An Olympic Lift to U.S.-China Relations

Cheng Li and Frank H. Wu
Frank Wu
Frank H. Wu President - Queens College, Author - Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

August 5, 2008

It is easy to see the Beijing Olympics either as a coming-out party for China or an opportunity to protest what goes wrong there. A third way, however, would be to see the Summer Games as a means for fostering better US-China relations.

Late last year we worked on a survey of US and Chinese attitudes toward one another on behalf of the Committee of 100, an organization of leading Chinese Americans seeking to improve understanding across the Pacific. It found that the people of both nations widely accept the growing importance of the US-China relationship. The polling showed that 52 percent of Americans hold favorable views of China, while 60 percent of Chinese hold favorable views of America

It would seem that Americans are ahead of their leadership in recognizing the benefits of a strong US-China relationship. The survey showed that the US public often expressed higher regard for China than did congressional staffers. Despite the negativity toward China that seems prevalent on the Hill, there seems to be a remarkably broad understanding on the part of Americans, for example, that China’s manufacturing boom has provided them with low-cost consumer goods. Yet this hope is alloyed with fear – fear of China both as an economic threat and a military threat. Fully 75 percent of Americans say that China causes job losses in the US; the same amount are troubled by China’s military modernization.

The attention generated by the Olympics could create a better understanding of modern China. Many observers have noticed that cold-war perceptions of China still persist in the US, despite the fact that China as a nation has changed profoundly. As Chinese Americans, we have a high stake in Americans’ perception of China. Fear of China may lead to suspicion of Chinese Americans. In the most infamous case, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by auto workers in Detroit in 1982, because the attackers apparently believed he was Japanese and blamed him for the success of imported cars.

Stakes and considerations are much larger than those of the Chinese-American community alone. There is growing recognition that the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral one of our time, with much potential for good. Unlike the Soviet Union in the cold war, China does not pose an ideological challenge to the West. Economic ties have formed a strong bond between our two nations, and military conflict is avoidable with good leadership in Washington and Beijing.

It is time to move toward constructive engagement that would emphasize hope over fear. Imagine a US-China renewable energy initiative, along the lines of the US-Soviet space station. It could include Chinese production of cheap solar panels for massive installation in the US by American workers. Such collaboration could vastly decrease our dependency on fossil fuels. Or Chinese manufacturers could locate plants in the US to be closer to market, as Japanese and German car manufacturers have done, bringing new jobs. Or how about a joint environmental movement to help developing nations articulate laws allowing development while keeping pollution in check.

To proceed positively, Washington must pursue constructive engagement with Beijing in strategic dialogue in the areas of trade, the environment, energy consumption, antiterrorism, and nuclear nonproliferation. Both nations should vastly increase personal contact, whether by students, teachers, government leaders, journalists, or others. Whether it’s Americans going to China and seeing its impressive modernization and the social as well as economic benefits of a market economy, or meeting visiting Chinese students and leaders, such exchanges break down stereotypes and promote understanding. Engaging China is the most effective method of urging the country to make progress in human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law.

The greatest opportunity at hand right now, though, is for the 20,000 foreign journalists converging on Beijing, many of whom are fanning out across that country, to see and to report on China in its vast fullness. A broader and more nuanced portrayal of China in the media is critical to the enhancement of Americans’ understanding as well as to progress by policymakers.

Remember that 30 years of evolution in China – away from a totalitarian government and toward a market economy – date back to another grand event televised to the world: President Nixon’s historic visit to China, which included iconic images of the Nixons at the Great Wall. May the Olympic Games, with all their pomp and drama, break down the walls of misapprehension and further integrate China into the global community – for the good not only of the US and China, but for the world.