The Future of People-to-People Exchange with China

Image: The Washington Post

Who Are the Ping Pong Players of 2021?

By Kathryn Putz

On January 27th, 2021, the Hong Kong Forum on U.S.-China Relations in collaboration with the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) and the China Center for International Economic Exchange (CCIEE) jointly organized a webinar titled “U.S.-China Relations: The Way Forward.” The forum, which ran for three days, included a panel focused solely on people to people diplomacy between the U.S. and China. This segment, moderated by Fred Teng, President of the America China Public Affairs Institute, featured a wide array of renowned Chinese and American speakers from the government, business, and nonprofit sectors. Mr. Teng framed the event by asking, “Is there room for China and the U.S to increase communication in the areas of education, sports, tourism, arts and culture?”

To begin, Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and Wang Chao, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offered keynote speeches. In his address, Mr. Orlins stressed the importance of people to people exchange in determining whether U.S.-China relations creates a more prosperous world. He provided a historical perspective on exchange between the U.S. and China, explaining how, during the early 1970s, the exchange of ping-pong players between the two countries marked the thaw in U.S.-China relations and paved the way for the establishment of the diplomatic relationship under President Carter. Mr. Orlins concluded by asking, “Who are the ping pong players of 2021? Who among us can change the narrative of U.S.-China relations?”  

During his keynote speech, Mr. Wang provided an analysis on the current state of people to people exchange between the U.S. and China. First, he underscored the importance of these exchanges in promoting mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries. Next, he acknowledged the serious setbacks to people to people relationships and U.S. public opinion under President Trump–roughly two-thirds of Americans now hold a negative view of China. Ending on an optimistic note, he expressed his confidence in the foundation of U.S. China relations, “built through our joint efforts over generations.”

Following the keynote speakers, a distinguished panel of six leaders in U.S.-China exchange offered their insights on the current bilateral relationship. Given the speakers’ diverse backgrounds and sectors, their perspectives on the future of U.S.-China relations varied greatly. 

Speakers from the U.S. tended to take a tougher stance towards China. For instance, former U.S. Ambassador to China and former U.S. Senator, Max Baucus, stated that it will be difficult for students and politicians to visit China until the country indicates that it wants to cooperate with the U.S. “not just by words, but by deeds.” Similarly, President and Chief Executive Officer at The George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, David Firestein, revealed that public sentiment towards China in the United States is at a record low. Yet, he conceded that former President Trump is partially to blame, saying that he repeatedly attempted to “impede people to people relationships.” 

Meanwhile, the Chinese speakers tended to place the onus of bilateral cooperation on the United States. China’s Former Ambassador to South Africa and current President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Lin Songtian, argued that China’s sustained economic growth, social stability and path of peaceful development have made it an ideal global power. The U.S., in turn, now faces a strategic choice: engage in a competitive “zero-sum game,” or follow the path of “win-win cooperation.” 

Regardless of the speakers’ clear ideological differences, there was consensus on the alarming deterioration of people to people exchange between the U.S. and China and the need to restore the relationship. Most encouragingly, the speakers offered similar policy recommendations for the incoming Biden administration. 

Firstly, many speakers stressed the importance of revising visa policies to allow the free flow of people. More specifically, the U.S. and China should both enable students, academics, and media professionals to live and work in either country. In the academic realm, scholars should be allowed to conduct research without limits. Regarding the media, China should terminate blocking U.S.-based social media platforms and news websites, such as the New York Times. Accordingly, the U.S. should cease restrictions on Chinese state-run media outlets. 

Additionally, the panelists agreed that both countries should reinstate the educational and scholarly exchange programs erroneously shut down under former President Trump. Mr. Orlins and Mr. Firestein both acknowledged the critical nature of restoring the China Fulbright and Peace Corps programs–opportunities that previously allowed hundreds of Americans every year to go to China to learn about the country, meet its people, and bring that knowledge back to the United States. Similarly, the Biden administration should reopen the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston, hopefully prompting the Chinese government to reopen the U.S. Consulate-General in Chengdu. Lastly, some scholars urged the U.S. to cease efforts to close Confucius Institutes, arguing that their value in promoting cultural exchange outweighed their ideological threat.

Finally, the speakers advocated for restoring high-level dialogue on questions of common concern. On the state level, Mr. Wang advocated for restarting dialogues between local government officials in order to plan strategically for the long term. Chairman of the former China National Tourism Administration, Shao Qiwei, suggested working under the framework of the G20 and APEC summits. On the business level, Mr. Shao advocated for using the tourism value chain–through manufacturing, digital travel, and infrastructure investments in scenic areas–to promote cooperation. And on the civil society level, Mr. Wang suggested continuing to bolster institutions and NGOs dedicated to promoting friendship between the U.S. and China. Founder and Chairman of Hony Capital, John Zhao, stressed the role of factual and truthful social media in connecting people in the U.S. and China, saying “words matter.” 

Despite these promising policy recommendations, the fact remains that public opinion of China in the United States has plummeted in recent years. As Ambassador Baucus remarked, “being critical and fearful of China has become politically correct.” Yet, all those in attendance agreed that engagement in honest discussions–such as the Hong Kong Forum on U.S. China Relations–are critical to increasing mutual understanding. Hopefully, through more open dialogue and new policies under the Biden administration, people to people exchange will return to its previous critical role in promoting sound U.S.-China relations.

Fifty years ago, American ping-pong players were invited to visit China and shocked the world. Although the dynamics of the bilateral relationship are totally different today, one key factor remains the same: the role of leaders in both countries. Had it not been for Mao Zedong and Nixon to think big and act courageously to change the framework of the bilateral relationship, the earth-shattering events that followed the friendly ping-pong match in April 1971 would not have happened. The question is not who are the ping-pong players of 2021, but who are the facilitators of a closer and more sustained exchange between the two countries.