David Firestein: Build Back Better

Jan 28 , 2021

David Firestein, President & CEO of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.


Neil, thank you so much for those gracious words. I really appreciate it. And I want to thank CUSEF and in particular Mr. C.H. Tung and CCIEE and also Fred for the opportunity to be involved in this really significant event. It's an honor to be among such a distinguished group of folks who care so passionately about the United States-China relationship. 

The topic, as we understand, is people-to-people exchanges, and this topic hits very close to home for me personally, because in my nearly 20-year career as a U.S. diplomat, including time at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, I worked on public diplomacy and I worked on people-to-people exchanges, and I saw firsthand the extraordinary value of those exchanges in building friendship and understanding, and ultimately some modicum of trust, between the United States and China. 

The relationship today between the United States and China is obviously not very good. It's a modern-era low point or low watermark, subsequent to normalization 42 years ago this month. In one area in which the depth of the drop, or the deterioration in U.S.-China relations has really been manifested, as has been noted by a number of speakers, is in the people-to-people engagement area. In framing China as essentially the enemy of America, the Trump administration took some unprecedented steps, not only to curb official dialogue but also to really impede people-to-people interaction, in ways that we have never seen subsequent to normalization in 1979. 

A number of these things have been mentioned by other speakers, starting with Steve, and others have referenced them. But let me just very briefly go through some of the most egregious examples of actions that the United States has taken under the Trump administration, or that it took under the Trump administration, in this area:

Greater restrictions on students from China; the revocation of over 1,000 existing Chinese student visas; termination of the Fulbright Program and others as has been referenced; termination of the U.S. Peace Corps presence in China, something that had been there since 1993; pressure on the Chinese Confucius Institutes here in the United States; and limitations on Chinese media, on numbers of Chinese media personnel in the United States, again, as have been referenced, and a host of other things as well. 

At the same time, we have seen, specifically from President Trump and other senior members of the Trump administration, a really cynical effort to (if I can use a political term) go negative on China in a major league way, and really create negative associations willfully, and consciously to create negative associations in the minds of the American people, by cynically employing terms like “the China virus,” and “the China plague.” These types of terms and many others have been designed to sully China's image among the American people, where historically there has been some reservoir of goodwill. And it's really something that has disappointed and saddened and angered me, as someone who cares, as all of us do, about the health of the U.S.-China relationship. 

Over the last three years, and particularly over the last year, in the last 12 months, we have seen an incredible deterioration in U.S. public sentiment toward China, the likes of which we haven't seen in well over three decades. As Ambassador Baucus noted, 73 percent of Americans now state that they have unfavorable views of China, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. In addition, 64 percent of Americans hold negative views or unfavorable views of China's handling, or early response to COVID-19. But perhaps most worrisome is actually the smallest number. And that is the 26 percent of Americans, according to that same Pew poll, who stated that they regard China as the enemy of our nation. And while that number suggests that 74 percent of Americans do not feel that way, nevertheless that is a high watermark in the modern era and something that's very disturbing. At the same time, China has seen similar deterioration in Chinese public sentiment toward the United States, we have to recognize that as well. 

What can we do about the state of affairs, frankly the deplorable state of affairs, in terms of the U.S.-China relationship today? Let me just say, first of all, that I want to fully endorse the really good comments that Steve made right at the outset. I agree with every suggestion that he made, I think, probably all of us do — certainly on the U.S. side. And perhaps all of us do generally, and I endorse those views. 

Number of the points that I was going to mention. Let me just mention a couple of things, as well. I have endorsed Steve's really good comments. 

Number one, absolutely, we should reopen the two consulates general in Houston and in Chengdu. The United States started that one. I think, and I certainly hope, that the Biden administration will take a fresh look at that and get the Houston consulate back up and running, and that meanwhile China will take the reciprocal step of getting our U.S. consulate in Chengdu back up and running. Both nations are hurt by having anything other than full diplomatic representation in the other country. 

Number two, restore the Fulbright program. That's a no brainer. 

Number three, restore the U.S. Peace Corps presence in China, assuming it's still welcome. It's a very important people-to-people program. It has involved well over 1,000 Americans over these last nearly three decades. Let's get that back in operation, again. 

I think the United States — and I'll say something that some of us would find controversial — but I think the United States federal government should cease and desist from its efforts to shut down Confucius Institutes. Yes, it's true that Confucius institutes are cultural outposts of China, and oftentimes they'll host speakers whose views align with the views of China. There is nothing wrong with that. That is part of cultural exchange. We need to know what Chinese think, just as Chinese need to know what we think, and we shouldn't be scared to hear those ideas or somehow worried about propagandistic effects. We should welcome all views being expressed on our university campuses. And I think it's wrongheaded for the United States to push for the ouster or the shutting down of these institutes, just as it would be wrong for China to do the same thing, relative to American foreigners and American centers in China. 

I think we should restore, as has been noted and suggested, a posture of openness to qualified Chinese students and scholars and media professionals, just as, I hope, China would do the same thing. And we should also really take a look at what we in the United States have done over the last several years to pour gasoline on the fire of the deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship — particularly in terms of the incredibly juvenile and crass rhetoric the President of the United States, President Trump, used during the entirety of his time in office, as well as other members of the Trump administration. We have got to speak like diplomats and presidents and senators and so on again, and get away from trying to mimic a heckler at a late night comedy show. It's just not a good look for the United States. We've certainly done our part to add gasoline.

Briefly on the Chinese side, before I conclude, I would respectfully suggest and recommend to our friends in China to embrace people-to-people exchanges with the same openness — and with a greater openness, perhaps, even than before — as we seek to look at these exchanges from a U.S. perspective. In other words, to be open to the exchanges. I think if we're being honest, we have to recognize that historically, sometimes China has not been as open to some of the exchanges, and has been wary of those exchanges. And I think on both sides, both the United States and China need to be more open. 

And I think China needs to recognize that there is a need for greater reciprocity. As Ambassador Baucus noted, the need to level the playing field in a variety of areas — trade and investment, but also in the people-to-people exchange area. China has at times, limited exchanges in ways that the United States didn't. Now we've come full-circle, and the United States is limiting exchanges. And I think both countries need to move back to a more open posture. 

One specific idea I would suggest that hasn't been mentioned, is that China think about creating an International Visitor Leadership Program similar to the one that the United States has, or even more ambitiously to create what is sometimes called in the United States, a Billington Program — named for James Billington, the former and late librarian of Congress. And to actually see the exchange of not hundreds, but thousands and thousands of Americans and Chinese in both directions. We need to take bold steps to stop the hemorrhaging in this relationship, and I think that would be a bold way to do it. 

Finally, I know my time is up. Joe Biden's slogan, as a presidential candidate for president, was Build Back Better. The U.S.-China relationship has been torn down over the last several years and we need to build it back better, together. There is room for improvement on both sides. The United States and China bear significant responsibility for the deterioration we've seen; therefore we both bear responsibility for putting this relationship back on track. People-to-people — it's so important. 

Let me just conclude by saying the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, looks forward to playing a positive and constructive role in building this relationship back and getting it back in the right direction.

Thank you so much.