Eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to bring 50,000 U.S. students to China to stabilize ties, Beijing has made its largest outreach yet. For some Americans, the most progress came in surprising moments outside the official program.

Groups affiliated with the Chinese government welcomed some 220 young Americans to a weeklong bonding festival in the southeastern province of Fujian last month. But while many U.S. attendees said they were grateful to visit the world’s No. 2 economy, several criticized the youth festival as scripted and lacking open dialogue.

With ties between the two superpowers tense over Beijing’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and the tally of U.S. tariffs on Chinese exports growing, sessions on tree planting and puppet shows failed to address the biggest issues, two U.S. attendees said.