The Merits of Virtual Engagement – Reflections on Attending the 2021 Yenching Global Symposium

Founded in 2014, Peking University’s Yenching Academy provides a rigorous Master’s program for the multidisciplinary study of China and the Yenching Global Symposium (YGS) is an annual, highly competitive, symposium made up of engaging lectures, panel discussions, and interactive sessions addressing both China’s impact on the world and the influence that the world has on China.

Keen to learn more about the Yenching Academy? Check out our previous post on it here.

Each year, the symposium features prominent Chinese and international speakers across a wide range of fields, including both scholars and leading professionals. These leaders of today share their insights with their global counterparts – students and young professionals from around the world with a noted passion for China in their work and research.

This year, the symposium was hosted online, bringing together over 150 delegates from 61 countries. As one of the Delegates, I share some of my reflection on the three memorable and intensive days making up #YGS2021.

Breaking Geographical, Cultural and Interdisciplinary Boundaries

Photo of Tai Chi Workshop by YGS

The theme of YGS 2021 was “Shared Renewal: Recoupling East with West” and delegates had the opportunity to engage in panels, fireside chats, a G20 simulation, a tai-chi workshop (pictured above), a virtual campus tour/ art exhibition and several social activities. While sliding back into back-to-back 90-minute Zoom sessions was a bit challenging for those of us no longer used to university classes, the YSG organisers created a diverse program that included cultural performances and opportunities for delegates to ask questions and engage both with the distinguished expert speakers and each other.

Personally, the cultural performances and art exhibition hosted in Yenching Academy’s Jingyuan, struck a deep chord with me, bringing back vivid memories from my time in Beijing and helping create an atmosphere of being present and engaged with China – which is one of the key aims of the Symposium.

YGS Exhibition – Through Our Door

Interested in checking out the art exhibition for yourself? Stay tuned for details on the virtual exhibition launch event in May!

From an academic and business perspective, the Symposium program effectively shone a spotlight on issues that call for a more nuanced understanding of both Chinese and global perspectives – including the rise of AI technology, climate change, the Belt and Road Initiative, education, public health and the geopolitics of China’s rise.

In the words of a fellow Australian delegate, Bayan Yazdani, engaging with Chinese perspectives of global issues is increasingly critical moving forward:

“The Chinese understand us and our worldview generally much better than we understand theirs. In moments like now with all that the world is enduring, hearing Chinese leaders’ perspectives on critical issues such as climate change, humanity’s relationship with technology, and global governance was not only refreshing but also invaluable for building true understanding when it is needed most to overcome our common challenges.” 

Bayan Yazdani, YGS 2021 Delegate

Forging Global Personal and Professional Links 

Screenshot from one of the YGS lectures, (virtually) side-by-side with a fellow Australian delegate, Bayan Yazdani

While attending a virtual symposium or conference can seem less valuable than then offline counterparts, it’s wrong to discount the power of online connectivity. In addition to gaining insights into complex issues affecting the region and broadening one’s perspective on the debates across business and academia – networking remained a core part of YGS in 2021. 

Given the interactivity of the lectures and other activities, it was clear that delegated and Yenching scholars grew more comfortable with sharing their thoughts and responding to the opinions of others – as the Zoom chat grew more dynamic with each passing day. 

Additionally, delegates were encouraged to arrange pre/post-YGS regional Zoom catch up sessions with their peers, and even outside of that format I found that striking up Zoom chat conversations with several delegates across various regions. One highlight was finally e-meeting Bayan, who is an active figure in the Australia-China space and someone who has been on my radar for some time – who would have guessed that YGS would be the forum that finally brought us together!

Virtual Symposiums – Are They Worth It? 

YGS Closing Ceremony Performance – Peking Opera

As a parting note, I wanted to take a look at the mission and vision of Yenching Global Symposium and to reflect on whether it was effectively realised in this year’s unusual virtual interpretation. Looking at the statements below, it’s clear that YGS 2021 can be seen as a resounding success – possibly even more striking given the pressing need for global dialogues and the ability of Zoom to effectively overcome geographical barriers. 

  • YGS MISSION: 
    • The Yenching Global Symposium (YGS) provides a platform for emerging leaders, established practitioners, and Yenching Scholars around the globe to engage in interdisciplinary dialogues on China through the unique lens of the Yenching Academy of Peking University. 
  • YGS VISION: 
    • By exploring key issues related to China and the world, the Yenching Global Symposium (YGS) seeks to enable emerging leaders, established practitioners and Yenching Scholars to develop informed solutions to global problems. 

Of course, as I alluded to earlier, a three-day virtual symposium can seem daunting. For those readers who is no longer used to days jam-packed with university lectures, I recommend making sure that you prepare a tailored strategy to keep your focus for the duration of the symposium or activity to plan to attend.

In the case of YGS, while the symposium itself was fairly balanced with different types of lectures, workshops and performances, I tried my best to make the most to the 15-minute/ 1-hour/ other breaks in the program to take walks in my neighbourhood, change up the venue (for instance, I alternated joining from cafes, WeWork and home) and arranged catch-ups with other delegates post (rather than during) YGS to avoid overloading myself.

Delegates putting up their hands to ask questions during YGS

Additionally, it’s especially important to engage with the discussion – be it by asking questions, commenting on the thoughts of other delegates or even employing Zoom’s reactions tools to demonstrate your thoughts. Learn, ask questions, and most importantly, remember to have fun with the program – it isn’t something that was forced upon you and is a great opportunity to forge connections with your peers and potential mentors!

Looking for more insights on attending virtual conferences? Check out this piece on ANU’s 2020 Asia Pacific Week Conference by our China Correspondent, Zach Eggleston!

Although, of course, it was regrettable we could not attend YGS in Peking University’s picturesque campus, the benefits of YGS outweigh the excuses of postponing your application should a similar virtual opportunity come across your path, particularly since the timeline of the resumption of international travel remains uncertain.

In the words of a fellow delegate:

“Don’t think what could’ve been if it were held in person. Leadership is not something to be put on hold. Embrace the opportunity, no matter what form it takes, and you’ll be surprised how much it exceeds your expectations.”

Bayan Yazdani, YGS 2021 Delegate
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Kate Kalinova

Kate Kalinova is a Project Manager at the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) in Korea. She writes for Asia Options and Korea.net.

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