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Project Pengyou: Bringing together friends from US and China

Project Pengyou (meaning friend), an online alumni network for the US Department of State’s “100,000 Strong Initiative”, recently hosted a reception at the US Embassy in Beijing celebrating educational exchange between the US and China.

Launched in 2010 with the aim to bring 100,000 Americans to study in China by the end of 2014, the “100,000 Strong Initiative” has entered its final year in 2014 while Project Pengyou, the “alumni network” for the initiative, entered its third year of building a global community of Americans with China experience.

Group photo with US Ambassador Gary Locke taken at the reception at the US Embassy in Beijing on February 12. Photo: Courtesy of the US Embassy

What is Project Pengyou?

Run by the Golden Bridges Foundation, a US-registered public charity with operations in Beijing, Project Pengyou is the first nonprofit social network to connect and serve American study abroad programs in China and their students’ alumni communities. It was created and developed in 2011 in response to a call of the US State Department to build an online alumni network for the 100,000 Strong Initiative. Project Pengyou was supported by Ford Foundation, the founding donor and major grant provider, as well as Deloitte, which made a contribution to the project in 2012.

As the name suggests, Project Pengyou’s main goal is to encourage constructive and amiable relations between Americans and Chinese, and to strengthening people-to-people engagement between the two countries. It is not exclusive to Americans with China experience, but open to every American who is interested in China. By setting up an account at, one can connect with Project Pengyou’s over 2,500 active members and 203 groups. Also available on the network are the latest China-focused jobs, events, and news.

Another of Project Pengyou’s chief missions is to keep their members engaged with China after they return to the US. Such engagement could be achieved through simple things such as sharing one’s China experience with friends and family, creating a video about one’s experience or organizing a China-related event. The members are also encouraged to help their Chinese friends come and study in the US or mentor a future Pengyou who is interested in studying in China.

In China, Project Pengyou also organizes many offline events to help American students better understand the Chinese society and culture. This grassroots program is part of the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE), the official bilateral dialogue that aims to strengthen the ties between the citizens of the two countries.

At the reception, Project Pengyou announced its groundbreaking “Leadership Fellows” program at Harvard University which will begin in March, 2014. Under the project, 100 young American “China alumni” will be selected as leadership fellows and receive training in grassroots organizational skills and practical cross-cultural skills. Through these young leaders, Project Pengyou will set up chapters across the US which will serve as grassroots hubs for China study, China events, jobs and resources.

Gary Lockes endorsement

The outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke who attended the reception on February 12 as part of his farewell tour in China, expressed his appreciation for the “great work Project Pengyou has done over the past two and a half years” promoting educational exchange between the US and China which is instrumental in helping to create “a well-informed, mature and productive US China relationship”.

US Ambassador Gary Locke speaking at the Project Pengyou reception. Photo: Courtesy of Project Pengyou

He revealed that there are only about 18,000 to 20,000 Americans who study in China right now as opposed to some 200,000 Chinese students studying in America. “To improve China-US relations, we simply need more Americans to study here," Locke said.

“When Project Pengyou was launched in 2011, it was actually one of the very first speeches that I gave as US ambassador,” Locke recalled. He expressed his hope that with the help of Project Pengyou, both the number and the diversity of the students studying in China could be expanded.

“There is no more important or consequential relationship in the world than the relationship between US and China. It is important that we have more Americans with experience in China. We need Americans who understand the history, the culture, the language, and the customs (of China).”

“We need people from all over America (to come and study in China), not just students from leading universities or top research institutions, but also from inner city schools, community colleges, and high schools. All Americans have a stake in this important and complex relationship," he noted.

Chief Pengyou: Holly Changs story

At the reception, founder of Golden Bridges Foundation and Chief Pengyou of the Pengyou Project, Holly Chang, told her personal story which led her to work on building friendship between China and the US.

Born in Malaysia and immigrated to the US at the age of four, Holly had a turbulent relationship with her parents growing up. “I really just wanted to be American and I pushed my Chinese-ness away," she said. It was not until she learnt about her father’s open-heart surgery did she come to the realization that the misunderstanding and conflict between her and her parents was due to “something wrong with our communication”.

The realization prompted Holly to quickly learn some Chinese. In 2006, she quit her well-paid job and comfortable life in the US and came to study in Tsinghua University in Beijing where she came to a bigger realization that the cold war between her and her parents was not unique to them, but rather a microcosm of a much broader phenomena.

Holly Chang (right) poses with Joe Wong (middle), the famous Chinese American comedian who also attended the reception and announced the winner of "The Pengyou Ambassadors Challenge" raffle draw: Justin Perkinson (left), a Fulbright fellow in China. Photo: Courtesy of Project Pengyou

“The cultural gaps are deep-rooted,” Holly said. “I felt the sense of urgency to build bridges.” With that in mind, she invested her life savings to start the Golden Bridges Foundation in 2007 to promote mutual understanding between China and the west through charitable projects. In 2011, Golden Bridges Foundation was selected as the nonprofit partner of the US State Department to build Project Pengyou.

In an interview with, Holly voiced the concerns of many American students studying in China. “From what I learnt, most of them really want to stay. But it is very difficult for them to get visas to stay and work in China. This is one area I would really love to see improvement in the coming years.”

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