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Culture is Key to Improving China-U.S. Relations – September 25, 2015 by James B. Heimowitz

Culture is Key to Improving China-U.S. Relations – September 25, 2015 by James B. Heimowitz
September 25, 2015 by James B. Heimowitz

The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China are, without question, the most important countries on the planet. Their GDPs, at rough $30 trillion combined, overshadow the next eight countries put together (including Japan, Germany, India, and the UK), whose economies add up to just $20 trillion. Both countries wield a remarkable amount of power and influence on the global stage in every arena, from politics to business to technological advancement to art, literature, cuisine, and the formation of civilization itself.

Yet culturally, the two countries couldn’t be more different. But despite the differences between us, I believe we can—we must— foster a closeness and connectivity through human-to-human interaction and exchange. It’s essential for the future of both China and the U.S.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit this week has been portrayed as controversial— and acrimonious—by American media and politicians. The relationship between the two countries has been somewhat strained by recent events, including the Chinese financial crisis, accusations of cybercrime and human rights violations, and business tensions over intellectual property and trade agreements. But the two countries’ futures have also never been more intertwined. In 2013 alone, for example, China and the U.S. traded $562 billion in goods, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The ability for the two countries to coexist and cooperate is paramount to their growth and well-being.

The problem? We don’t know how to communicate.

With a flight from the U.S. to China leaving every 10 minutes, Americans have more access to China than ever before, but still find it culturally inaccessible. Moreover, there are more English speakers in China than there are in America. Only 5% of the U.S. population speaks Chinese. So many Americans don’t speak any Chinese dialects, understand Chinese norms and customs, or know anything about China’s ancient or contemporary history. To me, the tension that has dominated the discussion around this visit isn’t only about China’s stance on hot-button issues. It’s because the cultural exchange between the two countries is weak.

I’m talking about person-to-person engagement, which comes in two forms: cultural education and business exchange. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Silicon Valley leaders (including Boeing, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and IBM), in advance of his meetings with political leaders, clearly demonstrates the significant priority and investment he placed on building business and cross-cultural understanding. His dinner in Seattle, co-hosted by the China Institute, wasn’t just a who’s-who of political dignitaries—instead, it was attended by diplomatic, technological, and cultural institutions from across the U.S.

From what I’ve observed at my work at the Institute, it isn’t China that is shying away from cultural engagement with the U.S. The China Institute, for example, was founded in the 1920s with indemnity money from the Boxer Rebellion, and the Chinese government has continued to invest in language and cultural education in the United States. And American culture is flourishing in China. In Xi’s speech in Seattle, the President went out of his way to make references to American culture, from Hemingway to “House of Cards.” Perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to begin making similar investments in cultural understanding among its own citizens.

It’s going to be a long road towards improving positive Chinese—U.S. relationships, and we face many challenges. So now, more than ever, we must build mutual respect and understanding between the two nations. That comes from person-to-person interaction and cultural exchange. In that sense, at least, President Xi’s visit was a good start.

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