Published: 23:38, April 8, 2024 | Updated: 09:52, April 9, 2024
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People-to-people exchanges would keep China-US relations in balance
By Andrew KP Leung

On the evening of April 2, President Xi Jinping spoke with US President Joe Biden on the phone following the latter’s request. The two presidents had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on China-US relations and issues of mutual interest.

According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the China-US relationship is beginning to stabilize. This is welcomed by both societies and the international community.

On the other hand, the relationship’s negative factors have also been growing, and this requires attention from both sides. In particular, specific reference is made to a continuing stream of US measures to suppress China’s trade and technology development, adding more and more Chinese entities to sanctions lists under the mantra of “de-risking”. This is hardly conducive to believing that America wants a healthy US-China relationship.

Nevertheless, the two presidents found the phone call to be constructive. The two sides agreed to stay in communication, and tasked their teams to deliver on the “San Francisco Vision”, including consultation mechanisms on diplomatic, economic, financial, commercial and other issues as well as military-to-military communications; dialogue and cooperation in such areas as counternarcotics, artificial intelligence and climate response; taking further steps to expand people-to-people exchanges; and enhancing communication on international and regional issues.

The Chinese side welcomed forthcoming visits to China by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

As the San Francisco Vision sets the tone for the development of China-US relations, it needs to be put in context to explain why people-to-people exchanges would play such a vital role in averting a potential downward spiral of such relations.

In 1985, as a budding junior Party secretary of Zhengding county in China’s northern province of Hebei, Xi Jinping led a five-person agricultural delegation to Muscatine, Iowa, where he stayed with an American family, attended a birthday party and picnicked on a boat with his hosts on the Mississippi River.

In November 2023, when President Xi met his host, President Biden, at the entrance of a banquet hall of Filoli Estate, a country house south of San Francisco, Biden showed his honored guest a nostalgic photo of Xi against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken during his 1985 maiden trip to the US.

At the San Francisco Welcome Dinner on Nov 15 hosted by Friendly Organizations in the United States, President Xi stressed that “the foundation of China-US relations was laid by our peoples”, that “the stories of China-US relations are written by our peoples”, and that “the future of China-US relations will be created by our peoples”.

Reaffirming the need for mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, President Xi recognized the US’ unique history, culture, and geographical position, shaping its distinct development path and social system.

He pointed out, “China never bets against the United States, and never interferes in its internal affairs. China has no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it.” “China will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone.” “China is pursuing high-quality development, and the United States is revitalizing its economy. There is plenty of room for our cooperation, and we are fully able to help each other succeed and achieve win-win outcomes.”

He then announced that China would invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years to increase exchanges between the two peoples.

Apart from this being the US presidential election year, there are two vital dynamics at play in America’s relentless pushback against China on nearly all fronts.

The first is paranoia with a rapidly rising China, oblivious of the hard-won rise of the Chinese people from nearly two centuries of abject poverty and foreign invasion to rediscovering their place in the sun.

Along with national efforts to build a more open, dynamic, innovative, inclusive, and culturally and ecologically more-beautiful China, people-to-people exchanges in myriad forms and shades should work wonders in building global bridges and breaking down cultural or geopolitical barriers, including those hampering US-China relations

A false “China threat” Western narrative is driven by ungrounded “what-if” fears, including an alleged “revisionist” China “eating America’s lunch” with “Made in China 2025” cutting-edge technologies, perceived lack of market-access reciprocity, and farfetched claims of human right transgressions. Much is due to a common Western cultural trait of “zero-sum”, “win or lose”, “at-the-table or on-the-menu” thinking, unable or unwilling to meet the other side halfway in the interests of maintaining “harmony despite differences”, characteristic of Chinese philosophy.

The second is what American political scientist John Mearsheimer calls “the tragedy of great power politics” (the title of his 2001 book), or what Graham Allison in 2017 termed “the Thucydides Trap”. The latter was derived from 16 historical periods over five centuries in which an extant hegemon faced an emerging challenger, with 12 such cases ending up in war. Neither tome, however, presents a convincing case as to why modern heavily nuclear-armed great powers would not want to shun an existential war of “mutual assured destruction” between themselves.

To counter misconceptions about China and to build bridges across the globe, nothing compares with overseas visits by the nation’s top leaders. More such visits to Europe, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America have already been taking place in recent years. This trend is likely to accelerate, including President Xi’s expected state visit to France in May to mark the 60th anniversary of China-France diplomatic relations.

Coming back to people-to-people exchanges: If more Westerners come to visit China, they will see for themselves how China managed to get to where it is today without becoming “militarily expansionist”.

Meeting ordinary Chinese people in different provinces, many foreign visitors are amazed by how friendly they are, and how their lives have been dramatically transformed and modernized, often exceeding the foreign visitors’ expectations.

They will be able to enjoy China’s superfast and seamlessly efficient high-speed rail network with a design speed of 350 kilometers per hour, measuring some 45,000 km in total by the end of 2023. Well ahead of the rest of the world combined, China’s high-speed network is expected to expand to some 70,000 km by 2035.

Foreign visitors will be able to witness such eye-catching engineering wonders as the 55-km-long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge and tunnel system. They could also marvel at the award-winning Beipanjiang Bridge, between the provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan, the world’s longest (1.34 km) and highest (564 meters) ravine-crossing suspension bridge.

These and many more state-of-the-art infrastructural facilities represent the hard grind and indigenous ingenuity of China’s engineers and other workers, against what first seemed impossible odds. Many put some of Western countries’ crumbling equivalents to shame. They are also an apt and quiet reminder that in the Olympic Spirit, great power competition does not have to be a mortal combat.

Foreign visitors will also be able to admire China’s millennia-long and multifaceted cultural heritage, embracing the diversity of 56 different ethnic groups, or to sample their diverse cuisine and lifestyles, as vividly portrayed in China Central Television’s highly acclaimed TV documentary series A Bite of China.

It’s no wonder China has recently started to provide unilateral visa-free treatment to a host of European and Southeast Asian nations and to make mobile payments by foreigners much easier.

However, people-to-people exchanges, a potential reservoir of goodwill and mutual-trust building, are by no means limited to traveling. A panoply of ideas comes to mind.

For example, by way of “track-two diplomacy”, more opportunities should be created across the nation for international business, professional, and academic exchanges, including seminars, exhibitions, promotions and other events. Foreign visitors interacting with their Chinese counterparts would be able to experience “light-bulb” moments of understanding, insight, inspiration, or opportunities for fruitful cooperation.

Specifically, professional organizations — including those for lawyers, accountants, surgeons, public health operatives, engineers, surveyors, scientists, archaeologists, artists and writers — should be encouraged and assisted, where necessary, in organizing more international forums for overseas participants, including those from Western countries.

The US’ International Visitor Leadership Program sponsors leading foreign personalities in different fields, including government, legislature, professions, media and civil society, to visit the US for up to a month, including meeting selected business leaders, think tank scholars, and the invitee’s counterparts, for the exchange of views and familiarization with the host country. I was a beneficiary in mid-1990 and had the rare opportunity of sharing my positive views on China with some leading lights in corporate America, including Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of the eponymous business magazine. I was also invited to meals with selected American families. China may consider hosting a similar program, selecting suitable influencers in Western nations.

In the same vein, China’s nongovernmental organizations on sports, ecology, poverty relief, and emergency rescue, may also consider hosting or participating in more international events, forums and seminars, showcasing the multifaceted, humanitarian side of the nation.

Last but by no means least — China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers numerous opportunities for closer cooperation with local and international stakeholders, including the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank, on a specific-projects basis. Similarly, China’s Tiangong space station has selected missions for international space research.

The list could go on, limited only by imagination.

Along with national efforts to build a more open, dynamic, innovative, inclusive, and culturally and ecologically more-beautiful China, people-to-people exchanges in myriad forms and shades should work wonders in building global bridges and breaking down cultural or geopolitical barriers, including those hampering US-China relations.

The author is an international independent China strategist, and was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.