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People-to-People Connections Underpin Inter-Government Relations

2019-11-29 11:23:00 Source:China Today Author:ZHANG HUI
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FOR over a year, as bilateral economic and trade relations become volatile and strained, people-to-people exchanges between China and the United States have, to an extent, been hampered. The main reason, according to the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying, can be attributed to the U.S. weaponization of visa issuance. By rejecting visa applications and revoking long-term visas, the U.S. has thwarted exchanges between people of the two countries. 

However, these actions of the U.S. government have not gained public support. “I think one of the things we need to do from the U.S. side is to improve the climate for granting visas for Chinese students to study, [and] for people to come for conferences and exchanges,” Richard Harry Erstad, chair of the International Programs Executive Committee under the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), told China Today in a recent interview. He went on to explain, “When people have first-hand contact with each other’s cultures, there is an increase in understanding, [and] an increase in people’s desire to work towards better relations.”

In fact, according to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, as the high-level U.S.-China relationship has taken a sharp turn towards competition, most Americans do not see the rise of China as a critical threat to the U.S. According to its findings, two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. should pursue a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than working to contain the growth of China’s power.

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding bilateral trade negotiations, the passion and eagerness of people and companies from both sides for more exchanges have not been dampened. This is evidenced by the presence of 192 American companies at the second China International Import Expo (CIIE), whose exhibitions occupied 47,500 square meters, the largest compared with companies from other countries.

Meanwhile, on October 15-16, the 9th China-U.S. Civil Peace Forum, an important bilateral people-to-people exchange platform, convened in Beijing. Academics, businesspersons and research institutions from both sides indicated their hope for the sound development of bilateral relations and more exchanges between the two sides, the result of which are not only important for the two countries, but have global significance.

Cornerstone of Bilateral Relations

Alan Beebe, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China), has lived in China for 18 years. His connection with the country can be traced back to his first trip to China in 1986, which lasted several months. “That trip really sparked my interest in China,” Beebe said at the forum. He thought many Americans who have similar experiences to him are ambassadors, in a way, to the bilateral relationship. “More significantly, we understand firsthand the importance of people-to-people exchange. I think despite all of the challenges in our relationship, we should never forget that it all boils down to people. And of course, not just Americans in China, but also the many Chinese who have experiences in the U.S. and bring those experiences back to China.”

Compared with Beebe, another attendee of the forum, Craig Kafura, assistant director for foreign policy and public opinion at the Lester Crown Center on U.S. Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is a new arrival to China. His first visit to China was in 2018, during which he was amazed by China’s high-speed rail network and its unbelievable speed and convenience. “The high-speed train was very impressive. I have to say I do enjoy somewhat writing on trains,” Kafura told China Today.

The scale of China’s megacities is also beyond his imagination. Compared with his country, Kafura said, “It’s simply a different scale of urban construction.” He thought people-to-people exchanges are important for understanding each other’s positions and “how the debate is playing out in each country.”

Kafura doesn’t endorse how the U.S. is restricting the flow of Chinese students into that country, seeing it as an unpopular decision. “I think it appeals to the immigration hawks in the Trump administration, but more broadly, it would damage not just the U.S.-China relationship, but enrollment at U.S. universities,” he said.

In his opinion, the U.S. government has projected a false narrative that Americans are turning away from the world and that they are not interested in being engaged with other parts of the world. “We see in our surveys consistently that Americans say it’s good for the future of our country to play an active part in world affairs. We’ve also seen a really sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who say that international trade is good for the U.S. economy. I think that also runs in contrast to what you see in the debate in Washington D.C., where a lot of politicians assume that the public is opposed to trade, but in fact it is quite supportive.”

As for the ongoing China-U.S. trade frictions, according to his research findings, Kafura said, “On the one hand, most Americans say that they want to engage in trade with China, and that’s true for overall Americans. It’s also true for republicans, democrats, and independents. On the other hand, opinions are divided on how to get to a good trading relationship.” He indicated that the focus of the Trump administration on the trade balance with China is more about the nature of the president and his particular preoccupation with trade balance rather than a broader view of American elites.

“I don’t think that the Trump administration has in any way, you know, permanently harmed the bilateral relationship. It’s a resilient one, especially with the amount of interpersonal exchange between the two countries. But it has hurt American public opinion,” said Kafura.

In a period of fluctuating bilateral relations, associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University Robert S. Ross thought it’s very important for people of the two countries to maintain civil communication. “We need to signal each other’s people that despite the difficulties between governments, the people remain committed to cooperation and we cannot allow the tension between our governments to interfere with cooperation between societies, which is a firm cornerstone and a strong foundation to restrain the escalation of competition. If we maintain economic cooperation, educational cooperation, and cultural cooperation, then that will become a foundation for the two countries to limit the implications of strategic competition.”


                                                AmCham China President Alan Beebe speaks at the 9th China-U.S. Civil Peace Forum on October 16 in Beijing. 

Economic Exchanges Still Booming

Although the U.S. government didn’t send any delegates to the second CIIE, the number of American companies supporting the trade platform has been rising.

In early November this year, as the second CIIE kicked off, Varian Medical Systems from California in the United States already declared its application for the third CIIE. Varian also attended the first CIIE last year and reached US $841 million worth of intended cooperation agreements. “We’re encouraged by the huge business opportunities provided by the CIIE, which is an excellent platform to showcase our products,” said Zhang Xiao, the China region chief executive of Varian Medical Systems.

American multinational engineering firm AECOM has also greatly benefited from the business opportunities presented by the CIIE. According to its Chinese manager Bai Rui, AECOM has won multiple large urban renovation projects through the CIIE. “We have strongly felt China’s signals for further opening-up, which has given us firm confidence in the Chinese market,” said Bai.

Alan Beebe said, according to AmCham China’s survey, many American companies remain optimistic about the investment environment in China. “First and foremost is that China represents a very significant market opportunity; and it’s only going to become more and more important,” Beebe told China Today. He thought another source of optimism is China’s effort to make the country a more compatible place to do business. Beebe listed some new measures that China has introduced recently to further open its market and improve the business environment, including the broader access to China’s financial services sector and the introduction of the Foreign Investment Law. “All of those are very good examples of positive measures that have been looked upon favorably by American business.” He expected China’s further integration with the world and also identified some challenges American firms face in China, including the rising labor costs, increased domestic competition, and a shortage of qualified talents. Beebe hopes that the implementation rules for the Foreign Investment Law can be introduced as soon as possible as many American firms are concerned with “how the law is interpreted and how the detailed implementation measures are translated into action.”

In Beebe’s view, there are many lanes in the bilateral relationship. “I think to have a more positive and sustainable U.S.-China relationship, both governments need to keep those lanes separate to the fullest extent possible,” he said.

Beebe also used a football analogy to liken bilateral relations, as Chinese and Americans play football of different styles. “Now, it’s not to say that one style of football is better or worse than the other. It’s just to say that the rules are different. So I think we need to come up with new rules of engagement, in a way that is compatible with the different economic systems of each country.”

Professor Robert S. Ross is quite optimistic about the future of bilateral relations. “I’m optimistic that we can at least restrain the competition, and I remain optimistic that we can actually improve relations.” He thought China would play the role as a cooperative power for the U.S. “China wants to continue to rise. The U.S. wants to continue to maintain its power,” Ross said. In his words, the easiest way for the two countries to realize their purposes is through peaceful cooperation.  

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