Young people of the world, a smaller percentage of the total population, are 100% of our collective futures.
The ideological battles now taking place between China and the West, particularly with the United States, will set the trajectory of the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, far into the future. How will our respective leaders manage this relationship that could impact the peoples of the U.S., China, and indeed, all humanity?
There is an old farmers’ saying, “Don’t eat your seed corn,” meaning to hold aside some seeds from a harvest in order to plant for the following year's production. When we squander all the goodwill between the U.S. and China for short-term political gains, poisoning our youth’s minds against each other, we have set our nations’ course towards eating our symbolic seed corn.
China’s Communist Party is crowing and the Chinese people are buying into their leaders’ idea that America’s inept response to the pandemic proves its own superiority as an authoritarian model.
The economic crisis unleashed by the global pandemic is China’s most daunting challenge in the forty years since normalization between our two nations. This tit-for-tat response between our nations portends a steadily declining relationship over the long term – the current dysfunction demands serious corrective measures.
Elections in America provide a natural opportunity for policy resets. Yet many fear that addressing the current dysfunction between the U.S. and China is like pushing a two-ton boulder up Mount Everest.
Sadly, both nations are attempting to vilify the other at home and abroad, poisoning the well for future generations. Both nations have become addicted to the blame game – blaming their respective problems on “hostile foreign forces”. It has become a catch-all phrase for Chinese and American leaders trying to deflect from their country’s policy and political shortcomings.
China’s former education minister Yuan Guiren suggested young teachers and students are key targets of “infiltration by enemy forces” and condemned Western concepts such as the rule of law, civil society, and human rights. He argued China should be on their guard against the infiltration of Western ideas. Until COVID closed this avenue of exchange, I had worked to build educational bridges in China between U.S. teachers and students. Even then, I began to feel anti-Western attitudes percolating from the Central government down to the classroom.
We used to recognize election time approaching in the USA by the volume of China bashing amplifying even louder. Today, we no longer need to wait for an election year to hear anti-China rhetoric.
Historically, making China the boogeyman in the U.S. centered around electioneering, cynically seeking votes from disenfranchised American workers by blaming the Chinese for stealing their jobs. Clearly, explaining the global economics of offshore manufacturing does not fit as nicely on a political bumper sticker as do scare tactics. The ‘Blame China’ slogan has now become an all-seasons retort.
As I previously predicted , the youth of China are poised to shake and shape the world. Tens of thousands of Chinese have been educated in the West and view the world through a kaleidoscope of international beauty, along with constant and unpredictable change. They are more willing to look outward, seeing the entire world as their oyster, not merely their own nation. Unlike their parents and grandparents, this new generation did not grow up fighting Chinese nationalists, the Japanese, or Americans.
Hot and Cold
Former President Donald Trump raised the alarm about the Chinese Communist Party and its threat to America’s economic and political way of life. He spent a major part of his four years in the Presidency harming the U.S.-China relationship and its well of goodwill built up since the first days of President Nixon’s outreach to China.
A recent 14-country Pew Research Center survey shows attitudes about China have soured across many advanced economies, and unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year. And military, economic, and technology tension between the U.S and China is on top of the ideological competition boiling just beneath the surface.
In the midst of the global pandemic – the handling of which had been bumbled by the Trump Administration – China’s Communist Party is now pushing the view of the superiority of their authoritarian model. Minxin Pei, the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at the Claremont McKenna College, argued forcefully on these pages that the U.S. and China must maintain their people-to-people ties – building bridges is a much better strategy than digging moats.
My first trip to China was made possible by Deng Xiaoping, deputy premier of China who opened China to the world and helped forge an atmosphere of academic and cultural exchanges. In 1988, while serving as the Michigan Director of Mental Health, we organized an international behavioral health conference, inviting distinguished professionals from China to present. They had only recently been able to engage in Western psychology.
As a keynote speaker, Former First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, did much to help normalize relations with China. The following year I led a delegation of behavioral health professionals to China for a three-week exchange.
On January 29, 1979, Deng, met U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and signed an historic accord that reversed decades of U.S. opposition to the People’s Republic of China. President Carter wrote on the 40th anniversary of that historical accord signing: “At this sensitive moment, misperceptions, miscalculations and failure to follow carefully defined rules of engagement in areas such as the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea could escalate into military conflict, creating a worldwide catastrophe.”
A cold or hot war started by old men is always fought using the blood and loss of youth along with the future of a nation. Rather than war, our world would be better served by bringing our youth together around understanding our shared humanity.
The United States and China would be wise to begin investing in building bonds and bridges between our youth and our collective futures rather than, like an old farmer would say, eating our respective seed corn.