow and constricted worldview was upended when I found myself in Beijing during the summer of 2016, half-way through my time at Penn State. The intellectual journey that led me there started the prior semester, when I had somewhat impulsively taken a class about China’s political economy, where I got my first real taste of Chinese history in the form of Deng Xiaoping’s “Opening Up and Reform” policy initiatives. In the midst of Donald Trump’s roiling presidential campaign, within a larger context of the American political system’s current state of dysfunctionality and general inability to grapple with both mundane and existential issues of governance, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms served as a stark, brilliant breath of fresh air, an example of sound economic policy being applied to a difficult and complex problem with deft political skill. From there, following a pattern similar to many Americans that have come before me, I found myself inexorably drawn to China: I immersed myself in the nuances of Chinese history, began down the long and winding path that is learning Mandarin, and booked a study abroad trip to Peking University.

It was there in Beijing, as I was having my first direct interactions with Chinese culture and history, and as I was being peppered with questions from students of all nationalities about the forces driving Donald Trump’s rapid political rise, that I began to put the pieces together. Over the two weeks I spent in Beijing, I realized our generation was standing at a crossroads in history: the United States, long the country that guided the development of the international order and determined what rules would govern it, was now entering a period of prolonged and sustained decline, while China, a country that had gone from the world’s greatest power in the 18th century to one divied up and pillaged by foreigners for a century thereafter, was clearly on the rise, ready to resume its rightful place in history. I saw this trend not only in the signs that international relations scholars typically identify, such as the 2008 financial crisis, but also in the raw energy and interest of the Chinese people.

It is within this context that I began to see old issues in a new light, and how the fate of the United States, including my small remote hometown, will be inextricably linked with China’s over the coming century. The U.S. cannot hope to create a stable and equitable global economy, fight climate change, halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or manage the culturally disruptive nature of technological change without China at its side. Perhaps more importantly, what can certainly not be allowed to happen is for the U.S.-China relationship to fall down the same rabbit hole of fear, confrontation, escalation, and military conflict that similar “power transitions” have followed in the past.

This new worldview helped guide and ground my final two years at Penn State, became the central topic of my senior honors thesis, and is what ultimately drove me to come to Beijing and participate in the Yenching Academy. If the U.S.-China relationship is to be managed, in a way that is both peaceful and promotes cooperation on issues of global importance, then it needs to become the responsibility of all Americans to directly engage with China and gain a better understanding of it and its outlook on the world. By coming to Yenching, I will not only be doing my part in this mission, but I will be well-positioned to return to the U.S. and share my insights with my fellow Americans, for the benefit of not only the U.S. and China, but the entire world.