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The viral state of US-China relations

President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last night — virtually.

That is not the ordinary way heads of state meet, but these are not ordinary times. In ordinary times, we compete with China while engaging on multiple levels. 

We have bilateral tensions at the same time that students go back and forth between our countries, U.S. businesses open offices in each other’s major cities and artists share cultural traditions. But confidence between our two countries is low and tensions are high. Why?

The pandemic was the first major test of faith. In February 2020, then-President Trump blocked all travel from China to the U.S. The travel disruption reverberated throughout the stock market and disrupted industries that depend on the flow of goods and people between the world’s two largest economies. Global supply chains were interrupted with shortages and uncertainty in the delivery of products.

Now, almost two years later, travel restrictions have eased, but to what effect? What was once a major and lucrative tourist flow from Beijing is suffering, with both countries caught in between.

Biden has just reinstated visa services that allow Chinese citizens to come to America, but demand is down. Businesses that once rushed to have meetings and conferences in each other’s capitals are limited to electronic conversations that are neither secure nor lush.

Americans can travel to China, but they face lockdowns and quarantines due to China’s “Zero-COVID policy,” which is highly restrictive. In one Chinese city, Shenyang, a U.S. visitor can expect to be quarantined for close to a month

Even Shanghai Disneyland had to close on Halloween while thousands of visitors to the park were tested for the virus after one person tested positive.

Student exchanges, which generate income for both sending and receiving nations, have also suffered as a result of U.S-China tensions and the pandemic. Even though the Chinese have traditionally been slow to issue student visas for American students while U.S. universities have opened doors to Chinese students, now both sides are blocked. The same is true of journalistic exchanges.

We need a thaw in the U.S.-China relationship for the sake of the next generation of political leaders. Even in the worst of political times, academic exchanges, and people-to-people diplomacy, is a constant lodestar in relations in areas such as sports, arts and sciences. Open channels keep open minds. But recent studies show the impact distance can have. Chinese youth are increasingly anti-America in outlook. Those feelings later translate into more restrictive trade policies and approaches to international affairs. 

There are real downsides to estrangement for both countries. Absent people-to-people relations, misperceptions grow on both sides. Reported anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S. — up over 70 percent in 2020, according to FBI data. The pandemic created another information vacuum into which conspiracy theories and discrimination thrive.

The blame game between Beijing and Washington is a losing proposition for both countries economically as well. The truth is that America needs global tourism. Cities like New York depend on Chinese visitors. Before the pandemic, tourists spent $47 billion annually and supported more than 280,000 jobs, according to official estimates. About half of that spending came from international visitors, though they accounted for just 20 percent of all visitors. This year the city’s tourism agency forecasts visitor spending of about $24 billion, half of the 2019 total.

Shutting out each other’s citizens weakens civil societies. China’s control of media and information only adds to misinformation and disinformation, which erodes trust.

But here’s a silver lining: First, the good news is that with Beijing slated to host the Winter Olympics in February, China will want a warmer climate. China’s leaders are already sending signals that they want to improve the atmosphere, although talk is always different from action.

Second, China is shoring up its political front. Xi just got a vote of approval, solidifying his stature in the Communist Party. Senior party officials in a closed-door meeting in Beijing approved a decision reassessing the party’s 100-year history and enshrining Xi in the party’s official firmament of era-defining leaders.

The move, signaled in an official summary of the meeting, elevated Xi to a stature alongside Mao Zedong, the founder of the country’s communist rule, and Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of its economic takeoff. No likely successor emerged to Xi, China’s supreme leader, reinforcing the likelihood that he will secure another five-year term. At least we know who we are dealing with. 

On the U.S. side, the anti-China rhetoric has been harsh but seems to be softening in tone as American officials quietly send signals that we can work with China and that America is not seeking to change China’s system of governing.

Improving America’s relations with China is in our own strategic interest, both for now and for future generations. 2022 might be the Year of the Warming

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags China Chinese Communist Party Donald Trump Joe Biden us-china policy US-China relations

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