Editor’s note: Matthew McGee graduated from Cornell in May as a double major in CAPS and Government, with distinction in all subjects, and was also the recipient of the CAPS’ 2017 Sherman Cochran Prize.
His class chose him to present the student address at the CAPS 2017 Commencement Ceremony in Barnes Hall auditorium.
Parents, students, faculty, and friends: Good afternoon, and thank you. It is an honor to have been selected by my peers to speak before you all today. To my fellow CAPS class of 2017 graduates: We made it! Four years ago, few of us knew Chinese or had visited China, and fewer still could speak about the workings of Chinese bureaucracy or the Chinese Communist Party.
However, to quote an American Civil War general, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” Thanks to our resolve, the steadfast dedication of our professors, and more than a few cups of coffee at Libe Café, we have gained the necessary tools to enter a rapidly changing world.
We are on the cusp of entering a society saturated with fake news, where feeling is sometimes more important than fact, and where all too often the response to an alternate viewpoint is just to talk louder.
As budding China scholars, we are poised to confront a reality where the global economic, political, and even moral superiority of the United States is increasingly challenged by China.
Our education at Cornell, and specifically with CAPS, has prepared us for these challenges. We have had the opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds in Chinese politics and international relations in Ithaca, Washington, and Beijing. And the unique nature of CAPS has given us the opportunity to engage with real-world issues in our internships during our time away from Ithaca.
It is now incumbent upon us to take these lessons and experiences from the past four years and proactively apply them in our future careers. We have all had our beliefs challenged in some way since coming to Cornell, and as we enter adult life, this will undoubtedly continue to be the case.
Going forward, we must have the courage and the fortitude of will to engage with others and defend our positions, while also being pragmatic enough to understand and learn from those with whom we disagree.
One of the most contentious issues is the role of China in the world. It is one that inspires a range of emotions from defeatism to ultra-nationalism—and it is critical that we ground our convictions in fact and engage in open, informed dialogue. Even if some of us never work directly with China, most of us will be impacted by it, in one way or another.
A few weeks ago I was speaking with an Air Force officer at Syracuse University, and he was telling me that as I approach graduation, the events happening in the news right now are what is going to shape and define my career and legacy. For him, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, these formative events were the Balkan Wars and 9/11.
Today, we are embarking on a journey into a much more connected world than he did just twenty years ago. The challenges we will face include China’s economic rise, North Korea, the global refugee crisis, terrorism, and declining confidence in the post-WWII global order. All of these, in one way or another, have a connection to China, and whether we go into law, journalism, academia, business, or government, we will almost certainly confront them in our professional lives.
Luckily for us, CAPS’ mission is to “[make] Cornell this nation’s best site for China policy studies.” With so many high-caliber faculty members sitting here today, it is clear that CAPS has succeeded.
When I interned at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C. a few years ago, I struck up a conversation with a random research assistant one day while I was eating lunch, and the second I mentioned Cornell his face lit up and he started raving about Professor Andrew Mertha’s work. Indeed, whenever I read about contemporary Chinese politics, I am almost certain to see CAPS faculty in the footnotes.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that having this world-class education in Chinese history, culture, and politics yielded tangible results during our semester in Beijing. For example, learning in my freshman year about the complex issues in Xinjiang in "China and the World" with Professor Allen Carlson gave me added context and insight when Max, Cole, Amanda, and I traveled there in October (though nothing could have prepared us for crashing a Uighur wedding or exploring the subterranean nightmare known as 十八层地狱, or the “18 levels of Hell”).
After today we will scatter across the country, and across the globe. Our professors and mentors at Cornell have given us the tools to confront a world that is more interconnected than ever before, and a country that is more divided than at any point in more than a generation. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, we will soon begin crossing the river by feeling the stones.
As we face obstacles and uncertainty in the years ahead, it is important that we continue to be courageous advocates for what is right; to be unafraid to challenge our own beliefs; to engage in informed debate; and to promote peace and understanding between China, the United States, and peoples of all nations.
Being a CAPS major and studying with you all has been the honor and joy of my lifetime. From the depths of Kroch Library to the smoggy streets of Beijing, it’s been one heck of a ride, and as we get ready to go our separate ways, I would like to just say thank you, and 加油.