The relationship between the United States and China is fractured. Growing economic tensions over tariffs, recent intelligence speculation about potential interference in the 2020 election and an emerging AI “arms race” has fueled suspicion and distrust between the two governments.
Despite the strained Washington-Beijing relationship, the people of our two countries are more interconnected than any other time in our history. The United States is home to the largest Chinese diaspora community in the Western Hemisphere. Increasing numbers of American universities are engaging more international students through centers and satellite campuses in China. Supply chains and data flows link more and more American and Chinese employees and business owners.
As Washington and Beijing clash on policy issues, now is the time for our countries to seek a deeper understanding of each other. In times of crisis, culture has been central to weathering the strain of bilateral tensions and preserving people-to-people ties that endure through generations. Culture reminds us we have more in common then we do different while also providing a window into one another’s worlds to increase understanding and dispel stereotypes. Whether it’s music, sports, food, film or other art forms, culture breaks down barriers and brings people together through shared interests and values. While the American and Chinese governments may approach each other with distrust and skepticism on policy, they must continue to foster cultural diplomacy efforts.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations. The foundation of this relationship formed during the Cold War and Vietnam War when President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger coordinated a presidential visit to the People’s Republic of China to re-establish peace and open communication with the nation while pressuring the Soviet Union’s power to reduce the nuclear arms conflict. The catalyst for the visit was the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, which ushered in “ping pong diplomacy” as players from the United States and People's Republic of China came together for the first time over their shared value of sport. This historical moment not only opened the doors for Nixon’s trip, but won the hearts of Americans who watched the televised arrival of Nixon shaking hands with Chinese dignitaries — a symbolic gesture of these leaders' efforts to build goodwill between not only the nations but also their people.
People-to-people ties remain essential to fostering a deeper understanding of cultures and politics while also producing higher levels of trust. Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in a sister-state exchange program that brought him to Iowa in 1985, when U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad was in his first term as governor of Iowa. Twenty-seven years later, Xi returned to Iowa as president to offer friendship and to continue building strong relationships with the American people.
While governments should promote efforts like these, cultural diplomacy programs must be driven by grassroots support from institutions and citizens to truly be effective and foster authentic human connections. A new wave of cultural diplomacy that leverages partnerships to design innovative programs with cultural and diplomatic institutions is needed instead of top-down driven programs.
We believe that the arts and culture are powerful tools of diplomacy that bridge divides, particularly in turbulent times. Over nearly six decades of expertise in cultural diplomacy, we have formed a council of institutions that value non-partisanship and share our belief that culture is the tip of the spear when it comes to connecting people across borders, sectors and ideologies.
Traditions like the Chinese New Year offer an accessible platform for understanding a different culture, which is essential in connecting American and Chinese people at the most fundamental, human level. At a time when the U.S. and Chinese governments may disagree on certain policy issues, cultural and leadership exchange programs help to level the playing field between our two countries. These actions may also open Chinese markets and protect U.S. intellectual property and technology, which ultimately increase trust and help ensure that our bilateral relationship moves in the right direction — even when the news headlines may indicate otherwise.
Stuart Holliday served as United States ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the United Nations from 2003 to 2005. He is president and CEO of Meridian International Center, a nonprofit, global leadership organization.
Hongxia Liu is representative of International Organizations at NYU Shanghai.