Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

From Asymmetry to Symmetry: A Historical Perspective of China-US People to People Exchange

Oct 18 , 2012
  • Jia Qingguo

    Dean, School of Int'l Studies, Peking University

228 years have passed since the US “Empress of China”set sail for China in 1784. Relations between the two countries have weathered ups and downs since then. There are pleasant surprises and disappointing truths; there are convergences of interests and values, and conflicts over desires and ideas; and there are fond memories and painful experiences.

In retrospect, the relationship has been largely an asymmetrical one. During the better part of the history of China-US relations, China was on the decline and the US on the rise; China was backward and the US advanced; China was weak and the US strong. Although China began to embark on a road of regeneration after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was not until quite recently, after many years of rapid economic growth following China's adoption of the policy of openness and reform in 1979, that the relationship between China and the US began to assume some modest degree of symmetry.

The asymmetry of the relationship has decided to a large measure the basic feature of interactions between the two countries, that is, the US is proactive and China passive. Accordingly, it was a US merchant ship rather than a Chinese merchant ship that initiated the interactions between the two countries. It was the many Chinese students that went to the US to study rather than the many American students that came to China to study. It is the many Chinese who admire the American political system rather than many Americans who admire the Chinese political system. It was the US missionaries who came to China to set up the Union Hospital rather than the Chinese Buddhists going to the US to set up a hospital of harmony. Finally, it was the American soldiers who came to China to fight shoulder to shoulder with Chinese soldiers against fascism during the WWII rather than the Chinese soldiers who went to the States for that purpose.

The interactions between the two countries, influenced by the vast differences in culture and political system and of the gross asymmetry in their relationship, produced very different and complicated feelings among Chinese and Americans towards one another. For the better part of their relationship, the Chinese both admire and resent the US, while Americans both respect and despise China. Many Chinese admire the US not merely because the US has advanced technologies and live a more affluent life. They do so also because they believe that the US stands for the rule of law, democracy and freedom. As early as 1848, Xu Jiyu, governor of China's Fujian province, wrote in his book Yinghuan Zhilue (Brief Introduction to the World),


“Washington was an uncommon man. He rose up to power more rapidly than Chensheng and Wuguang (two famous leaders of the first recorded rebellion in ancient China), and in courage he was superior to Cao Mengde and Liu Xuanzhuang (two outstanding strategists in the Han Dynasty). Seizing a two-edged sword of three feet long, he expanded the country’s border to an unprecedented configuration. Refusing to receive a title or to secure one for his posterity, he preferred to establish an elective administration. Because of him, power was shared by all the people, making the nation a true Utopia. In administrating the Government he fostered virtuous customs and disdained war, making it different from every other nation. I have seen his portrait. His countenance exhibits great mental power. Ah! Everyone deems him as an extraordinary man! Vast as its land are, the United States neither established titles of nobility and royalty, nor created a hereditary system. State affairs are put to the vote of public opinion, creating a new political situation, unprecedented from ancient times to the present. How wonderful it is! How can we deny the fact that Washington is so far the most outstanding figure in the western world?”


Such an admiration has persisted to this day.

In the mean time, however, many Chinese hold quite a few grudges against the US. In their eyes, the US is a country that bullies the weak. When China was weak, the US joined other imperialist countries in imposing unequal treaties on China. The US is also an undependable country. In history, when China sought its help in face of external threats, the US repeatedly chose to decline. The US is also a country that shows little sensitivity to Chinese feelings. Following the founding of the People's Republic of China, it refused to recognize the Chinese Government, which received broad support from the Chinese people and has persisted in blocking China's reunification through intervention on the Taiwan question. And the US is a hegemonic state. It frequently tells China what to do as if China would not be able to accomplish anything if it does not follow the advice of the US.

Accordingly, the Chinese view the US both as an advocate of freedom, democracy and international justice and as a major power that harms China's interests and hurt its people's feelings. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the revered leader of the Chinese revolution, felt more strongly about this than anyone else. After repeated failure to secure US help for the Chinese revolution, he remarked: “When we started the revolution to overthrow the dictatorial and corrupt government and to found a republic in China, we drew inspiration from and followed the example of the US. We once desperately hoped that an American Lafayette would fight together with us for this just cause. However, twelve years have passed. What came was not Lafayette but a US fleet admiral who commanded more warships than other countries to invade our territorial waters and tried to crush us together with other countries so as to eliminate the Chinese republic.”

Similarly, Americans also had a similarly complicated and self-contradictory set of views about China. In their eyes, the Chinese are wise, industrious and respectful but at the same time backward and hopeless. In his study of the American view of China, American scholar Harold Isaacs found: “Our concepts of China have included both a sense of almost timeless stability and unlimited chaos. Our notions of Chinese traits have included sage wisdom and superstitious ignorance, great strength and contemptible weakness, immovable conservatism and unpredictable extremism, philosophic calm and explosive violence. Our emotions about the Chinese have ranged between sympathy and rejection, parental benevolence and parental exasperation, affection and hostility, love and a fear close to hate.”

It is against such a complicated historical background that China-US people-to-people exchange unfolded. Interactions between the two peoples have to cross not only the vast gaps in culture and political system but also the hurdles posed by the asymmetry in the relationship. It is by no means easy! However, the pursuit of economic interests, the curiosity about the unknown, the desire for friendship, and the search for a better common future, ultimately brought the two peoples together. Through their own experience of friendly contacts, individual Chinese and Americans manage to tell the world that as long as one tries, no civilizational differences, no cultural barriers, no value variations, no political obstacles, and no conflicts of interests can stop equal and good-hearted people to get to know each other and forge friendships. It is through such private initiatives that Chinese and Americans have gradually learned and understood each other and on that basis established increasingly extensive and ever closer relations, forming the basis and dynamics for China-US cooperation.

Time has passed. Today, China-US relations are vastly different from those of the past. Largely because of China's adoption of the policy of reforms and openness, China's economy has witnessed sustained rapid growth and its society and politics have experienced fundamental changes. As a result of this, relations between China and the US have become increasingly closer, the gap in level of development narrower, value differences reduced, and asymmetry moderated. For the first time in history, it is possible for Chinese and Americans to develop a new relationship on the basis of equality and mutual accommodation. This has laid a solid foundation and created greater room for people-to-people exchange between the two countries.

Against this background, with the active support and encouragement from the two governments, we have good reason to believe that people-to-people exchange between China and the US will make new and greater contributions in promoting good feeling and mutual trust between the two great nations.

 Jia Qingguo, is a Professor and Associate Dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University. He is member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the CPPCC National Committee and a member of the Standing Committee of the China Democratic League.

You might also like
Back to Top