Youth Fusion interviews Dr Tong Zhao

AH: What can we (as university students/the younger generation) learn from your generation?

TZ: Certainly, there is a generational change with younger generations being better educated, more multilingual, more tech savvy and exposed to more opportunities at an early age. But I think even within one generation there are always people who are more informed, more willing to learn, more modest, and more aspired to become intelligent, whereas there are always other people who make less efforts to become informed and more satisfied with not knowing much about things. Within one generation, it’s the individual efforts that will make a lot of difference. 

In terms of generational difference, I think in some areas my generation is little more fortunate. We grew up in an environment where China was becoming gradually more connected with the outside world. We felt very inspired, and the world was available to us. We felt we can do anything as long as we try. There’s no limitation or major obstacles. I think the next generation is provided with a different environment. China is becoming more inward-looking, and China may become less and less connected with the rest of the world. That’s a very big challenge that the younger generations need to deal with. They live in an environment where people have new mindsets: they think there’s less need to understand foreign perspectives because China is so strong; it’s time for China to draw international rules and norms; western countries are so biased that there’s no use talking to them; and as long as we can build up China’s power, things would be fine. I think this is a very different environment from the previous one we grew up in. For that reason, I think young experts who grow up in this period of time would have to make even more individual efforts to break the information cocoon, to come out of their comfort zones, and develop independent thinking. Young scholars need to be really willing to enrich themselves, make individual efforts, understand their own mission of life, and pursue the work that they think is worth their life/their time.

AH: Is there something your generation can learn from us? 

TZ: I believe the younger generations are more aware of the meaning of their individual life. For my generation, in many cases, our life just is to go with the flow. You are taught to do this and that, and you do it without thinking too much about it. That means sometimes our life is pretty determined by the system and the society. We felt we were in control of our own life but in fact we just went with the flow. To some extent, that was OK, because the entire system and the entire society was moving in the direction of being more open and liberal. 

For your generation, I think many of you want to take control of your own life, you don’t care too much about whether you would be judged by foreigners, strangers, or other groups of people in the society. I think that’s encouraging. As becoming older, I feel I should have thought more thoroughly about the meaning of my life and what I want to do in my short decades of career and life. Young people would benefit from having this sense of mission early on in their life and develop individual perspectives on everything that is important to their own life, including what they want to do, the research they want to pursue, what impact they want to leave in this world. 

Again, this is an era where there are abundant resources and opportunities. If you are aware of them, if you make explicit efforts at it, you can always learn and grow very quickly and equip yourself with many new modern tools that were not available to my generation when we were young. Life is much more unlimited for your generation as long as you know where you want to go, what you want to do, and who you want to become.

Some final words to audience from Dr. Zhao

This is a very comprehensive chat. I appreciate the opportunity and all the work you do. I’m very inspired and encouraged by your personal talent and dedication. It’s a great privilege to have this discussion. Wish you all the best. I look forward to future opportunities to engage with you and your colleagues.