A constant theme of the documentary was the recent presidential election, especially as it pertains to the scholars' personal stories. Was that intentional or did it just come about naturally?
KL: When we first started this project, we didn't set out to have the presidential election as a theme, but on virtually every piece I work on, major news stories have impacts on our subjects just as they would on any member of the general public. The presidential election was a major story, if not the major story during the first semester of the Scholars program. And because of that, it emerged as a major theme for our documentary.
JS: Steve Schwarzman's not-so-hidden agenda for the Schwarzman Scholars program is to create an ongoing relationship among future world leaders so they'll be able to tamp down tensions as they arise between China and the West. As a result, the election campaign and particularly then-candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric about China were a perfect context in which to watch the scholars converge and experience their year.
After filming with the scholars and getting to know them and their stories, what path do you see each of them taking? Do you think we will be hearing more about them in the future?
KL: I expect that many of them eventually will work in public service, whether that's in elected office or working for state or federal agencies. All of them take on multiple projects and have interests in a variety of areas, and I think that will be reflected in their future careers. I fully expect more than a few of the 110 scholars to be in the public eye as either experts in their field or as government officials in the next 20 years.
JS: These are very ambitious young people. At the same time, many of them are genuinely interested in service. So I expect to hear from them whether they become politicians, health care officials, business people or environmental stewards.
Based on your experience in China, what were your key takeaways about the people, the country and its culture?
KL: I've been traveling to China since 1993 and it's hard to summarize its people in a few sentences because the generations are so different. You have an older population that has lived in China during extremely difficult times (the great famine and the Cultural Revolution), who hardly left their own province, much less the country itself; a middle generation that grew up into adults during the massive changes of the 90s and the aughts and who were able to travel outside the borders of China on a limited basis; and then a younger generation who have only seen China during the prosperous times of the last 20 years and travel like the millennials of other countries – couch-surfing, hostels and Airbnb. Throw into the mix the fact that virtually everyone born after 1979 grew up as only children, whereas all their parents are from families with multiple siblings, and you have people with very different perspectives on themselves, on China and on their place in the world.
Generally, I think most people are quite nationalistic or patriotic, but about China itself as a country and culture … not necessarily about its politics. China as a culture is thousands of years old and, before the Western powers arrived a couple of hundred years ago, China was the dominant nation in the Asia-Pacific region. ... Chinese people think in very long terms and, looking towards the future, they view their culture and their country in the same way: That China, as it was in the old days, will be a superpower for many years to come.
JS: China is a very proud and ambitious nation. It will be fascinating to see whether it can peacefully continue its race toward economic and regional advancement while balancing the spinning plates of political expression, a growing middle class and generational struggle.
This interview has been edited and condensed.