While the US and China are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, there are few more important relationships in international affairs today than the one between these two. How they manage it will determine the future of the planet
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen [China] wakes, she will shake the world.” Napoleon’s famous comment on China has had China-watchers scratching their heads for two centuries as to what exactly he meant. Was it a warning to Europe of a potential threat from the East? Or was he reflecting upon the fascination of his time with Chinese culture and its silks and ceramics?
We may know the answer soon. China is awake and stirring. News of building projects and economic initiatives across the globe, including in its remote areas, are a testimony. So are some of the statistics. Take these at random: a Chinese billionaire is said to be created every week ; China’s space program is aiming for Mars ; China has over 20 million students in higher education and some quarter of a million students in the United States. It can even boast the ultimate sign of wasteful conspicuous consumption — Chinese students in the US, children of the elite, driving luxury cars .
Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, established the fact that the new China could produce technologically and artistically sophisticated films that could win awards in the West and yet still proudly celebrate its own cultural traditions.
The scale of China’s dramatic success has settled one great contemporary philosophic debate — the superiority of Capitalism over Marxism, which the Chinese say in private is now as dead as a dodo — while opening another. Which is better, an open democratic system, however noisy and unpredictable, or a highly centralized and controlled one? The US and other democracies argue for the former; China is the living example of the latter.
The Global Importance of US -China Dialogue
While the US and China are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, there are few more important relationships in international affairs today than the one between these two. How they manage it will determine the future of the planet. The potential for conflict is high as China, the new kid on the block, appears to challenge the US across the globe, but so are the prospects for peace as leaders of goodwill on both sides, appreciating the global nature of the relationship and the consequences of its breakdown into conflict, strive for understanding.
That is why I felt privileged to be part of a small group of Americans who were in Beijing to participate in a track-two dialogue to promote understanding this July. While regular diplomacy is a formal process in which bureaucrats and senior statesmen meet to present “official” positions in the glare of the media, “track-two” diplomacy involves more informal, personal and off the record dialogues, which can sometimes be more effective.
Our host was the Consensus Media Group. The subject was counterterrorism. We were led by the internationally renowned peace activist Dr Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement. Seiple has been working with compassionate devotion in some of the most troubled regions of the world since 9/11. Also leading the group was Col. John Gallagher, the special assistant to the chairman of joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon, who will take over from Seiple as head of the institute in the next few weeks. The group included a former congressman, a former lieutenant general, a former Muslim assistant to President George W. Bush in the White House and a senior official from the State Department.
During the conference, I had a chance to observe the close interactions of the Americans and the Chinese. At the end, I even shared a comment which was appreciated by both sides in good humor.
There is a Great Wall of suspicion and stereotypes separating the two peoples, I said. Since the last century the Chinese have seen Americans as arrogant, crude and disrespectful of other people’s cultures. They imagine Americans like John Wayne in his cowboy films. The Americans, for their part, see the Chinese as humorless, cold and sinister. Almost from the start of Hollywood films, the Chinese were cast as villains from the Fu Manchu series to Dr No. Who can forget the swarming hordes of young Chinese girls swinging deadly weapons with the aim of killing the white heroine in Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill — a not so subtle echo of the Yellow Peril.
Yet, I noted, as the dialogue proceeded, these stereotypes melted. The Americans were impeccable in their behavior, courteous and ready to listen with respect. The Chinese were warm and gracious hosts; and they displayed a sense of humor. One of them said when the Chinese travel abroad, some of them tend to “behave badly.” He explained that when being rebuked, people will ask, “Where are you from?” and the Chinese will promptly reply, “We are Japanese.” When I mentioned this to a group of senior academics at Peking University who had invited me for a lecture, one of them chuckled and admitted, “That was exactly what I said when I went abroad.”
The two nations have a complex relationship. Both are wary of each other. They rattle the saber with noise and bluster one moment and talk of global peace the other. The US complains of China’s aggressive presence in the South China Sea and its human rights record — especially in dealing with its minorities living at its periphery like Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. China, in turn, complains of American “double standards,” pointing to its human rights record in dealing with its prisoners or encouraging China’s neighbors like Japan to challenge it while talking of peace. The Chinese will say that while European powers and Asian ones like Japan have invaded China, China has not crossed its borders to conquer other nations.
On the surface no two peoples are so different. American society is creative, noisy and open; Chinese society is centralized and structured. Take a look at how Americans walk and look compared with the Chinese. Every American emphasizes his or her individuality in style. There is usually a swagger and lilt in the walk. It is as if the individual is saying, “I’m at the center of my universe. I matter.” In contrast, the Chinese walk with a slower pace, dress to blend and carry themselves as if to say, “I am just one person, but I represent over one billion people who are like me.”
Of course these are stereotypes and the similarities are greater than we may imagine. Both are superpowers aware of their rich histories and their place in the world today. Both are intensely patriotic. People in both nations want to get on with their lives and do the best they can for their families.
The locations of the iconic symbols of the two nations reflect the different nature of their societies. While in the US the defining symbols are spread across the land — the White House in Washington DC, the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — the unchallenged center in China is located in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The traditional Chinese viewed the imperial kingdom as the center of the universe. At the center of the center is Tiananmen Square, with the greatest symbols of identity laid out in perfect symmetry on its four sides — the Forbidden City on one side, Chairman Mao’s grand Mausoleum opposite it and the Party Congress and the National Museum taking up the other sides.
In Tiananmen Square, culture and power, party and politics, the past and the present, fuse in monolithic solidarity. The message is loud and forcefully clear. As if to underline the centrality of China’s vision, Mao’s gigantic portrait hangs on the entrance to the Forbidden City. There is a banner proclaiming long life to Mao outside the Presidential Palace, the apex of power, which is also located there. Chinese visitors, who come in the thousands daily, many from outside Beijing, are here to celebrate their identity and nourish it. On any given day some three to four thousand of the faithful and the curious line up to pay homage to Mao. Tiananmen Square to the modern Chinese is what the Vatican is to Catholics, Amritsar to the Sikhs and Mecca to the Muslims.
Given the centrality of Tiananmen Square, protestors complaining of human rights violations have demonstrated here over the last few decades. The image of single protestors standing up to the tanks in 1989 has become one of the iconic symbols of modern political discourse. Security is everywhere and visitors are carefully watched for any signs of trouble. Aware of the symbolism of the place, China is not taking any chances.
Change in China
At the entrance to Peking University, the oldest and most prestigious in China, hangs a frame with words handwritten by Mao. He worked at the university and this would suggest an affiliation with the institution. In fact Mao was a lowly employee in the library and his experience of “liberal” professors was an unhappy one. He found them mean and petty. He would later excoriate intellectuals, mercilessly bashing them for the Cultural Revolution.
In contrast President Xi Jinping studied at and obtained a PhD from Tsinghua University in Beijing, the other great educational institution of China. Tsinghua, created with American assistance, reflects the classic American campus with red brick buildings, sports facilities and green lawns and hedges. It offers world class programs with an emphasis on science and technology. Faculty and students here are constantly interacting with the outside world. Mr Tingyi Wang, a brilliant political science student, is a typical example. He is currently based at a university in the Persian Gulf region and heading for a think tank in Saudi Arabia after his visit later this summer to Harvard University. Xi’s own daughter studied at Harvard, under a pseudonym of course.
Xi in particular has relied on Tsinghua for his political reforms. His youngest cabinet minister in charge of the environment is from the university. It has allowed Xi to introduce a modern idiom and practice into traditional Chinese politics. He has also clamped down on corruption, for example recently sacking over 200 senior military officers . Ling Jihua, a top political official, was publicly charged with corruption and expelled from the Communist party to make an example. Editorials in the press laud these initiatives.–Courtesy Huffington Post
(Continued next week)