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Society & Culture

How the Youth Can Help Fix U.S.-China Relationship

Mar 26, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    DPhil in Politics candidate and Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford

With a momentous meeting in Anchorage high on the agenda of both sides of the Pacific, there remains an inkling of hope that amidst souring relations, the U.S. and China could come to the talking table, hash out their frustrations, and hear each other out. 

Yet such cherubic idealism inevitably finds itself frustrated by the mundanities of political reality. 

Disapproval of China amongst U.S. citizens has reached unprecedented heights over recent weeks, with just slightly over 20% of Americans holding a favourable view of what has been touted by many to be the country’s primary competitor, rival, and potentially – on select issues – a threat. Similarly, the average favourability of the US government amongst Chinese citizens has declined drastically over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Trump administration’s acrimonious attacks on Chinese migrants and the diaspora at large. 

There are obvious challenges confronting U.S. and China alike, arising from the invigoration of long-standing, deeply rooted scepticism towards one another. The repercussions are apparent for all to see. For one, the paranoia over ostensible Chinese infiltration has rendered American campuses and educational institutes the site of protracted ideological battles, with young Chinese academics and students – often seeking to establish themselves in an already structurally hostile environment – bearing the full brunt of the new Red Scare. Funding crackdowns, withdrawn positions and tenure, and heightened scrutiny concerning Chinese visas have left the American academic community bereft of many prospective talents with genuine, non-partisan insights to contribute. 

As the Committee of 100 aptly noted, “the loyalties of Chinese Americans are being unfairly questioned, and the community is being severely maligned by overreaching prosecutions and rush to judgment.” VICE News ran an op-ed earlier last week, noting that “the US is building walls around science, and we’re all the poorer for it”. 

American and foreign journalists reporting in China, on the other hand, have also come under the crossfire, with heightened hostility towards Western reporting and coverage in select parts of the country. Well-intentioned, rational critique of the country’s flaws and limits are unduly conflated with the abrasive, toxic Manichaeism that undergirds certain segments of Washington. Embittered, polarising online debates across Twitter and Facebook have left few netizens convinced of the merits of the ‘other side’. 

In particular, the credence to the view that America offers a paradigm for free, equal, and just governance has been vastly dented by the country’s botched handling of the pandemic and the Capitol Hill riots, leaving many young, once-‘liberals’ disillusioned by what is widely perceived to be revelatory indictments of Washington’s ineptitude. 

To put it bluntly, independent of any further economic decoupling, we are witnessing a disconcerted yet devastating push for decoupling in civil societies between the U.S. and China. This could only be to the detriment of all in the world. 

The misalignment in expectations and mistrust across civil societies – whilst tense – are not incorrigible. We should be under no illusion that individual efforts alone, helmed by initiative-taking youth , can fully repair bilateral relations. Yet even short of full restoration of normalcy and tolerance, we need individuals who can acknowledge cultural differences and value conflicts as part and parcel of international exchange, who can stand firm on grounds of principles while seeing why others may reasonably disagree. This is where moderate, internationalist youth can - and must - step up. 

There is often a temptation to amplify the divergence in values, preferences, and behaviours amongst Chinese and American citizens. Yet for the Gen-Z and millennials that comprise the immediate future of the two countries, there is in fact more that unites them than divides them. Both groups have a clear stake in seeing immediate, effective resolution to the crisis of the century – namely, global warming. Both groups – albeit internally heterogeneous – subscribe to a greater commitment to individual freedom and expression. Above all, both groups are direct beneficiaries of the cascades of globalisation – from a growing universal codex of cultural mores and iconography, to a more conveniently connected society on and offline, , to economic collaboration cutting across national and geographical boundaries. 

These areas of commonalities give rise to an organic space for exchange and dialogue – where mutual understanding need not be forced from top-down imposition, but forged through bottom-up associations, networking, and collaboration. Consider, for instance, movements heralding genuine racial justice and equality for Asian Americans and members of the Chinese diaspora alike, or networks championing greater synergy across nations in tackling climate change and pressing environmental issues. 

It must be said that building associations and dialogical spaces alone are insufficient. We must also recognise and harness their emancipatory potential. From public health initiatives (e.g. sharing vaccines or supplying masks to countries of need) to ventures that empower young women in breaking the glass ceiling and defying patriarchal norms, these are spaces cutting across cultural divides. They enable American and Chinese youth to debate and reflect upon how there is more that unites them – than separates them. The youth must be able to imagine themselves in the others’ shoes; not as inherently oppositional in their interests, but as prospective partners against the ills of isolationism and opportunistic nationalism. 

Facilitating such mutual entente is a process in which all of us – irrespective of age or background – can play a role. Both governments must step up in restoring the fabric of exchanges, informal conversations, and communicative backchannels that paved the way for the thawing of relations in China’s early days in opening-up and economic reforms. As a critical first step, both governments must ensure that academic spaces are free of unconducive politicisation. 

The Biden administration should restore the China Fulbright scholarship and exchange programmes – expand them, even – as a means of attracting and retaining talents that can straddle the cultural and language divides. Opportunities such as the Yenching and Schwarzman scholarships offer theoretically unrivalled access to the intricacies of China’s future political leadership – they should be seized upon by youth who are eager to understand and grapple with China beyond the superficial. There are valid concerns that such exchange programmes only serve as vectors of official doctrine and rhetoric – to this point, the solution is to recognise that holding back only begets further misunderstanding. 

Scholars’ tenures and job prospects should also be insured against inflammatory weaponisation. This is easier said than done, but measures such as lifting arbitrary restrictions on funding sources, more robust checks against restrictions upon speech and opinion, and more professional, streamlined background vetting processes with greater transparency, could well go a long way in making life easier for prospective and current researchers. 

Cynics may object – surely, civil society exchange is inevitably constrained by its inability to directly shape governmental stances and policies. 

Yet we can sow the seeds today among the youth, and when they enter into positions of greater responsibility, we reap tomorrow the crop of cross-cultural empathy and decency. At times like these, when trust has reached new lows, it is imperative that both sides are precipitously staffed by individuals who appreciate cultural nuances; who understand the constraints and concerns of “the other side”; of seeing the world less through the lenses of “Us vs. Them” – but an expanded “Us”, instead. The youth thus have a monumental role to play. 

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