'I used to be afraid of China, but now I'm not anymore."

That's Paula Marantz Cohen's mother-in-law. She'd just seen Cohen's documentary Two Universities and the Future of China, airing on WHYY's Y Info channel on Saturday and Sunday.

Cohen, professor of English at Drexel University, says, "That's the best reaction I could have hoped for."

A 2008 visit to China struck Cohen "with the energy and possibilities of this vast country." After two years of writing, calling, and visits to the Chinese embassy in Washington, Cohen returned in 2010 for a scouting visit for a film.

"I wanted to talk to students there as I talk to students here," Cohen says. "Yes, university students are the crème de la crème, but they are the future, as they are in any country. They can tell you why they're there, what their hopes and expectations are."

It was her friend Wei Sun, a professor of engineering both at Drexel and at Tsinghua, who made the big suggestion. "If you want the future leaders of China," he says, "you can . . . find them at Peking University and Tsinghua University [also located in Beijing]. These are the feeders into the country's professional elites. Beijing is a very professional city; in Beijing you feel the passion."

Cohen made contacts at Peking and Tsinghua and struck up a partnership with the official China Education TV. A third visit followed in 2011, and the film was shot, using three U.S. cameramen and some Chinese support staff, in 2012. "My first couple of visits were very much planned for me," she says, "but it was very much less so by the time we started filming."

Drexel chipped in. John Fry, president at Drexel, helped underwrite the film with monetary support from Drexel's LeBow College of Business. The Pennoni Honors College produced the film, with David Jones, dean of the honors college, as executive producer. And a Drexel student helped create subtitles in Mandarin.

It's a short subject, but it introduces us to Peking and Tsinghua - what Cohen calls "China's Harvard and MIT, respectively" - and the students hard, very hard, at work there. "You wouldn't believe how competitive it is," Cohen says, "or how hard they've worked to get where they are. None of them forgets it for a moment. It makes our preparation for the SATs look pale by comparison."

Part of the fascination is simply to see what contemporary life looks like in China. Much is familiar: T-shirts, backpacks, earplugs, video games, kids bicycling around campus, a liking for Big Bang Theory and Gossip Girl, groves of academe, as serene there as here.

Also comforting: These young adults share many of the hopes of their counterparts throughout the world. They want to see that larger world, and they're confident they'll get to see it. More than half of the students at these universities will visit or work in the United States.

Some students were chosen for Cohen to interview, and some were not. Some belonged to the Communist Party and some didn't. Some were wary at first but warmed up, and others were warm from the start.

"On the whole, I found them fresh, flexible, and open-minded," Cohen said. "The experience left me optimistic for the future. To be sure, China has its issues, including human rights, but you really do come away feeling good about these people."

Some of their values may seem surprising, especially for college students, especially when sexuality is the subject. One woman says she doesn't like "the attitude American people have to sex. . . . They . . . treat it just like a game."

These students, although they very much revere their country and its traditions, and are aware of the place of the Party and its authority, nevertheless do feel optimistic and self-actualizing.

One outspoken woman says that "Chinese people go for the safer way. . . . But a more open China, a more challenging world requires Chinese people to be more adventurous. . . . The system is not well developed yet." Another, a student of religion, says she's not allowed access to the best resources online.

Wei says that "teaching in China is still very top-down. There is a long tradition in which the teacher is seen as family. We have a saying: 'If I am your teacher for one day, I will be your father for life.' "

That can mean, Wei says, that "students don't challenge you. Personally, as a teacher, I like to be challenged; that may reflect my 27 years here in the U.S. The idea of thinking for yourself is seen as very attractive in China. But how can you innovate without questioning authority?"

One woman says that, after returning from study abroad in the States, she started "critical thinking" and became "a kind of naughty student in the eyes of the teachers."

The students in Two Universities do speak with occasional candor about their career goals, their country's social mores, and the place of women in Chinese society.

Last March, Cohen got a chance to go back to China and show the completed film at the two universities. How did the students react? "They liked it," she says. "They had a lot to say, but generally they felt it was evenhanded. The main thing I heard was, 'It only scrapes the surface' - which is, of course, true."

Two Universities may soon lead Cohen to two more universities. "I'm hoping," Cohen says, "to do a follow-up: Two Universities and the Future of Israel and Palestine."


'Two Universities and the Future of China'

11:30 a.m. Saturday (Part 1) and 4:30 p.m. Sunday (Part 2)

WHYY Y Info 12.3 (Comcast 258; FIOS 473)


215-854-4406 @jtimpane