A new type of peo­ple-to-peo­ple diplo­macy

China Daily (Canada) - - TORONTO -

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.

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