Columbia University commencement 2019.
People-to-people exchanges between China and the United States have shown some disturbing characteristics over the past few years, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19.
One is the conspicuous drop in the number of visits between the two countries. In 2022 around 370,000 Chinese citizens visited the U.S., a considerable plunge from the 2.83 million of 2019. The Chinese government has not published the number of visitors from the U.S., yet a dramatic decrease is a fact in light of the general decline in visits. Visits to China by foreigners reached 65 million person-times in 2019 but fell to just 3,700 in 2022. Pandemic-related restrictions in China were lifted at the end of 2022 and visits to both China and the U.S. have increased, the number remains negligible.
Second, there has been a clear drop in the number of exchange students. According to independent data, 372,532 Chinese students studied in the United States in the 2019-20 academic year. The number dropped to 290,086 the following year. There were 11,639 American students studying in China during the 2018-19 academic year, but the number dwindled to just 382 in the 2020-21 year. According to U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the number decreased by a few more — to 350 — for 2022-23.
Third, direct flights between the two countries have fallen dramatically compared with pre-COVID years. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently agreed to increase U.S.-bound Chinese flights to 24 per week by the end of October. Under reciprocal arrangements, the total number of direct flights between the countries would increase to 48 per week. Although this is a significant increase, it lags far behind the pre-pandemic level of around 300 weekly flights between the two countries (early 2020).
Fourth, there has been a conspicuous increase in the two peoples’ negative feelings toward the other country. According to a December 2021 survey — “The World in Chinese Eyes” — by the Global Times Research Center, more than half the Chinese respondents disliked the Biden administration (55.8 percent), as well as some members of Congress — Republicans (53.3 percent) and Democrats (50.7 percent). Meanwhile, American perceptions of China have also grown steadily negative over the past few years. According to a March 2023 Gallup poll, only 15 percent of American respondents had friendly feelings about China, a historical low.
Fifth, there is a serious lack of motivation to restore exchanges. Although there have been people on both sides calling for resuming non-governmental exchanges as soon as possible, such voices are weak. The willingness to visit or study in each other’s country has been dwindling on both sides. The explosive post-COVID rebound of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries that some had anticipated has not materialized, even with the lifting of travel restrictions at the end of last year. The truth is, judging from the current pattern, people-to-people exchanges between the two countries are unlikely to return to pre-COVID levels in the foreseeable future.
How to explain all this? Looking back, the most direct cause appears to be the pandemic, which broke out in early 2020. Different quarantine measures in the two countries led directly to a sharp drop in two-way non-governmental exchanges, and the dispute over the origin of the pandemic and how to address it further increased distrust between the two countries. But this factor can’t fully explain what happened with the exchange situation. First, it can’t explain why similar problems did not emerge between other countries. Second, it can’t explain why the pandemic was a serious challenges to both countries’ national security or why, instead of cooperation, they engaged in confrontation. Third, it can’t explain why there has not been a strong comeback in two-way people-to-people exchanges after restrictions were removed.
Obviously there have been factors beyond the pandemic at work. A careful analysis of the matter indicates that the pre-pandemic bilateral relationship, domestic politics in both countries and the two countries’ approaches to some issues have all to some extent affected people-to-people exchanges.
Before the COVID outbreak, there had already been significant trouble in bilateral relations. Worries about China’s rise, disappointment that China had not developed in the way the U.S. had expected and the Trump administration’s extreme pressure on tariffs and trade rapidly led things downhill. This is the most important reason the two countries couldn’t collaborate on COVID-19.
In addition, domestic politics in both countries have sustained and enhanced conflict and confrontation. By the time Biden was elected, getting tough on China had become the Washington consensus, and the Democratic Party had only a weak advantage in Congress. These two factors combined determined that Biden had to follow a tough China policy if he wanted to accomplish anything at home.
But the administration’s tough China policy in turn led many people in China to conclude that the U.S. not only wants our money but our life. They feel China must struggle and has no choice. Against such backdrop, the anti-China forces in the U.S. and anti-U.S. forces in China have grown increasingly active, pushing the two countries toward confrontation time and again.
Last of all, the two governments’ actions on some issues have also tended to suppress non-governmental exchanges. First came the visa issue, in which citizens of both countries had difficulty getting them. There were long waiting times, much uncertainty and high costs. Second, flight issues were not resolved in negotiations, partly because of the Ukraine-Russia war. There was an impasse. Because of lack of direct flights, expensive tickets, and long travel times many people chose to postpone, or even cancel, their travel plans. Third is security. In the past, both sides had passed laws and taken steps against each other — for instance, blacklisting each other, finding fault with visitors at border crossings and unwarranted checks of some people’s computers and cell phones. Such practices, which were hyped up by media reports and social media posts, have injected fear into many people’s minds and dampened their enthusiasm for visits.
Looking ahead, if this sort of momentum continues, non-governmental exchanges will inevitably decrease, and so will mutual understanding and trust. Obviously this runs against both countries’ interests. President Xi Jinping once said that good China-U.S. relations benefit not only the two countries but also the world at large. “There are a thousand reasons to make China-U.S. relations work, and none to break them,” he said.
An important start for a restored China-U.S. relationship is people-to-people exchanges. Good state-to-state relations hinge on friendly feelings between people. With more exchanges, there will be more mutual understanding, less imagined hostility and greater hope of resolving and managing conflicts and promoting cooperation on matters of common interest.
Rebuilding non-governmental exchanges between China and the U.S. will require both sides to change their ways of thinking, resist domestic political pressure and make greater efforts to do the right things. First, both sides need to guide the public to support people-to-people exchanges and tamp down contrary voices. Second, both sides should take initiative to facilitate exchanges. For instance, they should discuss travel procedures and find ways to lower the costs and reduce wasted time. Finally, both sides should find ways to mitigate the other side’s concerns about personnel security, including providing a better explanation of related laws and regulations passed recently. This should be followed by the cancellation, or significant reduction, of blacklists.
Through joint efforts, people-to-people exchanges can return to a normal state and become an important driving force in stabilizing and developing healthy bilateral relations once more.