IIt’s all very well for the US and Chinese governments to demonize each other, but what about the people caught in the middle?
I’m talking about the Chinese who built their lives in America and the Americans who built their lives in China. Or Chinese and Americans who are married to each other and the children of those marriages. What about American employees of Chinese companies and vice versa? Or students, academics and professionals whose careers depend on meaningful exchange? What about the medical experts on both sides whose cooperation is essential for understanding COVID-19?
There are American expats who can swear in bright, near-native Mandarin and Chinese students who watch American TV without a problem and consider Starbucks a second home. There are people like Eileen Gu and people like me – born in Hong Kong, educated in the West, with many American friends. Maybe this even applies to you.
We are now caught in the crosshairs of great power politics and hate the way each side sees the other as always wrong. It’s a bit like being a kid again and watching your parents fight.
Like a loud parent trying to draw out an argument, America erases its own failures as it pushes the button it knows will hurt the most: Taiwan. (A trend, by the way, that does not benefit the people of Taiwan.) Like the other parent in the corner, alternately sullen and hysterical, China refuses to believe that it has any arguments to answer for its behavior in technology transfers or its overseas influence operations.
The lack of nuance, context, historical understanding, cultural insight, basic intelligence, and simple good will in Sino-American relations hurts us. Many among us reject the modest framing of good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, or the clash of civilizations. None of this is part of our lived experience. But we are also wary of speaking out.
An American student and a Chinese student hold hands during the 2021 China-US Youth Dialogue at Tsinghua University on October 8, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Yi Haifei/China News Service via Getty Images
In America, the Chinese struggle daily with bigotry and violence. They are identified as carriers of the “Wuhan virus” and “Kung flu”. Certainly President Joe Biden has reversed some of most of his predecessor harmful initiatives aimed at academics and students on university campuses, but there remains a powerful undercurrent of neo-McCarthyism. Ethnic Chinese in positions of influence are assumed to be working at some level on behalf of Chinese state institutions. The cultural centers are seen as a fragile front for the Communist Party. Chinese Americans who do not condemn Beijing with sufficient vehemence are seen as fifth colonists, ready to surrender their adopted home at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s highly restrictive entry policy made life incredibly difficult for American academics and professionals, deterring the same people who seek to better understand China. Nationalism and resentment towards the West among certain segments of the population made frank dialogue impossible, as well as disagreement on sensitive issues within the country’s borders. Anything deemed offensive to the “dignity” and “honor” of the Chinese people will fuel fury online as many western brands and celebrities have found for their price. Racism towards African migrants during the pandemic reflects even more disturbing trends.
As the world enters a period of rapidly increasing risk from climate change, the rise of AI and food insecurity, coupled with the prospect of large-scale war or even nuclear conflict, we need more communication between people from the world’s two leading powers.
We should not wait for formal exchanges and dialogue to be resumed. We must do more to encourage genuine, uncensored debate and constructive cooperation – even if that means moving beyond stale politics and security institutions on both sides. We should not ignore—but instead prove—the hawks and the nationalists wrong.
They may call us naive and say we are apologists for the enemy. So be it. In an era of dangerous polarization, we need realistic bridge builders.
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