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Foreign Policy

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Jul 30, 2020

The relationship between the U.S. and China has had a good run, embraced by eight successive U.S. presidential administrations. Thought to be an unbelievable record of mutual acceptance, continuity, and anticipation, the courtship has had its share of troubles through the decades. Though far from perfect, the relationship has helped benefit both countries and stabilized the world. 

Today we are witnessing a tectonic shift to this relationship – a break up as profound as the one that brought us together. We have evolved from a cold shoulder to a 21st century Cold War in our decoupling from China

However, I sense that we have moved from a separation to a pending divorce – an inevitable loss since Donald Trump entered the White House. Trump surrounded himself with China hawks who have been meddling in this once-strong relationship. Just last week it was alleged that in 2018, the Trump administration dedicated one week of the year to upholding a blatantly antagonistic approach towards China.  Even so, the U.S. hawks are not without some merit as the relationship has become lopsided, grown tired, and now requiring adjustments. 

There are real issues around the US-China relationship that demand attention: free and fair trade, theft and the forced transfer of intellectual property, a free flowing South China Sea, Chinese provocation and human rights issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Territorial disputes with India and other Asian neighbors and a multitude of issues that have been neglected. 

Personal Loss - Global Consequences 

Having nearly grown up with China in my young adult years, I am now experiencing grief over the, rearrangement of the relationship between our two countries, and the seemingly inevitable break up that seems to be clearly taking place today. 

This article is about my loss around a relationship gone bad. Time will tell if it can be salvaged. As in most break ups, there is blame to be shared on both sides. 

I sense loss as I have watched the China doors close these past few years. There is not one cataclysmic event that drove us apart. Instead, it has been a tyranny of events that have built up over the years. 

Growing Up with China 

As a child of the sixties, I was fascinated by all things China. My ten-year-old mind could not grasp the distance from my Washington, DC home to Beijing. When my mom told me to eat my vegetables “because children were starving in China,” I could never imagine that American leaders in the 21st century would be worried that China would surpass the US economically, technologically and militarily. 

My childhood was filled with fantasies of visiting China a decade before Nixon, Kissinger, and Mao re-opened relations and made the fantasy an eventuality. That possibility became a reality with my first of dozens of trips to China in May 1989, enabling me to crisscross the country of my forbidden childhood dreams. 

I came of age as China’s Deng Xiaoping and America’s President Carter cracked China wide open to the world in the late seventies and early eighties. Deng will forever be remembered as a visionary who took a bold risk of “reform and opening to the outside world.” 

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly 

I have chronicled the joys and sadness I experienced seeing China close-up and personal through my many years of travel and work there in articles that celebrate the 70th anniversary of founding of modern China and my 30-year look back. As in any courtship, I experienced the highs and lows – the good, the bad, and the ugly in my relationship with China. 

That boy trying to make sense of the world has grown into an adult; one that is now driven to learn about China and share that knowledge in ways that can help build two-way cultural, educational, and economic bridges between our nations. I mourn the people-to-people exchanges that are being strained as our nations’ respective leaders play geopolitical power games. 

The “good” are the memories of ordinary Chinese people have met, spending time over a drink or a meal, communicating without speaking each other’s language. The magnificent scenery of China from cities, small towns, and stunning landscapes are forever etched in my mind. Experiencing the eradication of poverty in China during the months and years I travelled there are all hallmarks of the “good.” 

The “bad” and the “ugly” are still here, from 1989 in Tian’anmen Square to today’s treatment of various minority groups, and heavy-handedness in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

Sharing the Pain 

The New York Times journalist Ian Johnson, who was recently expelled from, writes eloquently about his personal loss over this break up – the severed friendships and good-byes, the sights, smells, and daily routines of daily life in China.  Being knowledgeable about our geopolitical relationship – the most important in the world today – I am what Johnson terms a “true believer” who thinks that the United States’ policy toward China is necessary to make the world safe for democracy. I understand Johnson’s grief in both personal and abstract ways. He captures the loss when he writes how this split is “forming a collective trauma over the loss of an optimistic era dating back several decades, when the world seemed to be opening up, however imperfectly. “ 

The GOP and Trump election strategy is wrapped around blaming China for the global pandemic, the economic gasp that shudders under the facade of “all is well” in America. Any real or perceived grievance that American voters have is being used by the Trump campaign to conjure a China Boogieman.  Trump’s desperate attempt to hold onto power has no boundaries. 

Lessons Learned 

When Richard Nixon – the anti-Communist President – and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger set off to renew the relationship with China in 1972, Nixon spoke words that still ring true today: “If our two people are enemies, the future of this world we share together is dark indeed.” He went on to insist that the two countries had “common interests” that transcended their differences and that “while we cannot close the gulf between us, we can try to bridge it so that we may be able to talk across it.” He ended grandiloquently: “The world watches … to see what we will do.” 

There are consequences and collateral damage to this relationship pulling apart that will impact Americans, Chinese, and all of humanity. The grief for many will be real. 

Those of us who work at the subnational level must seek out ways to hold on to our memories and find creative ways to continue to remain engaged as the elite leaders argue and fight over the breakup. 

There remains hope that the US­­­-China relationship can be salvaged, albeit forever changed depending on how the fortunes of Donald Trump’s myopic and nationalistic campaign fares in the November election. That couples with how palace intrigue plays out for the rigid ideology of Xi Jinping in Zhongnanhai, the party headquarters and principal government center of the People’s Republic of China. 

The word is still watching and worrying as our relationship disintegrates. 

But, in the face of this adversity, we must remember:  Together, we are truly better. 

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