Wang Chao: The Power of the People

Jan 28 , 2021

Wang Chao, President of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs.


I was pleased to receive your invitation to be part of the virtual seminar: “China-U.S. Relations: The Way Forward,” which is co-organized by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and China-United States Exchange Foundation. Just now, Mr. Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, made a speech on people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Now, I would like to follow up his remarks and make three points on the issue.

First, people-to-people exchange is an important component of China-U.S. relations and plays a very important role in enhancing mutual understanding and friendship and in shaping a stronger social foundation for bilateral relations.

As President Xi Jinping pointed out, “State-to-state relations are ultimately relations between the people” and “State-to-state relations ultimately require the support of the people.” Since China and the United States have tremendous differences in social systems, ideologies, cultural traditions, historical backgrounds and national circumstances, people-to-people exchange is particularly important to the development of their relations. Such interaction helps forge the strongest bond between the two countries. It is through close interaction that Chinese and U.S. citizens deepen mutual understanding and enhance their friendship, so that the two countries find more shared interests in a wide range of areas and greater need for exchange and cooperation.

An examination of the history of China-U.S. relations indicates that people-to-people exchanges have given a strong boost to bilateral relations, which in turn creates favorable conditions for the expansion of people-to-people exchanges, thus forming a virtuous circle. Closer people-to-people exchanges lead to a stronger social foundation for bilateral relations, which are in a stronger position to respond to risks and challenges. We need to promote people-to-people exchanges in good times, but more importantly, leverage their important role in promoting bilateral relations in bad times.

Second, as China-U.S. relations have expanded over the past 40 years, people-to-people exchanges have witnessed impressive development.

Under President Trump, however, these exchanges suffered serious setbacks and even regressions in some aspects. Why? The administration demonized and politicized people-to-people exchanges and as part of its China policy suppressed two-way exchange activities.

Since 2017, there has emerged in the U.S. a backlash against people-to-people exchanges. For example, Congress proposed and adopted a number of bills that regulate and restrict them. In 2018, the U.S. government began to introduce a series of restrictions, censoring, monitoring and restricting the activities of Chinese students and scholars in the U.S., along with exchange activities and cooperation programs between universities and the operation of the Confucius Institutes and Chinese media outlets in the country. It also canceled many exchange programs, many of which had been around for decades and were popular with participants from both countries.

The U.S. readily describes some exchange programs as “United Front programs” designed to facilitate China’s infiltration of U.S society. This is a totally unfounded accusation and a good example of snap judgments. Last month, the U.S. ended five cultural exchange programs with China, all of which were funded under the auspices of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. These programs are open and transparent, and used to be supported by successive administrations. The schedules of U.S. delegations to China were based on U.S. proposals and developed through mutual consultation. And this is a fact known to the U.S. government. Generally, the U.S. participants — mainly members of Congress and their aides — made positive comments on these programs. All these examples indicate that these cancelled programs are normal bilateral exchange programs, rather than something designed for a “United Front.”

When it comes to the “United Front,” the U.S. needs to exhibit confidence in themselves. Exchange programs organized by Chinese and U.S. organizations are two-way programs, with Chinese and U.S. participants visiting each other’s country. It doesn’t make sense to label normal exchanges as political programs.

In launching a massive, irrational crackdown on people-to-people exchanges, the United States has undermined bilateral relations and damaged its own interests. That is why this crackdown is met with opposition by individuals of great insight in the country.

Third, there is now an important window of opportunity for the improvement and development of China-U.S. relations, and both sides need to seize the opportunity to restart and expand people-to-people exchanges.

The U.S. government needs to reverse the Trump administration’s wrong moves that obstructed people-to-people exchanges by making it easier for Chinese students, visiting scholars, business people and media workers to visit the country and study and work there, and by restarting people-to-people exchange programs.

Under the Obama administration, the two sides established a high-level consultation mechanism on people-to-people exchanges, which played an important role in promoting exchange programs between the two countries. They also held the China-U.S. Social and Cultural Dialogue, the China-U.S. Provincial and State Education Leaders Dialogue and established a high-level dialogue mechanism on tourism.

Going forward, the two countries need to engage in friendly consultations for the purpose of restarting these mechanisms and activities, and make plans together for the long-term development of people-to-people exchanges.

In China and the United States, there are many institutions and nongovernmental organizations dedicated to advancing friendship and cooperation between the two countries, including the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs; the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, led by Mr. Steve Orlins; the China Center for International Economic Exchanges; and the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation — as well as the organizations represented by many of our guests here. In everything we do, we aim to promote mutual understanding and friendship between Chinese and U.S. citizens and advance China-U.S. relations. Therefore, both governments need to continue to encourage these institutions to play their part in bilateral relations.

The China-U.S. relationship encountered serious difficulties over the past four years, but the foundation of this relationship, which is a result of the joint efforts of both sides, remains strong, and the aspirations of the two peoples for stronger China-U.S. relations remain unchanged. I am optimistic about the prospects of our people-to-people exchanges and the future of China-U.S. relations.

As one of the earliest Chinese institutions engaged in people-to-people diplomacy, the Institute of Foreign Affairs will continue to promote exchanges between people in China and the United States, to enhance mutual understanding and trust and to do our part for the development of this important bilateral relationship.