GW Students Tackle Cyberspace Issues During China Trip

Visit over winter recess included participation in the 2016 World Internet Conference.

World Internet Conference
The GW delegation poses for a photo during a visit to Alibaba. (Courtesy photo)
January 27, 2016

By James Irwin

Students enrolled in the Elliott School of International Affairs must complete a foreign language requirement to earn their degrees. Howard Goodison selected Chinese—a decision that came in handy last month.

Mr. Goodison, a junior, was part of a George Washington University delegation that spent five days over winter break in Wuzhen at the second annual World Internet Conference. The conference, which discussed the future governance of cyberspace, featured remarks from Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations Wu Hongbo, as well as Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

“I thought it was an incredible opportunity to analyze and experience a culture,” Mr. Goodison said. “And I had the opportunity to attend a conference that showed the clear power dynamics between East and West.”

In addition to providing Mr. Goodison with a chance to extensively practice his Chinese (he declared a minor in the language to go with a major in international development), the trip offered students an opportunity to engage in an important conversation on the future of the Internet, said Doug Shaw, senior associate provost for international strategy.

“Decisions on this topic will shape global freedom of expression, innovation, commerce and security,” said Dr. Shaw, who served as staff liaison on the trip along with Taoran Sun, executive director of global initiatives in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

It was an experience too good to pass up for Alexandra Blanc, a dual degree student in the School of Business studying information systems technology management. She is used to traveling, having grown up in France, Brazil and the United States. That China was hosting a global Internet conference was of particular interest to her and Mr. Goodison, given the country’s online censorship laws.

“The Internet isn’t exactly open in China,” Ms. Blanc said. “But in some ways, to them, the Internet is very open because they have the equivalent to what everyone else has. They have a Chinese version of Google, they have a Chinese Amazon—Alibaba. It was interesting to hear the Chinese side of the story.”

Mr. Goodison delivered a speech as part of a plenary panel that also featured a student from Harvard University, a student from Princeton University, and several Chinese students. His remarks, which focused on recognizing the Internet as a resource for global good, drew parallels to the Silk Road, an overland route established during the Han Dynasty (207 BC-220 AD) that opened trade between China and the West and led to an exchange of goods, philosophies, religions, cultures and information.

"I feel the Internet has a similar function. I think there is room to come together and collaborate to help our societies regardless of our views and ideologies,” Mr. Goodison said. “There are issues—economic empowerment, education, hunger, health care, water sanitation—that impact East and West, Africa, the Americas, everyone. We can use the Internet and social media to implement solutions.”

It was a proud moment for Dr. Shaw.

“Howard represented GW to technology leaders from around the world with imagination, sensitivity to other perspectives and a vision for building understanding,” he said.

The visit doubled as a cultural experience. The GW delegation visited museums and historical landmarks on tours arranged by the All China Youth Federation. The group also attended an opera. Despite the jetlag and long days, it was a fulfilling experience.

“The cultural activities were great,” Mr. Goodison said. “Interacting with people, getting their view on the world and getting to have those conversations in English and Chinese were really interesting. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Ms. Blanc, making her first trip to China, learned it is a country of contrast, marked by megacities and industrial districts, but also by traditions that stretch to the dynastic system. The GW group visited a Buddhist temple, and the juxtaposition between the temple and the conference left a deep impression.

“It’s something that is stuck in time—the monks still live as they lived 500 years ago,” she said. “You have this country that doesn’t allow its citizens to have total access to the rest of the world, yet that also allows [China] to remain traditional in a very beautiful way. It’s kept all its traditions.”

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