By Sietse Goffard

Harvard Kennedy School | Schwarzman Scholar, Tsinghua University

Introduction

            As an ancient Chinese proverb goes, “A single spark can start a prairie fire” (星星之火, 可以燎原). A common interpretation of this adage is that seemingly small actions can have far-reaching consequences. Individuals hold great power to shape their societies.[2] Today, this classical proverb may carry new meaning and fresh hope in the context of Sino-American relations. It is no secret that China and the U.S. have drifted apart dramatically over the past decade; the last three years in particular have exposed deep ideological differences between the two superpowers. China and the U.S. continue to voice profound moral disagreements on issues of human rights, civic freedoms, and democracy. Government leaders regularly face off on economic tensions and age-old political disputes. Recent books and articles by prominent academics speak of grand conflicts in political philosophies, irreversible macroeconomic decoupling, and the infamous Thucydides Trap. Historians like Niall Ferguson assert that the differences between China and America are so insurmountable that their economic “marriage” has ended for good.[3] Political scientists like Graham Allison even predict that China and the U.S. are destined for war.[4] With so much emphasis on ideological and economic differences, it is easy to overlook how recent developments have also fractured relations between everyday citizens.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing trade war, addressing this angle of the U.S.-China relationship is more important than ever. Perception surveys indicate that American hostility toward China has reached an all-time high. Racism against Chinese and Chinese-American people has soared. Meanwhile, a record number of Chinese residents identify the U.S. as a top enemy. For the first time in nearly two decades, Chinese tourism to the U.S. has fallen, and fewer young people are choosing to study in America. Clearly, mending the Sino-American relationship will take much more than simply signing government treaties, organizing summits, and staging a few photo ops. The solutions must go far deeper. Could everyday citizens play a meaningful role in bringing America and China closer together—and if so, how?

This article argues that ordinary citizens in both China and the U.S. can and should play an important role in healing what is arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The paper begins by assessing the current state of affairs and analyzing how public perception has deteriorated in the wake of Covid-19, the trade war, and other recent developments. It will then go on to discuss a set of tangible ideas for renewed and reciprocal people-to-people diplomacy in the 2020s. These might include, among other initiatives: new educational, cultural, and linguistic programs; tourism campaigns and relaxed visa policies; athletic collaboration, particularly ahead of the 2022 Olympics; and bilateral business partnerships. As China and the U.S. seek to mend their bilateral relationship, they should urge their citizens to play a vital role.

Politics, Perceptions, and the Pandemic: Rising Antagonism on Both Sides

Current relations between China and the U.S. are unfortunately more antagonistic than at any other time in the modern, post-rapprochement era. As of June 2020, America’s perception of China has tumbled to an all-time low. Relations between the two superpowers had already deteriorated substantially since the 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a staunchly nationalist, anti-Chinese platform. The ongoing trade war and mutual imposition of strict import tariffs have damaged economic ties between China and America. Military tensions in the South China Sea and near the island of Taiwan have led to mounting fear of an armed confrontation on both sides of the Pacific.

Newly released survey data suggest that the coronavirus pandemic is causing even more profound and lasting damage to China’s reputation in the U.S. and the rest of the world. According to Pew Research Center, 66 percent of American adults today hold unfavorable views of China.[5] This represents a notable deterioration from 2018, when “just” 47 percent felt the same way. A mere 26 percent report favorable views toward China, an all-time low since Pew’s surveys began in 2005.[6]

Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, there is persuasive evidence that Americans’ worsening perception of China is directly associated with the spread of coronavirus. Pew conducted its most recent poll from March 3 to March 29, 2020—a period during which the virus escalated dramatically in the U.S. As the number of coronavirus cases swelled during the course of the telephone survey, the proportion of respondents with negative opinions about China increased as well.[7] The spread of these Sinophobic attitudes may also be traced at least partly back to President Trump, who has often referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, the “Wuhan virus”, or the “kung flu”.[8] Such racist rhetoric contributes to the regrettable and untrue narrative that Chinese immigrants are “dirty”, “unhygienic”, or “backward”, all of which are tragically common and historic stereotypes.

American confidence in China’s leadership has also plummeted. The percentage of Americans who say they feel confident in President Xi Jinping to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” has tumbled from 37 percent last year to 22 percent in 2020.[9] This significant drop is likely due to the perception that China’s early mismanagement of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks in Wuhan allowed the disease to eventually spread around the world. Republicans have historically held less favorable views toward China relative to Democrats, and this trend was certainly apparent in Pew’s most recent survey. However, the pandemic has done roughly equal damage to China’s reputation on both sides of America’s political spectrum.

Sadly, amid the spread of coronavirus in the United States, incidents of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism have also surged. According to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (APPPC), Chinese-Americans have suffered from extraordinary upticks in verbal harassment, shunning, workplace discrimination, and even physical assault. The institute’s hate tracking website logged 1,843 reports of anti-Asian discrimination between March and May 2020.[10] Figure 1 provides a breakdown of self-reported incidents during those eight weeks.[11]

Figure 1: Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Reported to the APPPC (March-May 2020)

Type of Discrimination ExperiencedNumber of Reported CasesPercent of Reported Cases
Verbal Harassment128369.8%
Shunning44124.0%
Physical Assault1568.5%
Coughed / Spat On1126.1%
Workplace Discrimination945.1%
Online Harassment814.4%
Barred from Establishment532.9%
Barred from Transportation221.2%
Vandalism110.6%
Other18910.3%

Chinese and Chinese-Americans have not been the only ethnic groups targeted during the pandemic. People of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino descent (just to name a few) have also reported verbal and physical attacks. The surge in Anti-Asian racism has happened across the nation, but it is particularly severe in states like California, New York, and Washington, which all have large Asian populations. Alarmingly, according to the APPPC’s data, women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience coronavirus-related confrontation, violence, or discrimination.[12]

Verbal harassment is the most widespread form of discrimination experienced by Asian Americans in the wake of Covid-19. The APPPC’s hate tracking website is rife with anecdotes about Asians being accused of carrying coronavirus or transmitting coronavirus to the U.S. One individual recounted, “My elderly parents … were shunned for wearing masks by an elderly Caucasian man. They were told, ‘Go back to China’ after telling him that wearing masks was encouraged by the government.”[13] Young people have likewise reported upticks in anti-Asian harassment and bullying online. To illustrate just one example, a college student described how her student organization’s online meeting was recently “Zoom bombed” by hackers who hurled Sinophobic insults and threats:

[Our student organization] was holding board elections over a Zoom video conference with over 40 members who identified as either Filipino, Chinese, or Vietnamese. The call was then interrupted by several anonymous hackers who flooded the call with hateful speech including racial slurs and broken English meant to mock Asian accents. One hacker even said “All y’all have coronavirus, every single one of you.” [14]

Other submissions depict verbal taunts, profanity-laced diatribes, scapegoating, nationalist chants, and orientalist stereotyping.[15] Prejudice against Chinese and East Asians is nothing new, but it has become tragically severe in the wake of the pandemic. 

Coronavirus-related Sinophobia has also caused tremendous harm to Asian businesses in America. In New York City’s Chinatown, many establishments saw their clientele drop by 50 percent when news of the growing outbreak in Wuhan began circulating in January 2020.[16] In Chicago, certain Chinese restaurants experienced similarly large losses two months before the pandemic began sweeping across the country in earnest.[17] Despite Chinese restaurants now going the extra mile to demonstrate high standards of cleanliness and adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, many Americans continue to associate Chinese immigrants with Covid-19 and poor hygiene. One complaint in the APPPC’s database exemplifies this point:

Another passenger … looked at me and then immediately started to say to whomever they were on the phone with, “No one should go to Chinatown,” and “All Chinese restaurants should be closed because they carry the virus.” Then they got up and moved as far away from me on the bus as possible.[18]

Unfortunately, these stigmas will not disappear easily or quickly. Chinatown business owners noticed that even patrons who did continue to visit seemed apprehensive and anxious that Chinese workers would somehow transmit the virus to them.[19] Economists predict that the damage caused by Covid-19 could impact Chinese businesses in America for at least several years.

Even more appalling than this are instances of Chinese, Chinese-Americans, and other Asians being physically harassed or assaulted. A shocking number of complaints detail Asian Americans—especially Asian American women—being coughed or spat on as a cruel form of “retaliation” for ostensibly causing coronavirus. This is particularly upsetting since coughing and spitting are primary vectors for transmitting the disease; victims elsewhere have fallen ill and died because of such attacks.[20] There are also numerous cases where Chinese immigrants or Chinese-Americans have been physically barred from businesses or transportation, in violation of their civil rights, such as in the example below:

A Caucasian resident in the building I live in refused to allow me access to the elevator telling me, “NO, don’t you even think about getting on,” and blocked my access with his body. This same resident allowed other Caucasian residents on the elevator.[21]

Such unacceptable and illegal forms of discrimination have no place in America. In order for the U.S. to repair its long-term relationship with China, it must first combat the epidemic of fear and xenophobia that has been directed towards the Chinese diaspora. Hate crimes like the ones highlighted above deter Chinese citizens from living in, studying in, travelling to, or doing business with America. Government institutions, educational programs, and other cross-cultural initiatives will need to work overtime to undo the unprecedented levels of vitriol and antagonism that many ordinary people of Chinese heritage now experience in the U.S.

Unfortunately, just as there are many Americans who feel negatively about China, there are many in China who harbor either fearful or hostile attitudes toward America. In the past, Chinese citizens tended to feel greater admiration for U.S. culture, prosperity, and the “American Dream”.[22] Yet these trends appear to be changing; survey data suggest that many Chinese citizens are losing trust in and respect for the U.S. According to Pew, approximately half of China’s residents held unfavorable views overall toward America in 2016.[23] Even more alarmingly, an increasing number of Chinese now describe the U.S. as a major enemy, rather than as a strategic ally or partner. Roughly 45 percent perceived the U.S. as the greatest threat to their country in 2016, up from 39 percent three years prior.[24] China’s opinion of the U.S. has deteriorated further under the Trump administration, largely as a result of the president’s own Sinophobic rhetoric and policies. The protracted trade war and lingering dispute over Chinese telecommunications conglomerate Huawei have generated additional bitterness in the bilateral relationship. Chinese citizens tend to find Trump’s approach “perplexing and exhausting”, according to state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN).[25] Viral posts on Weibo, a major Chinese social networking platform, suggest that ordinary people believe the trade war may damage the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the long-term growth prospects of the Chinese economy. As a result of rising levels of Sinophobia, many Chinese feel dissuaded from engaging with America at all during these politically fraught times. Chi Wang, a Chinese immigrant and president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, described his feeling that “Chinese are no longer welcome here [in America]” in a recent South China Morning Post op-ed. He went on to explain, “Despite the economic benefit [of Chinese people in America], our presence in the U.S. is often negatively received. Our behavior is often mocked and our prevalence at tourist sites and college campuses is often treated like a plague rather than the financial boon it actually is.”[26]

Figure 2: Annual Tourist Arrivals from China to the U.S.

With more and more Chinese opting to avoid America for now, the tourism industry has suffered. Tourists from Mainland China spent over $36 billion in the U.S. in 2018.[27] But after nearly 20 years of robust growth, the annual number of Chinese visitors has started to decline, falling over 8 percent in the first year of the trade war, as shown in Figure 2.[28] According to travel website Hopper, flight searches from China to the U.S. plummeted by 33 percent between President Trump’s inauguration and the imposition of the China travel ban earlier this year.[29] In June 2019 the Chinese Foreign Ministry even issued a travel advisory discouraging its citizens from visiting the U.S., warning of “frequent mass shootings, robberies, and thefts” as well as harassment targeted at Chinese tourists.[30] To make matters worse, America’s poor handling of Covid-19 will likely depress tourism from China for multiple years, even once international travel resumes.      

Similar trends in the education sector reflect how Chinese citizens feel increasingly unwelcome and unsafe in America. Hundreds of colleges rely on Chinese students as a significant source of enrollment and tuition income. In fact, Chinese scholars constitute one-third of all foreign students at U.S. universities, making them by far the largest international demographic.[31] Yet in the past few years, parents have increasingly opted to send their children to institutions in Europe or Australia instead. Growth in Chinese enrollment has slowed to a virtual standstill amid chilling relations.[32] Those who do still choose to come study in America are treated with additional suspicion following several high-profile incidents of alleged Chinese military espionage and intellectual property theft from U.S. universities.[33] In fact, as a result of tighter State Department scrutiny, the visa rejection rate for Chinese students on government scholarships quadrupled between 2018 and 2019.[34] It is deeply regrettable that hundreds of thousands of young Chinese scholars feel so unwelcome and even antagonized during their time in America. In good times education can be a wonderful conduit for building intercultural understanding and tolerance; lately the opposite has occurred.

Opportunities for People-to-People Diplomacy in the 2020s

China and the U.S. have drifted apart from each other in foreign policy circles, but it is the fraught relationship between citizens that will almost undeniably be harder to repair. Mending relations at the highest levels of government can sometimes take little more than a change in leadership. Mending relations at the grassroots level, on the other hand, requires years if not decades of sustained, honest efforts on the part of millions of everyday citizens. This begs the question: What role can ordinary people play in building greater understanding between the two nations? What can the governments of China and the U.S. do to promote those interactions in the first place? And will those efforts realistically succeed?

People-to-people engagement was once hailed as a key strategy to accelerate China’s openness and alignment with the West. After the breakthrough success of “ping pong diplomacy” in the 1970s, leaders in both nations placed tremendous faith in promoting interaction between citizens. However, amid rising trade tensions and military disputes in the South China Sea, even liberal-minded policymakers in Washington D.C. have rapidly lost confidence in this approach. In a 2018 Foreign Policy article, former Obama-era officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner argued that decades of idealistic engagement had fallen far short of expectations: 

 [T]he assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy…. [But] nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory.[35]

Campbell and Ratner were correct to point out that citizen engagement can only go so far. It would be naïve to think that people-to-people diplomacy alone could eliminate the enormous rift between China and America today. At best, it is a small piece of the puzzle.

At the same time, however, people-to-people diplomacy can play a significant role in combatting the hostility, stereotypes, and mistrust held by individuals on both sides. There is substantial academic and historical evidence that such interventions can be effective if they are implemented thoughtfully. Four specific ideas that merit attention are: intercultural and linguistic programming; tourism campaigns and reciprocal visa waivers; sports diplomacy; and joint business initiatives. The following sections will briefly discuss each of these concepts.

Intercultural and Linguistic Programming

            Educational, intercultural, and linguistic interventions could prove to be a potent tool of engaging everyday citizens in this cause. Studies have found evidence that educational activities increase ethnic tolerance by helping people accept certain new phenomena, like foreign immigration, and not interpret them as dangerous or frightening.[36] Cultural and linguistic training could therefore help strengthen U.S.-China relations by combatting negative stereotypes and perceptions in both countries. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government has funded hundreds of conferences, student exchanges, and business forums for foreign citizens to learn about Chinese language, society, and traditional values. Universities across China have established over 70 foreign language programs geared at improving people-to-people relations with developing nations. Abroad, China has set up more than 480 Confucius Institutes that host classes on Chinese culture, language, and spirituality, including Confucianism and Daoism.

            This general model could be replicated to help improve the bilateral relationship between Chinese and American citizens. Confucius Institutes have operated in the U.S. since the first branch opened at the University of Maryland College Park in 2004; at its peak there were over 100 institutes across the country.[37] However, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act has forced at least 45 Confucius Institutes to shut down over concerns about academic freedom and national security.[38] While some of these critiques may be valid, the U.S. and Chinese governments ought to work together and establish viable, non-politicized alternatives to encourage mutual language learning. Interestingly, there is evidence that even after Covid-19 and the surge in anti-Chinese xenophobia, an increasing number of Americans have sought to learn Mandarin during their free time at home. Online Google searches in the U.S. for “learn Chinese” spiked by 55 percent in the spring of 2020—more than queries for either Spanish or French (see Figure 3).[39] Language programs may thus prove to be a timely and fruitful means of building bilateral trust and mutual understanding among citizens.

Figure 3: Change in Google Search Volume for “Learn Chinese”

The same applies for English language and culture initiatives designed for Chinese citizens. Harvard University’s very own “Chinatown ESL” and “Chinatown Citizenship” programs, which enroll several hundred members of the Chinese diaspora around Boston, have been impressively successful in educating elderly immigrants about the nuances of American society and in combatting previously held stereotypes about American people. In feedback surveys, Chinese students claim they walk away with not only improved English language skills, but also increased appreciation for America’s stance on various political topics, racial issues, democratic governance, and other subjects that may often receive one-sided coverage back home.[40]  

The challenge with educational and linguistic programming, of course, is that it tends to attract a rather self-selecting group of individuals. It takes a great deal of humility and open-mindedness to devote hours to studying a foreign language or culture; relative to most other languages, Mandarin and Cantonese take special persistence. There is also a risk that cultural and educational programs simply become tools for state-funded propaganda or nationalist marketing. For education to be effective, it must be honest, nuanced, and ideally discussion-based. Participants should be able to engage in open conversations about how America can learn from China, and vice versa.

Tourism Campaigns and Visa Waivers

Both Americans and the Chinese love to travel. It was Confucius (551-479 BCE) who famously stated, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Thanks to the explosive growth of China’s middle class, both domestic and international tourism have skyrocketed over the past decade. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Chinese travelers embarked on 149.7 million trips abroad in 2018, a 15 percent increase year-over-year.[41] As explained above, however, China’s rapidly worsening perception of the U.S. has now dissuaded millions of Chinese travellers from choosing to visit America.

            Individual tourism companies have already taken it upon themselves to help bridge the two cultures. Airlines have significantly scaled up direct flights between the U.S. and China, including to and from a wider range of cities (at least, prior to the coronavirus outbreak). Retailers and tour operators have expanded their marketing to WeChat and hired Mandarin speakers to assist with guests. Hotels have begun offering amenities such as Chinese language television and newspapers, translated room service menus, instant noodles, tea kettles, and other “creature comforts” that make Chinese travellers feel more at home.[42] Even the U.S. National Park Service now prints brochures and maps in Mandarin.[43] On the other side of the equation, China is also keenly aware that tourism will influence its own perception abroad. In 2013 China’s National Tourism Administration published a handbook on how to be “civilized tourists”.[44] The Chinese government has in fact blacklisted dozens of its own citizens from future travel for disrespecting local customs, sabotaging historical exhibits, damaging property, and misbehaving on public transportation.[45] Both nations clearly view tourism as a key way of sustaining healthy foreign relationships and maintaining a positive reputation abroad.

One important policy change that both the U.S. and Chinese governments should consider—at least once international travel becomes safer again—is liberalizing entry requirements and visa restrictions on each other’s citizens. Under the Trump administration, the Department of State has taken a more politically aggressive stance toward Chinese visitors. Refusal rates for Chinese tourist and business visa applications have almost doubled, from 9 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2018.[46] Meanwhile, China charges more for visa applications from the U.S. ($140) than from any other nation (as low as $30).[47]  Reducing these barriers even slightly could go a long way toward boosting tourism and fostering citizen-level interaction. While easing travel rules seems improbable under the current climate, there is at least some historical precedent for doing so. In 2014, the two nations agreed to create 10-year multiple entry visas for each other’s citizens; previously visas were valid for only one year. Furthermore, in 2013 China introduced a visa-free stopover policy in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and several other Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities for citizens of the U.S. and a select list of other (mostly European) countries. This program now offers travelers the option of spending up to 144 hours in China as long as they are connecting between two other countries and remain within designated municipal or regional boundaries. To bolster bilateral tourism in the future, China and the U.S. could reduce the cost and hassle of applying for each other’s visas, or they could even consider waiving certain visa requirements for each other’s citizens, as they already do for dozens of other nations.

Athletic Diplomacy

While sport might appear to have little in common with foreign relations, the two subjects have surprisingly much in common. Sports often influence international relations and vice versa. Participation in global athletic events can build social bonds between athletes from different countries and bring states greater international recognition and prestige, according to academic literature.[48]

China and the U.S. share a particularly rich history of engagement through sport. It was a chance encounter between American athlete Glenn Cowan and Chinese athlete Zhuang Zedong at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan that marked the original thaw in Sino-American relations, which in turn paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s game-changing visit to Beijing the following year.[49] The sudden success of “ping pong diplomacy”, as observers later named it, showed that sports and other forms of people-to-people interaction could lead to critical breakthroughs in political and economic relations. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, athletic exchanges continued between the two nations under the spirit of “friendship first, competition second” (友谊第一,比赛第二). Groups like the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) sent and hosted teams from almost every major organized sport, including football, volleyball, basketball, tennis, martial arts, acrobatics, track and field, swimming, and diving.[50] More recently, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were pivotal in shaping China’s perception in America and around the globe. The lavish Olympic opening ceremony intended to show the world that China was open for business and ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other advanced superpowers.

 During this era of heightened tensions and worsening perceptions in the Sino-American relationship, the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing might prove to be another opportunity for a fresh diplomatic thaw. Amicable interactions between American and Chinese teams might help convince onlookers that both countries are defined by more than just their politics. Special joint events between Chinese and U.S. delegations may help improve perceptions and boost goodwill on both sides of the Pacific. 

However, sports are not a panacea. While athletic rapport can create and accelerate diplomatic momentum, “sport itself is neither sufficient for diplomatic breakthrough, nor sufficient for diplomatic breakdown”, in the words of Peking University professor Zhang Qingmin.[51] In fact, not all athletic collaborations between China and the U.S. have been nearly as seamless and successful as ping pong diplomacy in 1971. The National Basketball Association (NBA), which boasts massive popularity in China, faced a colossal backlash and boycott by Mainland Chinese citizens in October 2019 over a tweet expressing support for protestors in Hong Kong. Major sporting events can also draw attention to and exacerbate fundamental disagreements about political issues, rather than helping to smooth them over. For instance, despite positive coverage of the games overall, the 2008 Olympics also made Americans more aware of Internet censorship in China and issues in Tibet.[52] Multiple American Senators and human rights advocacy groups have called on the U.S. to boycott the 2022 Olympics over serious concerns about repression of Uyghur ethic minorities in Xinjiang.[53] In good times sport has the power to bring people together, but when relations are rocky it can be a platform for heightened confrontation. In any case, China and the U.S. should use athletic events as opportunities to spark thoughtful and meaningful dialogue on key issues.

Business Sector Collaboration

            Amid the ongoing trade war, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where Chinese and American enterprises begin collaborating more closely. If anything, recent economic indicators suggest that the opposite is true—U.S. firms are slowly but certainly moving their supply chains out of China due to tariffs and increasing labor costs. Government leaders in both China and the U.S. seem to be turning inward when it comes to trade and commerce, as evidenced by Premier Li Keqiang’s “Made in China 2025” campaign and President Trump’s executive orders to “Buy American and Hire American”. Nevertheless, when executed thoughtfully, business partnerships can be one of the most powerful and scalable tools to bridge citizens of different countries. Moreover, studies find overwhelming evidence that internationally and culturally diverse enterprises are more innovative than homogenous ones.[54] In other words, increased Sino-American collaboration is not only advantageous from a foreign relations standpoint—it can also improve businesses’ bottom line. Policymakers in both Beijing and Washington ought to think more creatively about how to stimulate business sector cooperation in ways that advance mutually beneficial objectives.

The 2019 Academy Award-winning documentary American Factory illustrates the benefits and challenges of how this idea might play out in practice.[55] The film spotlights the true story of a Chinese conglomerate, Fuyao Glass Industry Group, that decides to invest in and reopen a former automobile plant near Dayton, Ohio. Hundreds of Chinese workers relocate to Ohio to work alongside local American staff, many of whom had lost their jobs during the Great Recession. Throughout the documentary, viewers observe repeated conflicts and tension between American employees and their Chinese supervisors, including strong disagreements on issues like work ethic, safety, organized labor, and worker rights. At one point, Chinese management even perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Americans, calling them “slow”, “fat”, and “lazy.” Nevertheless, despite these initial difficulties, the investment project ends up leading to a successful and profitable working relationship between the factory’s Chinese and U.S. counterparts. Protagonists from both nations speak fondly about their unlikely new friendships and increased understanding of each other’s livelihoods. American employees who start off being highly skeptical or suspicious of China’s presence in Ohio evolve to become much more tolerant by the end of the film. In one particularly poignant scene, American delegates visiting Fuyao’s headquarters in Fujian, China, become visibly emotional when they realize just how much their two cultures share in common, contrary to what many of them had originally assumed or heard about in the media.

            American Factory is merely one anecdote, but the lessons from this experience can be applied more generally. International business partnerships can give Chinese and American workers a valuable opportunity to learn from each other and develop personal bonds, while also yielding economic benefits for both countries. These initiatives are far from seamless—some cultural conflict will inevitably occur—but the long-term benefits of collaboration outweigh the costs. Although President Trump typically portrays the U.S.-China relationship as a one-sided “win-lose” situation, mutually advantageous “win-win” outcomes are still very possible.

Conclusion

Citizens have the unique ability to shape their societies. During this era of heightened political and economic tension between China and the U.S., ordinary civilians in both nations can play a key role in building bridges and mending the fractured relationship. Current perceptions have reached an all-time low. Amid the raging coronavirus pandemic and odious rhetoric from President Trump, the U.S. has seen an alarming uptick in xenophobia and discrimination against people of Chinese descent. Citizens of China, meanwhile, hold increasingly unfavorable and hostile attitudes toward America. What can be done to help reverse these trends? Cultural and linguistic programming, tourism campaigns, relaxed visa policies, athletic collaboration, and thoughtful business partnerships could be several promising ways of promoting people-to-people engagement and understanding on both sides. Many of these potential solutions have been successful in other contexts or at smaller scales. Of course, it is impossible to deny the profound and important differences between the U.S. and China on issues from human rights and democracy to trade and intellectual property. These debates must not be ignored, nor will they be solved easily or simply. But in the meantime, promoting interactions between everyday American and Chinese people can help rebuild a baseline level of mutual trust, respect, and nuance that is sorely lacking in the contemporary Sino-American relationship.  

Works Cited

“8 more countries set up Confucius institutes or classrooms in 2019.” Xinhua News. 11 December 2019. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-12/11/c_138623776.htm.

Albert, Eleanor, and Grix, Jonathan. “The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy.” Council on Foreign Relations. 6 February 2018. https://www.cfr.org/interview/mixed-record-sports-diplomacy.

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Andrews, Evan. “How Ping-Pong Diplomacy Thawed the Cold War.” The History Channel. 19 October 2018. https://www.history.com/news/ping-pong-diplomacy.

Aratani, Lauren. “‘People are scared’: New York City’s Chinatown takes hit over coronavirus fears.” The Guardian. 21 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/21/nyc-chinatown-coronavirus-fears-business.

Borja, Melissa, et al. “Anti-Chinese Rhetoric Tied to Racism against Asian Americans: Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. June 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Anti-China_Rhetoric_Report_6_17_20.pdf.

Campell, Kurt, and Ratner, Ely. “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations.” Foreign Affairs (Vol. 97, No. 2), April 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-02-13/china-reckoning.

Channick, Robert. “Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants.” Chicago Tribune. 13 February 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-chinatown-business-decline-coronavirus-20200212-icewysctfnebvanyoxqje3twsi-story.html.

China Power Team. “Is China Attracting Foreign Visitors?” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 27 February 2020. https://chinapower.csis.org/tourism/.

“China issues U.S. travel alert.” Xinhua News. 4 June 2019.

China to promote civilized tourism.” National Tourism Administration, People’s Republic of China. 2 May 2015. http://english.www.gov.cn/policies/policy_watch/2015/05/02/content_281475099727116.htm.

“Coronavirus: Victoria ticket worker dies after being spat at.” BBC. 12 May 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-52616071.

Devlin, Kat; Silver, Laura; and Huang, Christine. “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” Pew Research Center. 21 April 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/04/21/u-s-views-of-china-increasingly-negative-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/.

Economy, Elizabeth. “Why Are Chinese Tourists So Eager to Visit Trump’s America?” Council on Foreign Relations. 19 April 2017. https://www.cfr.org/blog/why-are-chinese-tourists-so-eager-visit-trumps-america.

Ferguson, Niall, and Moritz, Schularick. “The End of Chimerica.” Harvard Business School (Working Paper 10-037). 2009. https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/10-037_0fdf7d5e-ce9e-45d8-9429-84f8047db65b.pdf.

Frost, Natasha, and Kopf, Dan. “Chinese tourists are opting out of travel to the US in favor of the rest of the world.” Quartz. 29 August 2019. https://qz.com/1698423/chinese-visits-to-the-us-are-down-3-percent-in-2019/.

Google Trends. June 2020. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=learn%20chinese&geo=US.

Hagendoorn, Louk. Education and Racism: A Cross National Inventory of Positive Effects of Education on Ethnic Tolerance. Research in Migration and Ethnic Relations Series. Routledge, 1999.

Kobierecki, Michal Marcin. “Sport in International Relations: Expectations, Possibilities, and Effects.” International Studies Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal. Vol. 15, No. 1, 2013. http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.hdl_11089_3279/c/04-kobierecki.pdf.

Legerwood, Racqueal. “As US Universities Close Confucius Institutes, What’s Next?” Human Rights Watch. 27 January 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/27/us-universities-close-confucius-institutes-whats-next#.

Lorenzo, Rocio, et al. “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Boston Consulting Group (BCG). 23 January 2018. https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx.

Mazza, Michael. “Opinion: The U.S. should boycott Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics.” Los Angeles Times. 29 November 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/boycott-beijing-2022-olympics-uighurs-camps.

“More US Cities Aim to Make Chinese Travelers Feel at Home.” Voice of America. 31 March 2017. https://www.voanews.com/usa/more-us-cities-aim-make-chinese-travelers-feel-home.

“Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics.” U.S. Department of State. June 2020. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-statistics/nonimmigrant-visa-statistics.html.

“Number of visitors to the United States from China.” Statista. June 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/214813/number-of-visitors-to-the-us-from-china/.

Orlins, Stephen. “The Evolving Role of Sports Diplomacy.” National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR). 2 March 2012. https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/the-evolving-role-of-sports-diplomacy.

“Outbound trips by Chinese tourists up in 2018.” Ministry of Culture and Tourism, People’s Republic of China. 13 February 2019. http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/statistics/2019/02/13/content_281476519819498.htm.

Qin, Amy. “To Many Chinese, America Was Like ‘Heaven.’ Now They’re Not So Sure.” New York Times. 18 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/18/world/asia/china-america-trade.html.

“Rates.” China Visa Service Center. June 2020. https://www.mychinavisa.com/visa-rates.

Reichert, Julia, and Bognar, Steven. American Factory. Higher Ground Productions. 2019.

“Selected Works by Mao Tse-Tung: A Single Spark Can Light a Prairie Fire.” 5 January 1930. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_6.htm.

Selyukh, Alina. “Chinese Tourism To U.S. Is Down After Years Of Booming Growth.” National Public Radio (NPR). 31 May 2020. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/31/728590535/chinese-tourism-to-u-s-is-down-after-years-of-booming-growth.

Somvichian-Clausen, Austa. “Trump’s use of the term ‘Chinese Virus’ for coronavirus hurts Asian Americans, says expert.” The Hill. 25 March 2020. https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/diversity-inclusion/489464-trumps-use-of-the-term-chinese-virus-for.

Stankiewicz, Kevin. “Chinese people find Trump ‘perplexing and exhausting’ on trade war, says state-run TV host.” CNBC. 3 September 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/03/china-finds-trump-perplexing-on-trade-war-china-tv-host-liu-xin.html.

“Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. 13 May 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report_3_19-5_13.pdf.

“Trade war: How reliant are US colleges on Chinese students?” BBC. 12 June 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48542913.

Tyson, Ann Scott. “Colleges, officials try to thaw effects of the US-China chill.” Christian Science Monitor. 20 November 2019. https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2019/1120/Colleges-officials-try-to-thaw-effects-of-the-US-China-chill.

 “U.S. charges target alleged Chinese spying at Harvard, Boston institutions.” Reuters. 28 January 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-crime/us-charges-target-alleged-chinese-spying-at-harvard-boston-institutions-idUSKBN1ZR23V.

Wang, Chi. “No longer welcome: how, under Trump, the American dream is now out of reach for Chinese immigrants.” South China Morning Post. 18 October 2018. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2168886/no-longer-welcome-how-under-trump-american.

Wine, Richard, and Stokes, Bruce. “Chinese Public Sees More Powerful Role in World, Names U.S. as Top Threat.” Pew Research Center. 5 October 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/10/05/chinese-public-sees-more-powerful-role-in-world-names-u-s-as-top-threat/.

Zhang, Qingmin. “Sports Diplomacy: The Chinese Experience and Perspective.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Vol. 8, No. 3-4, January 2013. https://brill.com/view/journals/hjd/8/3-4/article-p211_3.xml.


[1] Acknowledgement: The author is grateful to Dr. Yawei Liu, Professor Joseph Fewsmith, and Juan Zhang for their invaluable feedback on the content of this paper.

[2] This ancient proverb even featured prominently in the writings of Mao Zedong, who often quoted it during the first episode of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1937) to galvanize his fellow revolutionaries.

[3] Ferguson, Niall, and Moritz, Schularick. “The End of Chimerica.” Harvard Business School (Working Paper 10-037). 2009. https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/10-037_0fdf7d5e-ce9e-45d8-9429-84f8047db65b.pdf.

[4] Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

[5] Devlin, Kat; Silver, Laura; and Huang, Christine. “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” Pew Research Center. 21 April 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/04/21/u-s-views-of-china-increasingly-negative-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Somvichian-Clausen, Austa. “Trump’s use of the term ‘Chinese Virus’ for coronavirus hurts Asian Americans, says expert.” The Hill. 25 March 2020. https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/diversity-inclusion/489464-trumps-use-of-the-term-chinese-virus-for.

[9] Devlin, Kat; Silver, Laura; and Huang, Christine. “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” Pew Research Center. 21 April 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/04/21/u-s-views-of-china-increasingly-negative-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/.

[10] “Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. 13 May 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report_3_19-5_13.pdf.

[11] Certain incidents fell under multiple categories. For this reason, the sum of the middle and rightmost columns exceeds 1843 cases and 100%, respectively.

[12] “Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. 13 May 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report_3_19-5_13.pdf.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Borja, Melissa, et al. “Anti-Chinese Rhetoric Tied to Racism against Asian Americans: Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. June 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Anti-China_Rhetoric_Report_6_17_20.pdf.

[16] Aratani, Lauren. “‘People are scared’: New York City’s Chinatown takes hit over coronavirus fears.” The Guardian. 21 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/21/nyc-chinatown-coronavirus-fears-business.

[17] Channick, Robert. “Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants.” Chicago Tribune. 13 February 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-chinatown-business-decline-coronavirus-20200212-icewysctfnebvanyoxqje3twsi-story.html.

[18] “Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. 13 May 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report_3_19-5_13.pdf.

[19] Channick, Robert. “Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants.” Chicago Tribune. 13 February 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-chinatown-business-decline-coronavirus-20200212-icewysctfnebvanyoxqje3twsi-story.html.

[20] “Coronavirus: Victoria ticket worker dies after being spat at.” BBC. 12 May 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-52616071.

[21] “Stop AAPI Hate Report.” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. 13 May 2020. http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report_3_19-5_13.pdf.

[22] Qin, Amy. “To Many Chinese, America Was Like ‘Heaven.’ Now They’re Not So Sure.” New York Times. 18 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/18/world/asia/china-america-trade.html.

[23] Wine, Richard, and Stokes, Bruce. “Chinese Public Sees More Powerful Role in World, Names U.S. as Top Threat.” Pew Research Center. 5 October 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/10/05/chinese-public-sees-more-powerful-role-in-world-names-u-s-as-top-threat/.

[24] Qin, Amy. “To Many Chinese, America Was Like ‘Heaven.’ Now They’re Not So Sure.” New York Times. 18 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/18/world/asia/china-america-trade.html.

[25] Stankiewicz, Kevin. “Chinese people find Trump ‘perplexing and exhausting’ on trade war, says state-run TV host.” CNBC. 3 September 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/03/china-finds-trump-perplexing-on-trade-war-china-tv-host-liu-xin.html.

[26] Wang, Chi. “No longer welcome: how, under Trump, the American dream is now out of reach for Chinese immigrants.” South China Morning Post. 18 October 2018. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2168886/no-longer-welcome-how-under-trump-american.

[27] Frost, Natasha, and Kopf, Dan. “Chinese tourists are opting out of travel to the US in favor of the rest of the world.” Quartz. 29 August 2019. https://qz.com/1698423/chinese-visits-to-the-us-are-down-3-percent-in-2019/.

[28] “Number of visitors to the United States from China.” Statista. June 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/214813/number-of-visitors-to-the-us-from-china/.

[29] Economy, Elizabeth. “Why Are Chinese Tourists So Eager to Visit Trump’s America?” Council on Foreign Relations. 19 April 2017. https://www.cfr.org/blog/why-are-chinese-tourists-so-eager-visit-trumps-america

[30] “China issues U.S. travel alert.” Xinhua News. 4 June 2019. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-06/04/c_138116181.htm.

[31] “Trade war: How reliant are US colleges on Chinese students?” BBC. 12 June 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48542913.

[32] Tyson, Ann Scott. “Colleges, officials try to thaw effects of the US-China chill.” Christian Science Monitor. 20 November 2019. https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2019/1120/Colleges-officials-try-to-thaw-effects-of-the-US-China-chill.

[33] “U.S. charges target alleged Chinese spying at Harvard, Boston institutions.” Reuters. 28 January 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-crime/us-charges-target-alleged-chinese-spying-at-harvard-boston-institutions-idUSKBN1ZR23V.

[34] “Trade war: How reliant are US colleges on Chinese students?” BBC. 12 June 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48542913.

[35] Campell, Kurt, and Ratner, Ely. “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations.” Foreign Affairs (Vol. 97, No. 2), April 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-02-13/china-reckoning.

[36] Hagendoorn, Louk. Education and Racism: A Cross National Inventory of Positive Effects of Education on Ethnic Tolerance. Research in Migration and Ethnic Relations Series. Routledge, 1999.

[37] Legerwood, Racqueal. “As US Universities Close Confucius Institutes, What’s Next?” Human Rights Watch. 27 January 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/27/us-universities-close-confucius-institutes-whats-next#.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Google Trends. June 2020. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=learn%20chinese&geo=US.

[40] These reflections are based upon the author’s own observations and experiences from Harvard University’s Chinatown Citizenship Mentoring program, 2019-2020.

[41] “Outbound trips by Chinese tourists up in 2018.” Ministry of Culture and Tourism, People’s Republic of China. 13 February 2019. http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/statistics/2019/02/13/content_281476519819498.htm.

[42] “More US Cities Aim to Make Chinese Travelers Feel at Home.” Voice of America. 31 March 2017. https://www.voanews.com/usa/more-us-cities-aim-make-chinese-travelers-feel-home.

[43] Selyukh, Alina. “Chinese Tourism To U.S. Is Down After Years Of Booming Growth.” National Public Radio (NPR). 31 May 2020. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/31/728590535/chinese-tourism-to-u-s-is-down-after-years-of-booming-growth.

[44] “China to promote civilized tourism.” National Tourism Administration, People’s Republic of China. 2 May 2015. http://english.www.gov.cn/policies/policy_watch/2015/05/02/content_281475099727116.htm.

[45] China Power Team. “Is China Attracting Foreign Visitors?” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 27 February 2020. https://chinapower.csis.org/tourism/.

[46] “Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics.” U.S. Department of State. June 2020. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-statistics/nonimmigrant-visa-statistics.html.

[47] “Rates.” China Visa Service Center. June 2020. https://www.mychinavisa.com/visa-rates.

[48] Kobierecki, Michal Marcin. “Sport in International Relations: Expectations, Possibilities, and Effects.” International Studies Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal. Vol. 15, No. 1, 2013. http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.hdl_11089_3279/c/04-kobierecki.pdf.

[49] Andrews, Evan. “How Ping-Pong Diplomacy Thawed the Cold War.” The History Channel. 19 October 2018. https://www.history.com/news/ping-pong-diplomacy.

[50] Orlins, Stephen. “The Evolving Role of Sports Diplomacy.” National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR). 2 March 2012. https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/the-evolving-role-of-sports-diplomacy.

[51] Zhang, Qingmin. “Sports Diplomacy: The Chinese Experience and Perspective.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Vol. 8, No. 3-4, January 2013. https://brill.com/view/journals/hjd/8/3-4/article-p211_3.xml.

[52] Albert, Eleanor, and Grix, Jonathan. “The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy.” Council on Foreign Relations. 6 February 2018. https://www.cfr.org/interview/mixed-record-sports-diplomacy.

[53] Mazza, Michael. “Opinion: The U.S. should boycott Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics.” Los Angeles Times. 29 November 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/boycott-beijing-2022-olympics-uighurs-camps.

[54] Lorenzo, Rocio, et al. “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Boston Consulting Group (BCG). 23 January 2018. https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx.

[55] Reichert, Julia, and Bognar, Steven. American Factory. Higher Ground Productions. 2019.