Visa deal more than just jobs and trade

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

For some me­dia out­lets in the United States, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s trip to China this week was de­fined by his chew­ing gum while step­ping out of a li­mou­sine and the sub­se­quent com­ments by Chi­nese blog­gers, or his awk­ward in­ter­ac­tion with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. The sub­stance of the trip has largely been ig­nored.

But it is fair to say that with the rel­a­tively low ex­pec­ta­tions after the some­what down­ward spi­ral of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship over the past year, Obama’s trip has pro­duced many sur­pris­ing and im­por­tant agree­ments, rang­ing from cli­mate change to a mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary con­fi­dence build­ing mech­a­nism.

While all the agree­ments will have a sig­nif­i­cant global im­pact, per­haps the visa agree­ment first an­nounced by Obama onMon­day will prove to be most im­por­tant de­liv­er­able of this visit.

Peo­ple who travel of­ten be­tween the two coun­tries have to re­new their visa ev­ery year. This en­tails filling in a lot of an­noy­ing pa­per­work and a long wait. This is es­pe­cially true for busi­ness­peo­ple, stu­dents and the grow­ing num­ber of tourists.

The two coun­tries won’t solve the many thorny is­sues be­tween them in one week, but the visa agree­ment is a big step in pro­mot­ing more peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes and thus more mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, mak­ing solv­ing prob­lems eas­ier in the fu­ture. Mis­un­der­stand­ing and mis­cal­cu­la­tion have been at­trib­uted as ma­jor causes of the prob­lems be­tween the ris­ing coun­try and the in­cum­bent power.

Many Chi­nese still get their knowl­edge of the US fromHol­ly­wood movies, a dra­ma­tized ver­sion of re­al­ity, which ex­plains why some Chi­nese see the US as a place where you can pick up gold on the streets or a so­ci­ety ram­pant with crimes and gun vi­o­lence. Th­ese, plus the of­ten sen­sa­tional news head­lines, have played a ma­jor role in shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion.

The same is true on the US side. To many in the US, the im­age they have of China still looks like the coun­try was 30 years ago, the un­prece­dented trans­for­ma­tion of Chi­nese so­ci­ety over those years seem­ingly never hap­pened. I am­not talk­ing aboutmy ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing asked such things as whether China is part ofHong Kong, the ig­no­rance dis­played about China among US law­mak­ers at hear­ings on China is of­ten stag­ger­ing.

Polls show that fa­vor­able sen­ti­ments to­ward each other are de­clin­ing among Chi­nese and Americans. Clearly, more peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes are ur­gently needed if the two na­tions want to ex­pand co­op­er­a­tion and ef­fec­tively man­age their dif­fer­ences. In this sense, the visa agree­ment is a timely and long-term lubri­cant to fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter ties. No one can guar­an­tee that peo­ple will have a fa­vor­able viewafter vis­it­ing a na­tion, yet that viewis likely to be more rel­e­vant, bal­anced or nu­anced, and is less likely to sound “for­eign” to peo­ple in the other na­tion.

When Ed­mund Downie, a grad­u­ate from Yale Univer­sity, be­came the first Amer­i­can to re­ceive a 10-year tourist visa at the Chi­nese em­bassy con­sular sec­tion in­Wash­ing­ton on Wed­nes­day, jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing my­self, were amazed to hear him speak flu­ent Chi­nese dur­ing the in­ter­view. The 23-year-old is mak­ing his fifth trip to China nex­tMon­day and plans to go again next July.

See­ing Downie re­minded me of Obama’s first trip to China in Novem­ber 2009 when he an­nounced he was send­ing 100,000 Amer­i­can stu­dents to China over a pe­riod of four years. Hav­ing met many stu­dents go­ing to China un­der that ini­tia­tive, I have no doubt that the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can lead­ers will un­der­stand China much bet­ter. That is equally true on the Chi­nese side, with some 230,000 Chi­nese stu­dents pur­su­ing var­i­ous de­gree pro­grams in US univer­si­ties and col­leges.

Due to the dif­fer­ent cul­tures, his­tory, tra­di­tions and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems, dif­fer­ences be­tween China and the US will con­tinue to ex­ist for a long time to come. But bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of one another will in­crease the abil­ity to man­age and nar­row th­ese dif­fer­ences.

In this sense, the sig­nif­i­cance of the visa agree­ment goes far beyond the ex­tra rev­enues and jobs cre­ated for the tourism in­dus­try and other sec­tors. The au­thor, based in­Wash­ing­ton, is deputy ed­i­tor of China Daily USA. chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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