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Foreign Policy

New Challenges to China-U.S. Communication

Oct 11, 2019
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Communication between China and the United States is a channel between two cultures. As human communication is very complex, it could be defined as a special kind of intercultural communication that involves the influence of Chinese and American cultures, as well as cultural perceptions and experiences of the Chinese and American peoples. It is generally agreed that Chinese and Americans are vastly different in their cultural perceptions and experiences and that they have many differences that divide them, but also many similarities that unite them in the economically globalized and highly developed information technology world.

Recent history shows that bilateral political relations play a key role in the scope and effectiveness of China-U.S. communication. Before U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, political relations were antagonistic. Communication was restricted by both sides. As a result, neither side had a deep understanding of the other. As is known to all, the famous 15-year-long ambassadorial talks — 136 meetings from 1955 to 1970 — didn’t achieve a breakthrough until both sides expressed a desire to improve relations. But it is also widely recognized that those 136 talks not only helped keep delicate relations alive but also paved the way for Dr. Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971, which was the result of their deepened knowledge of each other and improved mutual political trust.

The importance of promoting understanding and acquiring knowledge of each other through cultural communication is shown by another interesting example. On Oct. 1, 1970, the well-known American writer Edgar Snow was invited to attend China’s National Day celebrations on the Tian’anmen rostrum. Virtually all national newspapers in China carried front page reports of the event. Pictures showed Snow standing beside Chairman Mao Zedong, the top leader of China. Chinese etiquette, Snow was treated with the best Chinese etiquette as a foreigner, especially as an American. Under China’s diplomatic protocol, he was treated as Mao’s most-honored guest. The implied meaning of the event was clear. But the U.S. side failed to get the message and respond.

At present, China-U.S. political relations are certainly a lot better than in the years before Nixon’s China visit, but recently they are obviously deteriorating. The worsening bilateral political relations have given rise to new challenges in communication.

First, the lack of knowledge of each other’s political and economic systems is revealed more clearly than ever before. U.S. President Trump’s accusation against China on Sept. 24, 2019, at the United Nations General Assembly is an eloquent example. He said, “Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a massive scale.”

In terms of intercultural communication, these accusations showed his poor understanding of some essential facts about China that are vastly different from those of the U.S. Though both are market economies, one is socialist, having been transformed from a planned economy, while the other is a mature capitalist one. The differences are closely related to the respective understandings of public ownership and private ownership, as well as state subsidies. China’s economy is in the initial stage of socialism, which embraces a market economy, while the U.S. economy is mature and has a different development model. Apart from lack of understanding of China’s basic system, Trump’s accusations were largely groundless — far from the truth.

Second, the war involving information and public opinion has become a major obstacle in China-U.S. communication, especially when political relations are less than optimal. On Aug. 19, at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Smart China Expo in Chongqing, China, Vice Premier Liu He, who is also the chief negotiator for China in the bilateral trade talks, said, “We are willing to solve the problems through consultation and cooperation with a calm attitude. We firmly oppose the escalation of the trade war.” He added that escalation is “not conducive to China, the U.S. or the interests of the people around the world.”

It was an expression of China’s consistent official position regarding the trade talks, and it is a very simple formula. But when this clear message reached the U.S., its essence was distorted and a debate was provoked between the media and White House officials.

In order to convince the American public that the U.S. is winning the trade war and that China is in a weak position and eagerly asking for a deal, President Trump said his trade team received multiple calls overnight from Beijing expressing a desire to restart negotiations. They want to make a deal very badly, he said. Two White House officials defended Trump by saying he was eager to project optimism that might boost the markets. However, some American journalists believed that Trump had lied. The Chinese vice premier said that he hoped they could find a way to have a “calm” negotiation. But Trump turned what Liu said into “many high-level calls”. And American reporters noticed that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a news conference over the weekend that he didn’t know about any such phone call.

What is more contentious in this case in terms of intercultural communication is a question raised in the U.S. media: Whom will you believe, your president or an official from a communist government? Average Americans who didn’t closely follow China-U.S. trade talks but have a bias against foreign governments led by communist parties would mostly likely be misled. But many ordinary Americans might say, “That’s politics” — meaning it’s a very complicated political issue.

Third, value differences and political motives leading to the distortion of facts pose another challenge to China-U.S. communication. Chinese often refer to the values of freedom with responsibility, harmony, collectivism and respect for law and order, while American values, though sharing some of the Chinese ones, tend to tilt more toward human rights, freedom and democracy. Politicians in the U.S. Congress, such as Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, all expressed support for a criminal suspect in Hong Kong, Joshua Wong, for his advocacy of democracy in the special administrative region.

On Sept. 18, Wong, who was twice detained by police and twice released by a judge on bail, was invited to a news conference on “the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.” It is crystal clear that U.S. politicians altered the basic fact of severe violence that happened in Hong Kong by deliberately describing the Hong Kong protesters’ criminal vandalism of public facilities in recent months as “peaceful” protests for human rights and democracy. Their description even contradicted repeated American media reports that the protests in Hong Kong had spiraled into violence. It is no longer unusual to see bricks and gasoline bombs hurled by protesters. What prompted U.S. law-making efforts with regard to Hong Kong goes beyond value differences between the two countries. Lies are being told to the American public. Legislators intended to support U.S.-style democracy in Hong Kong and to harm China-U.S. relations by imposing sanctions on Hong Kong individuals and institutions as special measures under the act.

As China-U.S. political relations are deteriorating, and especially the U.S. political ecology is filled with a lot of fake news, false claims and lies, U.S. politicians’ strategy of misinformation and distortion of facts is becoming a big obstacle for the Chinese people, as well as those of other countries, in getting to know the true America. China-U.S. communication is facing unprecedented daunting challenges.

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