In a series of judicial barbs traded between the U.S. and China, many observers are concerned that the foundational trust between these two nations is eroding. What are some policies China and the U.S. can cooperate on in order to strengthen this fragile trust? Is it possible for this trust to be built by organizations and individuals outside the government first?
When Caleb Cushing first set shore on Macau, his mind was likely inundated with doubt and anxiety. The United States government had sent him on a mission to establish diplomatic relations with an exotic, east-bound nation, aiming for a piece of the mammoth economic pie their sister country Great Britain had unearthed. Of course, the mission was not entirely utilitarian in nature. Cushing recalled vividly, just five years prior in 1939, the great brouhaha in Philadelphia surrounding Nathan Dunn’s novel museum focused exclusively on Chinese cultural artifacts. The Oriental fabrics, china, tools and teas fascinated over 100,000 Americans over the course of three days, exposing many of his countrymen to Chinese culture for the first time. Seeking to reciprocate, Cushing brought with him a ship filled to the brim with American goods and scientific treasures, including American texts and a telescope, seeking to impress the Chinese envoy of the West’s capable scientific orientations. The plan that eventuated in the Treaty of Wangxia was constructed following much hand-wringing and internal cantankerous debate. How could a neophyte country outside of Europe establish itself as a partner worthy of trade and recognition by the Qing Empire? Ultimately, the mission was fielded with great optimism, in the hopes that the two-way interchange of culture and customs would loosen the hardened tongue.
Indeed, Henry Kissinger, in his pseudo-memoir On China, fondly reflects on the symbolic importance of Ping Pong Diplomacy in the normalization of US-China relations in the 1970s. He writes how foundational cross-cultural understandings were in cementing diplomatic ties at all! Ensuring that the Americans understood the political and cultural traditions of the Chinese, and vice-versa, was instrumental to comprehending the operational mindsets and ambitions of their respective states. In other words, the non-politicization of interests is what brings people to the negotiating table, fostering lengthy, productive discourse that fosters cultural understanding and dialogue at the policy level. These are elements that following decades of statecraft now seems to elude policy makers in both countries. Of course, amidst a pandemic of unprecedented modern global scale, it is easy to become despondent of the mutual blame game and disinformation campaigns being waged. It is also easy to forget the macro, in lieu of a parochial focus on the micro, functionally disregarding the wisdom built upon by centuries of long history between the two countries.
Trust between the two governments is undoubtedly at its lowest point in recent memory; however, more pointedly, trust between the peoples of both nations have also waned. In the most recent Gallup Poll, over 57 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of China, whilst 46 percent believe China is an economic threat. A large part of these outcomes stem from the Trump administrations deleterious rhetoric, actively severing much of the cultural and educational ties between both nations. The apotheosis of this posture towards China was US Vice President Mike Pence’s 2018 speech at the Hudson Institute. The politicization of the economic, social, and cultural dynamics has resulted in a protracted trade war, tense security relations, and now a blame game that precludes effective cooperation on a pandemic that threatens billions.
The true tragedy of the current imbroglio, however, is the systemic discrimination it has fomented, founded on misperceptions that jeopardize the future of people-to-people exchange between the two countries. But are perceptions at the individual level so important? Venerated international relations scholar Robert Jervis has written extensively on the volatile dangers that stem from systematic misperception at the individual level. The public is the backbone of policy: if the people perceive that a country is a high-security threat, the state is emboldened to adopt hardline stances. Any such majoritarian view helps mobilize both people and resources to undertake such overtly aggressive measures without fear of domestic retaliation. This slow escalation is what we have seen between US and China since 2016. Public misperceptions generated by saber rattling and fear mongering are surefire paths to conflict. Not only this, but the current trajectory on COVID-19 will cement systemic racism. One only need look back to the widespread xenophobia against Chinese rail workers that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, decimating much of the diplomatic progress that colored premodern relations.
In seeking possible avenues to resolve misperceptions, we should acknowledge the underlying mechanisms that led to the current rut of mistrust. Dipping into social psychology helps us diagnose the phenomenon marring relations that political science is maladroit in prescribing. The current tensions are a problem that are obviously not unique to US-China relations. Tribalism and revanchist nationalism are outcrops of the human instinct: individuals naturally align themselves with a group, and seek ways to maximize the absolute outcomes of their group because it helps the individual survive. Group, in this case, are of course our countries. In this way, humans are heuristic beings. We are genetically wired to devolve to the simplest, most emotionally satisfying explanations. Ergo, most are intrinsically motivated to believe the rhetoric and information their governments and media feed them, where confirmation bias then does its magic.
What then, is the solution? The revered social psychologist Gordon Allport, in his seminal 1954 treatise drafted the Intergroup Contact Theory (ICT), in which he proposed that simply increasing exposure and contact between different majority-minority groups could reduce the levels of prejudice between each other. Allport investigated the socials effects of desegregation on US housing policies in the 1950s, where he found interracial contact between majority White Americans and minority African Americans actually mollified racist attitudes and reduced ingroup-outgroup distances. Since then, ICT has been empirically tested and proven over the decades, even by political scientists who analyzed the success of ICT between populations of countries who had waged war. This innate, psychological occurrence has and will continue to serve as the mechanism behind cultural diplomacy, for both government and non-government actors to tackle the deficiency of trust in US-China relations today.
The central pillar of a successful campaign to reinstall trust at the individual, and eventually, the public level, is education. In 2009, the Obama administration announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative as a concerted effort to bring 100,000 new American students to study abroad in China. It was a national effort that sought to foster the next generation of leaders who experienced the country firsthand by interacting with Chinese natives, learning the language and culture, and sharing their academic research with Chinese peers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the importance of the program as a ‘bridge’ between the two countries, training the movers and shakers of the bilateral relationship in the coming years. China reciprocated, accentuating the connective ambition of the program with the 10,000 “Bridge Scholarships”. The 100,000 Strong Initiative was so successful that in 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced its successor program, the 1 Million Strong initiative. The approximately 300,000 Chinese students in America and 30,000 American students in China are testament to the success of this overture.
However, following the election of President Trump, the 1 Million Strong initiative has since become defunct, losing all government support. Instead, in abrogation of the values established in the memorandums written by his predecessor, Trump has advocated for the exact opposite, disabusing many other talented students of the idea of even going to China. He has openly discouraged the induction of Chinese students, parroting damaging theories that has since seeped into the public conscious, drip-fed over the course of four years. However, the 1 Million Strong initiative has transformed into a non-profit mission, and alongside many other Chinese-based organizations, offers a recipe for hope for the continuation of foreign exchange between the two countries. As many psychologists, such as Marcel Coenders, have already ascertained through decades of research, multicultural education serves as a defense against prejudice. As per the precepts of ICT, those who have the opportunity to travel to a different country, interact with its natives, and educate themselves on the target country’s customs, cultures, and history, are less likely to hold misperceptions, and thus become immune to the political charged ravings of their governments.
Consider this at the systemic level then: it is in the governments’ best interests to promote a greater number of foreign exchange opportunities to ensure more future leaders understand the nuances of their respective sociopolitical functions. This magnifies the potential for mutual respect and productive discourse for important diplomatic and economic decision-making, as opposed to a single-minded push for their home country’s narrative. In addition, as already demonstrated by the 1 Million Strong initiative and Chinese companies such as VIPKID, non-government actors will continue to have salient influence on the overall atmosphere of people-to-people conduct in the medium to long-term, affecting domains such as tourism and foreign direct investment.
This is important as policy makers are unfortunately incentivized to create policy that only manifests in visible outcomes. They are often not here for the long-term, and lean on deficient cost benefit analysis to conclude that the opportunity cost of funding such ‘grandiose’ cultural and educational exchanges is too high. Many pundits and commentators have argued that these programs don’t lead to tangible benefits and aren’t guaranteed to work. However, this is true of any policy. There is never any guarantee that a government crafted policy or diplomatic gesture will cause its desired outcome. The goal of promoting cultural and educational exchange should not be immediate gratification in some political or economic context. Governments, individuals, and NGOs must approach cultural exchange as an endgame strategy. It was throughout decades of exposure during the nineteenth century that US medical and educational missionaries established the many educational institutions and hospitals that now dot China. Promoting education and cross-culturalism slowly, but surely, provides the best chance at maintaining the health of our bilateral relationship, revitalizing lost trust in the process. Statistics is a game of correlation—if this holds true for the hard sciences, then it should be upheld with double gravitas for public policy and international relations.
Nevertheless, even if one does not believe in the fruits of the countless ‘invisible’ contributions made by educational exchange, they must not forget the powerful influence of multiculturalism in monumental figures of history. For example, John Leighton Stuart, who originally came to China as a missionary, became so enamored by Chinese culture that he ended up founding Yenching University, which would later of course become Peking University. He even requested to be buried in China in his will—a gesture of respect and passion for the country he devoted his whole life to. Or the late I.M. Pei, who grew up in China, but studied in American universities. His dual cultural heritages inspired the legendary architecture that he designed the world over. In this way, organizations such as the Yenching Academy, the Schwarzman Scholars, and the Bai Xian Foundation are attracting talented minds from the world over to nurture open-minded, culturally nuanced leaders that can shape the trajectory of their respective fields.
In the concluding remarks of his pertinent manuscript Destined for War, Graham Allison writes: “The more the US government understands China’s aims, the better prepared it will be to resolve differences. The problem remains psychological projection…” The current coronavirus pandemic has certainly exacerbated the psychological projections emanating from both countries, in turn coloring the perceptions of their citizenry. We are on a trajectory where economic, political, and diplomatic functions between the US and China will be interminably damaged. However, citizens are not the government. There exist many future leaders in both countries who have been exposed firsthand to the cultural and historic roots that make up their frameworks. There are Americans who understand the Century of Humiliation narrative, and Chinese who understand that Trump’s strain of American Exceptionalism is not representative of the entire country.
Both governments can and should abandon this game of chicken, where empty rhetoric and victimization substitutes for effective cooperation and policy. Imagine the absolute depletion of cultural understandings between citizenry: the consequences would be calamitous on trust, rendering diplomacy and economic considerations a vacuous affair. Both countries should reestablish the highly important US-China High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange to signal a desire to foster a healthy, citizen-oriented relationship. However, absent government agency, individuals and NGOs are key to promoting such exchanges to build up an immunity, like white bloods cells, against aggrandized nationalism. In this way, such policies are prophylactic, as an absence of them is an admission that people-to-people interactions are doomed to fail. However, as over two hundred years of history have imparted, individuals are the genetic make-up of US-Sino relations. Relations have gone through worse, and this too shall pass.
Kangkyu Lee was an alumni of Georgetown University. He joined our student exchange program to China in 2017.