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Leading Chinese academic and cultural figures call for Sino-US ‘friendship’

A delegation of Chinese academic, economic, cultural and sports figures called for “China-US people power and friendship” on Wednesday (Oct 25) in a bid to reboot the nation’s wobbly soft power ahead of an increasingly likely meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden.

The effort to seed the ground for improved ties dovetails with a rare Xi statement at a gala dinner in New York the evening before in which the third-term president called for mutual progress and common prosperity with the United States.

“We try to create a more accurate perception,” said delegate member Da Wei, director of Tsinghua University’s Center for International Security and Strategy, on Wednesday. “But our perception is still so strong, an echo chamber in the two capitals. We view the other side as having evil intention. We view the other side as being unreasonable.

“But actually in dialogues like these past two days, most of us, no matter Chinese or American, we share at least 80 or 90 per cent commonalities rather than differences.”

China’s people-to-people initiative coincides with a flurry of apparent stage-setting in recent days. Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Washington this week, likely to finalise arrangements for Xi’s expected attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November. China has yet to officially confirm Xi’s arrival.

And California Governor Gavin Newsom met with Xi in Beijing on Wednesday, the first US governor to sit down with the Chinese president since 2017. The two discussed climate action, tourism and cultural ties.

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The Chinese luminaries dispatched this week to New York to warm American hearts included former National Basketball Association star Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011; former IMF deputy chairman Zhu Min; Xue Lan, dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University; and novelist Hao Jingfang.

“It is really the power of people, the sense of people, the warmth of people, to build the foundation of the Chinese relationship,” said Zhu, who led the delegation. He and others spoke at the Chinese consulate in New York before screens displaying a Xi quote on the importance of people framed by pink blossoms and a bird.

Even as the speakers exuded optimism and touted the importance of a new, softer approach; they conceded that relations have been in deep freeze, with little likelihood of a quick turnaround.

A Pew survey released in July found 83 per cent of Americans viewed China unfavourably compared with 14 per cent who saw the Asian giant in a positive light.

This compared with 47 per cent unfavourable and 38 per cent favourable five years earlier. Recent polling of Chinese has shown a parallel jump in negative views towards Americans.

A key problem on both sides, Da said, was that too many issues were being framed in the context of national security.

“We over-securitise. Everything could be a security issue,” the former Atlantic Council senior fellow said. A bottle of mineral water could be a security issue because it’s supplied to the People’s Liberation Army, he added.

The visiting delegation called on Washington to drop its punitive trade tariffs and on both sides to expand the number of flights, cultural exchanges and journalist postings, which have all fallen off in recent years.

Zhu said that while China’s economy needed to undergo restructuring after decades of overreliance on real estate, it was not in a downward structural spiral.

China’s bid this week to improve US people-to-people ties is welcome, analysts said, but it is not clear how immediately effective it will be.

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“There are approximately 350 American students in all of China right now. How are you going to do people-to-people if there are that few Americans in China?” asked Sourabh Gupta, senior fellow at the non-profit Institute for China-America Studies in Washington.

“This is more about putting a glow to China’s name here, trying to consolidate the developing warmth in the relationship to ensure that when Mr Xi does come – which almost certainly he will – that everything has gone off well.”

The delegation is certainly a constructive sign from Beijing, added Jeremy Chan, senior China and Northeast analyst with Eurasia Group.

But an added concern is that even once mutually beneficial, people-to-people issues, like Chinese students studying in the US, have become potential areas of mutual suspicion over espionage and intellectual property theft.

“That used to be absolutely win-win, mutually beneficial,” Chan said. “Now the overlapping circles of the US-China Venn diagram, they’ve divorced quite a bit in recent years.”

The protocol in advance of high-profile leader visits, particularly those involving prickly relationships, is complex and detailed.

A road map was laid out a year ago when the two presidents met in Indonesia, involving a “stepladder” of senior meetings in the run-up to the leaders’ meeting.

Those efforts have resulted in several US cabinet secretaries travelling to Beijing in recent months. And Wang and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Indonesia amid a bilateral toning down of executive branch rhetoric.

But it has hardly been a smooth ride, with the road map tested repeatedly.

Setbacks this year included the transit of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the North American continent; US technology export restrictions; the unexplained disappearance of former Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang; a dearth of military-to-military contact; and a Chinese protester driving into Beijing’s consulate in San Francisco and being shot and killed.

“People say I’m too optimistic,” said Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, which has worked with the delegation. “And I say that’s because I spent 45 years working with China. So I have to be optimistic.”

This article was first published on SCMP.

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