On November 21, Vice Prime Minister Liu Yandong and Secretary of State John Kerry co-hosted the 4th round of High-level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE) in Washington, D.C. The significance of this event is parallel to the Xi-Obama summit in early June and China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July. The trilogy reflected not only the progress in political, economic, security and social aspects of bilateral ties, but also the promotion of engagement on the top level, working level and social level.
The CPE mechanism can be dated back to November 2009 when Chinese and U.S. governments decided to build a platform for more extensive and deeper exchanges between the two societies apart from the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). In May 2010, the then State Councilor Liu Yandong and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Beijing, and launched the first round of talks during which the delegations were divided into five working groups covering education, science and technology, culture, sports and women issues in wake of the signing ceremony.
History tells us that people-to-people exchange is instrumental to the mutual acknowledgement and understanding of the two societies, and that it has played a vital role even prior to the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations. The famous “Ping Pong Diplomacy” in April 1971 was a widely mentioned story. The legendary “small ball” rolling the “big ball (Earth)” was a classical example of Chinese public diplomacy as well as a historical episode in Sino-U.S. sports exchange. It was this event that finally led to President Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to China in late February 1972, and since then the global geopolitical situation fundamentally changed, which created a favorable external environment for China’s reform and open-up policy in 1978.
A strong, comprehensive and sustainable people-to-people relationship is necessary for both China and U.S., not only because it is less sensitive and less vulnerable to the ups and downs of political, economic and military ties, but also conductive to a wider and closer bilateral social bond. It helps to reduce strategic trust deficit between the two countries, and will lay a solid foundation for smooth and sustainable development of the China-US relationship. China, as a fast rising power, is in pursuit of peaceful development that benefits the Asia-Pacific region as well as the world. But the United States, as an established power, is skeptical of China’s strategic intention, and is concerned about China’s increasing military power. Moreover, the two countries represent different civilizations, social systems and levels of economic development. Therefore, a China-U.S. people-to-people exchange mechanism provides a platform that allows the enhancement of interactions and connections in all walks of life in two societies.
For example, bilateral educational exchanges witnessed a rapid growth in the past decades. According to the Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in November 2013, Chinese students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2012-2013 academic year topped 235,000 which accounted for 28.7% of total overseas students in U.S., making China the largest source of international students. And on the U.S. side, during his visit to China in 2009, President Obama launched a “100,000 Strong” Initiative which will allow 100,000 U.S. students to study in China from 2010 to 2014. The IIE report also showed that nearly 15,000 U.S. students, 5% of total U.S. students abroad, were studying in China in 2011-2012 academic years.
Culture has a significant role in bilateral exchanges. Since the establishment of the first Confucius Institute in Maryland University in 2004, the US has currently 92 Confucius Institutes, the largest number around the world. In addition, over 200,000 students in more than 5,000 public colleges and universities, high and elementary schools in the US are learning Chinese language and culture. In the past decade, more and more Chinese faces have been seen in American mainstream society. Yao Ming, former NBA superstar with the Houston Rockets, brought Chinese popularity to a historical high. Chinese Kung Fu movie actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan who frequently appear in Hollywood movies, have become well-known celebrities in the U.S.
Tourism is another channel of connection of two peoples as well. The Office of Travel and Tourism Industries of the U.S．Department of Commerce reported that 1.47 million Chinese tourists traveled to the U.S. in 2012. With $6,240 spending per capita, it was a big boost to the American economy, making China the seventh largest source of overseas tourists to the United States. On China’s part, the official statistics also showed that in 2012, U.S. travelers to China totaled 2.12 million, next only to the Koreans, Japanese and Russians.
Scaled people-to-people exchanges are no doubt helpful to encourage broader and deeper engagement between two countries. Compared with the size of the two countries’ populations, economic weight and international influence, the current level of social exchanges do not seem to be enough either in quantity or in quality, leaving enormous potential for the future. A recent survey released by the Pew Research Center showed that only 37% of Americans have a favorable impression of China, a 14% compared with that of 2011; and 53% Chinese people have a negative impression on the U.S., an increase of 9%.
During the Xi-Obama summit, President Xi Jinping once expressed that the “Chinese Dream” and the “American Dream” are interconnected. The common pursuit of sustainable peace and better life underlines the significance of people-to-people exchange between China and the United States. In the foreseeable future, the growing bilateral people-to-people exchanges will no doubt promote the deeper mutual understanding of two societies which help to reduce the strategic trust deficit between two sides. As government alone cannot and will not solve all the problems in the bilateral relationship, therefore, deepening social engagement will spur the great momentum of the exchanges between two peoples, and enable them to make contributions to a brighter future for a new model of major country relationship.
Qian Liwei is an Associate Research Fellow with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).