BOSTON — In 1985, Xi Jinping had his first taste of American hospitality as a Communist Party officer staying with an American family in Muscatine, Iowa.
Twenty-seven years later, the presumed future president of China stopped in Muscatine during his one-week visit to the US to reconnect with fond memories. “Coming here is really like coming back to home,” Xi remarked.
While many Chinese probably felt uncomfortable hearing their future president call America home, we — as Harvard sophomores from China and the United States — can genuinely understand Xi’s sense of belonging. Each of us has experienced the openness and kindness of Americans towards Chinese students — the exact sentiments that caused Xi to feel so at ease and comfortable in Iowa more than two decades ago. The same is true in China where ordinary Chinese treat Americans with courtesy, friendship and respect.
This inherent goodwill is in sharp contrast to relations between the Chinese and US governments. Each side insists on viewing the other as a potential enemy. China’s recent military buildup (military spending jumped 13 percent last year to $92 billion) only makes sense in the context of a desire to challenge the US — no matter how often Chinese officials insist that they are only pursuing national and regional security. China’s recent veto of the US and Arab League-backed Syria resolution at the UN has a similar motivation. As the Global Times — a newspaper published by the Communist mouthpiece People’s Daily — put it, “It is wrong to come down blindly on the side of the West.” In other words, the Chinese government staked its prestige primarily on challenging the perceived hegemony of the United States.
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The United States, too, consistently treats China as an adversary. The Obama Administration’s Asian “pivot” seems intended to contain China through increased weapons sales to regional allies and investment in reconnaissance drones to patrol waterways in the oil-rich South China Sea. The Pentagon spends millions each year on “simulating” Sino-US war scenarios. Republican Presidential candidates have been falling over each other to ramp up their anti-China rhetoric. Mitt Romney has called US-China economic tensions a “trade war” and has vowed to label China a “currency manipulator” with practically his first act in the Oval Office. Rick Santorum one-upped him by advocating, “[going] to war with China and making America the most attractive place in the world to do business.” President Barack Obama will likely toughen his stance on China in order to court industrial and manufacturing-sector voters in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania this fall.
Why are the approaches of the Chinese and American governments so different from the way ordinary Chinese and Americans perceive each other?
A large part of the answer lies in a combination of ignorance and inexperience. Senior positions in the US and Chinese governments are often filled with people who have little first-hand experience or understanding of the other side. For example, it is no surprise that economic relations have deteriorated since China affairs veteran Gary Locke was replaced as US Commerce Secretary by the relatively uninitiated John Bryson. The top brass at the Defense Department is strikingly thin on individuals who have worked or served in East Asia in either a civilian or military capacity — yet these selfsame officials have designed Obama’s “pivot” policy.
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Things are arguably even worse on the Chinese side. Few officials have deep understanding of the United States or personal ties with individual Americans. It is hard to believe that the presumptive president of China has only visited the US twice. How can he possibly manage — let alone “build” — the Sino-US relationship if he has no firsthand experience of it?
Next year, with a new president in China and a newly-elected president and Congress in the United States, there is a perfect opportunity to set a new course. American voters should make China a first-tier issue in the elections. We need congressmen, senators and a president who are open to building on the reservoir of goodwill that exists at the individual level rather than stoking fears and prejudices. Friendly ties will go a long way to convincing the Chinese government that the US is not trying to threaten its political ideology and reduce the need for China to risk its international credibility on empty grandstanding such as that seen at the UN.
We are not naive enough to believe that a few experienced officials could be a panacea for Sino-US relations. There are tough issues between China and the US that have no easy solution. But as the next generation of youth from America and China, we ask our governments to stop playing political games that will harm our economic futures. Protectionism — in the form of import tariffs and currency manipulation — will only hurt both sides in the long run. We would suggest that our two nations use the power of individual relationships and personal knowledge to build trust. In our experience, that is what the Chinese and American people want.
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William Hakim, from Belmont Massachusetts, and Charlotte Chang, from Shanghai China, are sophomores at Harvard College.