When U.S. President Barack Obama announced the 100,000 Strong Initiative in November 2009, setting the goal of sending 100,000 American students to study in China by 2014, it seemed like a lofty aspiration. In the 2008-2009 academic year, only 13,674 American students studied abroad in China. But that number rose steadily over the next five years, with help from private donations and Chinese government scholarships, and in July 2014 that the goal had been met.
Now the American president's back with an even bigger goal and one closer to home. On Sept. 25, in a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is wrapping up an official state visit, Obama announced the launch of "1 Million Strong," an initiative that aims to bring the total number of stateside learners of Mandarin Chinese to 1 million by the year 2020. "If our countries are going to do more together around the world," said Obama, "then speaking each other's language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start."
The new program, administered by the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit that also oversees the 2009 initiative, recognizes the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship and aims to prepare a new generation of U.S. leaders to engage effectively with China. Increasing the number of American students who study Mandarin will "create a pipeline of China-savvy employees in a range of fields" and, Tanner remarked, will "ensure our trade relationship with China continues to benefit the American economy and that the future generation of American entrepreneurs, business owners, journalists, engineers, scientists, doctors, as well as government officials at both the national and state levels, understand China."
The importance and practicality of mastering Chinese has lately become more apparent. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg met with Xi during the president's recent visit to business and technology leaders in Seattle, the founder held a conversation with the Chinese president entirely in Mandarin.
"This is such an inspiring example of how important linguistic and cultural understanding is to enrich U.S.-China relationships in business and beyond," said Jessica Beinecke, founder of Chinese-language learning platform Crazy Fresh Chinese. "Zuckerberg's a busy guy. If he has time to learn Mandarin, so do American high school students."