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China-US Relations: Views From China

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China-US Relations: Views From China

Understanding how ordinary Chinese people view the relationship is a crucial, but often overlooked, element in getting U.S. policy right.

China-US Relations: Views From China

In this Sept. 16, 2018, file photo, American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

While I was working on this article about Chinese views toward the United States and its diplomacy, there was an unexpected twist: a campaign to boycott Nike.

Some Western companies like Nike, Adidas, and H&M, under pressure at home, have announced they will not use Xinjiang cotton due to human rights concerns. This became a dramatic outlet for Chinese people to express their dissatisfaction with the West and display Chinese nationalism.

This provided a new perspective and another dimension for the discussions I had on Sino-U.S. relations while researching for this article.

I have been a reporter for more than 15 years, so I was not surprised by the quarreling at the Alaska talks between China and the United States. What has me more worried is a recent Gallup poll showing that a plurality of American people believe China is the biggest threat to the U.S., even surpassing Russia. Worse, 93 percent of Americans see China’s economic power as either a “critical” or an “important” threat to the United States.

There is a Chinese saying: Friendship between nations lies in the friendship between the people. If China and the United States do not pay more attention to the views of the people, it will seriously damage diplomatic relations between two countries.

For this article, I wanted to talk about how some ordinary Chinese people view the United States’ diplomacy toward China, hoping to bring attention to this important factor and thus help boost the relationship.

The daughter of my neighbor, a college student, likes all kinds of sports and is fascinated by foreign sports brands. But she told me she would “never wear Nike again!” The news of Nike’s decision to boycott Xinjiang cotton had a strong impact on her.

She is not alone. Among young Chinese people, a wave of boycotts against American and Western sports brands is currently emerging. They feel that these countries are bullying China too much, and Chinese people must show their attitude clearly in order to do their part for their country.

I asked her, “Do you know what has happened in Xinjiang?”

She replied dismissively, “Anyway, it’s not like what the Americans said.”

U.S. foreign policymakers may not be aware that most Chinese think U.S. accusations toward China sound like a joke. It’s time to pay more attention to the thinking of ordinary Chinese people.

Consider this basic fact: Most Chinese people are still relatively poor. There are 600 million people in China – 45 percent of the total population – with a monthly income of less than 2,000 renminbi (about $300). These people are also the most prone to nationalist sentiments, because they want to get rich. To get rich, they believe they need a safe and stable environment.

The current U.S. policy toward China makes them fear an unstable future. How to make money in a world like this?

A few days ago, I hired a migrant rural worker who came to Beijing to work. When he found out I was a reporter, he wanted to chat with me about China-U.S. relations.

He asked me if China will become Afghanistan one day. I was surprised by his thought.

His logic went like this: Australia is far inferior to the U.S. and the U.K., but their soldiers dared to kill civilians casually in Afghanistan (referring to allegations of war crimes against individual Australian soldiers, which were emphasized in Chinese media). The United States is so much stronger than Australia, and is now putting heavy pressure on China. Won’t the Chinese also be massacred by the Americans?

Around this time, the TV was covering the news that a U.S. official said if China wants to improve Sino-U.S. relations, it must first improve Sino-Australia relations. That deepened this worker’s concerns about the United States favoring Australia and forming a unified bloc against China. He said to me the only solution to the dangerous situation is to have a war with the United States.

As extreme as this sounds, I don’t think he’s alone in thinking it. Many people of his socioeconomic status share this view, which may surprise observers in the United States. A migrant worker from the countryside may never go to the United States or learn a word of English, but they are deeply worried their interests will be affected by the United States.

Likewise, I believe that some Americans who will never come to China or learn Chinese are also deeply worried their interests will be affected by China. How sad, and how terrible.

Even more concerning: A middle-class friend who is a foreign trade merchant in Shanghai has surprisingly similar views on Sino-U.S. relations. He does not share much in common with a migrant worker, but this is one point where they agree.

He told me he believes the United States and other Western countries are squeezing China’s economy and do not want China to grow stronger. The so-called Australia issue, Xinjiang issue, or Huawei issue are all excuses for them to obstruct China’s rise, he argued. If both sides do not make concessions, this contradiction can’t be resolved.

His judgment is relatively clear: China and the United States will fight a battle in the future.

I asked him: If your prediction really comes true, what about your business?

He said if this is a trend, he is not able to change it and can only adapt to it. But he is very confident that the United States will accelerate its decline after the battle with China.

I was shocked by his confidence.

I don’t believe in war, but in rational factors. The most important premise is that Sino-U.S. relations must avoid entering a “Trump era without Trump.”

Political conflict can easily make people who have never met feel hostile toward each other. This is dangerous not only for our two countries, but also for the whole world.

Therefore, I very much hope to see what China and the United States mentioned during Alaska meeting become a reality as soon as possible: steps to relax visa restrictions and to enhance media interactions between the two countries, so that the people can get more exposure to each other and diplomats can have a better understanding of people’s psychology. On a related note, I think that U.S. officials should often visit China, especially Xinjiang, to have more contact with local ordinary people. Probably it will reduce American stereotypes about China, which still contain some ideological prejudices or are distorted by over-reliance on overseas exile communities.

At the same time, U.S. officials also need to understand the aspirations and expectations for Sino-U.S. relations of ordinary people from various sectors in China. This should be the foundation for formulating realistic foreign policy. These are the true voices that American diplomats should hear.

Things are not entirely dark, however. I also spoke to a retired teacher. He hates the xenophobic nationalism on the internet, and he does not fully agree with the CCP’s policies. But he does not believe all the U.S. criticisms, either.

He has always kept hope, even though Sino-U.S. relations were so poor that the two sides almost decoupled during Trump administration. He pointed out that during the Mao era, while he was growing up, China and the United States fought several battles in North Korea and Vietnam, but two sides were able to cooperate together after. Compared to that, there is no reason to become enemies today, he believes.