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Society & Culture

People-to-People Exchanges: A Main Dish, Not A “Spice”

Jun 22, 2016

The 7th China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, in parallel with the 8th Strategic and Economic Dialogue, was concluded in early June in Beijing, and the two countries have signed 12 cooperation agreements and presented 158 results of cooperation covering seven areas including education, science and technology, culture, public health, sports, women and youth. Since the launch of this annual meeting in 2010, the people-to-people exchange has become another highlight in China-U.S. cooperation.

Some, however, would argue that international politics is primarily about physical power, conventionally assumed to be the business of politicians in high office. All cultural and normative elements are ultimately seen as secondary to it. This state-centric perspective is problematic as it downplays the public’s role in international relations as well as broad social and cultural contexts in which relations are unfolding.

In reality, thanks to globalization and technological advances that make folks travel and ideas flow more easily, the public is playing increasingly determinant roles in international relations. In this context, official diplomacy tends to act more as a service to individual citizen’ needs for better contacts and engagements with people in other countries.

The way in which human beings live and know each other has been undergoing profound changes today. It gradually breaks and transcends hedges fenced by various conventional barriers. International relations increasingly extended from physical aspects to those of humanity covering closer connections of society to society, of people to people, and of races to races (even ethnic groups to ethnic groups). In the efforts to advance the world toward a better human community, human beings are decisive driving forces in the process.

Also national ethos and its identities are, rather than relying on beliefs in any metaphysical power, represented through a series of social and cultural practices, in which a given social order is established. Taking China for example, regarding the questions as to how to formulate a social order, a shared world and common development, the Chinese people have accumulated their own intellectual sources, philosophies and cultural and social practices. In this sense, the people-to-people exchange is a valuable concept and practice and is beneficial to the maintanece of world peace and human development.

In recent years, China has witnessed itself reiterating in its diplomatic discourse and behavior the significance of humanitarian communications. Bringing people-to-people exchanges back into its relationship with other countries is a remarkable aspect in Chinese diplomacy today. It is through this that the humanistic nature of international relations can be better observed and understood.

In Chinese tradition, humanity is put in a very high place in social life. As one Chinese classic alludes to it, one can “learn about the change of seasons through observing natural phenomena while promoting social development through studying human phenomena”. Thus both nature and culture are revered and taken as equally critical and powerful elements in (re)shaping the social world.

If humanity is central to all things in social life , interactions among human beings can be arguably the most attractive and fasinating in all forms of practices in the soceity as it is an exchange of human souls. A sincere and candid dialogue between human hearts constitutes valuable parts in people-to-people exchanges today.

The people-to-people exchange in international relations has several functions to play. Such exchange is metaphorically a pavement stone, which lays a solid foundation of social and public opinions for a sound development of interstates relationship. If war is the last resort in international politics, culture is always a tool that is calculated to be employed first. It is a delicate way with more flavors of humanity in it, compared with other ways like trade transactions and military contacts. It is also a social practice that can hardly be substituted. Compared with the trade and military, people–to-people exchange is less costly but covers wider and broader areas and scales with bigger numbers of players participating in it.

Other features can be identified in the people-to-people exchange. One is that it is primary about public communication — highly institutional, as communicators usually follow, and are conditioned by, a number of communicative rules and norms. The content of the communication includes culture and ideas. As a rule, diplomacy favors communication and dialogu rather than military violence in the resolution of conflicts and hostilities. But it does not mean diplomacy and military are not interrelated. On the contrary, physical capabilities can be a guarantee of diplomacy, as an old adage in China holds that diplomacy is backed by military readiness.

Another feature is that it allows more social entities to participate in events that may produce effects, directly or indirectly, on diplomacy. Besides politicians in high office and professional diplomats, entrepreneurs, artists, writers and intellectuals, who are working or paying a visit overseas, are equally recognized as messengers of their home countries. With a sea change in a globalized world, the definition as to who will be internationally recognised as players in diplomacy is changing as well. That makes the identity of players participating in diplomatic activities increasingly inclusive and subject to (re)definition.

Still another feature is that it is also about production, management and distribution of public goods such as shared values, common languages, collective identities, which are produced by people-to-people exchange. When some people in a given society benefit from these public goods, it does not mean that other people in the society are excluded from obtaining equally the same public goods. Put another way, the process of globalization is redefining any given public goods as global public goods. Some areas conventionally taken as national concerns such as environment, health, security and justice are becoming global concerns.

This transformation makes diplomacy an instrument no longer narrowly for the achievements of national interests, but more for the resolution of global and regional issues. Diplomacy is thus committing more efforts to make efficient management and distribution of benefits brought about by diplomacy itself on international and regional levels.

Since China and the United States launched a first round of CPE in 2010, the CPE has been paralleled with an annual Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), so that people-to-people exchanges, along with political mutual trust, and economic trade cooperation constitute three pillars of the China-U.S. relationship.

The people-to-people exchange in the Sino-U.S. relationship, whose aim is to enhance and strengthen ties between the citizens of the two countries, has been evolving in baiscially sound ways. First, it has been conceived by the governments of the two countries as an important and integral part in the bilateral relationship. Seven rounds of the CPE have been held so far. High-level institutions such as Ministry of Culture of China and the U.S. Department of State have been committed to the designing and initiating the people-to-people exchange programs.

Second, the scales of the people-to-people exchange have been expanding rapidly. The people-to-people exchange the two countries started in four areas with 13 programs in 2010, when the first round of the CPE was held, and then developed horizontally into six areas with 104 programs, and by 2015 into seven areas with 119 programs. They have been facilitating and promoting pragmatic cooperation, which benefits hundreds of thousands of citizens of the two countries. For instance, increasing numbers of students from both China and the U.S. have been benefiting from such programs as the “Three Ten-Thousand”, and “100, 000 Strong” initiatives.

Third, the level of Sino-U.S. cooperation in the people-to-people exchange has been improving. Over past years, it has extended vertically from the national level to local levels. Some 240 sister provinces/states and cities between the two countries have been associated as pairs, and “Sino-U.S. Governors Forum”, “Sino-U.S. Mayors Forum”, “China-U.S. Young Scientists Forum”, and “China-U.S. Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue” have been initiated successively.

In reality, international relations consist of mutually constitutive relationships in such areas as the political, economic, military, and others, while the people-to-people exchanges may lay the foundations for better relations in these areas between countries.

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