A new type of people-to-people diplomacy
President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to theUnited States will be high powered, high profile and of high intensity— Internet and big business events in Seattle, formal summit inWashington, and activities honoring the 70th anniversary of theUnitedNations inNewYork. But there is something that just happened, far from the big cities and bright lights, which could represent a different way of thinking for strengthening China-US relations.
InMuscatine, Iowa, a ceremony was held to dedicate the “ChinaUS FriendshipHouse”. The house has come to symbolize the desire of common people for closer ties between China and theUS, because in 1985 Xi, then a young local official, stayed in this house as part of a delegation visiting Iowa to learn the latest agricultural techniques. The hospitality and friendship of Americans from the “heartland” made such an impression on Xi that he continues to value the experience to this day.
But when I was invited to speak at theMuscatine ceremony, I wasn’t sure I could make it. Until I actually arrived inMuscatine, I could not grasp its significance.
I now bear witness how Chinese entrepreneurs andMuscatine residents overcame initial uncertainties, even misunderstandings, to form a strong bond of friendship, respect, business and win-win cooperation. Beyond cultural exchanges and investment projects, there is a sense that the continuous exchanges between Muscatine and China have expanded horizons and enriched lives on both sides. Most important, perhaps, is the genuine warmth radiating between American and Chinese people.
If one makes a list of the most memorable events in China-US relations then Xi’s visit toMuscatine in 2012 (when he was still China’s vice-president) should be on that list.
Why? Why does a simple visit to a small town in theUS’Midwest farmlands have such significance? There are two reasons.
The first is that Xi’s visit toMuscatine personifies one of the core values of his foreign policy— people-to-people communications and exchanges, a kind of “public diplomacy”. Whether Xi is speaking about China-US relations, engaging with the world’s most powerful country, or about nations participating in his Belt and Road Initiative, people-topeople exchanges always play a central role in his overarching objectives.
The second reason is that it resonated extraordinarily well with the American public. To most Americans, Xi inMuscatine was the most memorable part of his entire vice-presidential trip.
Why do we now speak about the “Muscatine spirit”? There are four reasons.
First, Xi’s meeting with ordinary Americans, especially those not from the sophisticated cities, shows a sense of common humanity, even humility— we like that in our leaders.
Second, Xi is respecting his own historical roots.
Third, it honors a time during the early stages of China’s reform and opening-up, when China reached out to theUS for advice and guidance, and theUS was pleased to cooperate.
Fourth, Xi’sMuscatine visits, in 1985 and 2012, though under very different circumstances, exemplified people-to-people communications.
There is something simple, pure and honest about people-to-people exchanges that I sawso wonderfully exemplified and personified inMuscatine.
Now, what is it about people-topeople exchanges that enable them to become effective “public diplomacy”? Here are four characteristics.
First, people-to-people exchanges are done for their own sake; they are not a “stepping stone” to something else and there are no ulterior motives.
Second, they spring naturally from many small sources; they do not emanate artificially from a single large source.
Third, they have diverse linkages or connections, such as common professions like fields of science and areas of culture, or common interests like sports and charities.
Fourth, they have diverse timeframes, such as a single one-off event like tourists traveling abroad, or continuing relationships like healthcare professionals working together for the common good.
Issues of contention between China and the US are no secret, but the world’s two largest economies must work together for mutual benefit. Highest importance, certainly, is economic stability and growth. Prosperity will be enjoyed by both China and the US— or enjoyed by neither.
And the best way to convert mutual opportunities and common needs into active cooperation and strong relations is through people-to-people diplomacy. TheMuscatine Spirit leads the way.
The author is a public intellectual, political/economics commentator, and international corporate strategist.