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While 2021 represents a fresh start in many ways for our country and the rest of the world, there are numerous issues that a change in leadership/policies may or may not solve so easily. One such issue is China. Our new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has already indicated that China is the primary foreign power for the U.S. to re-establish a working relationship. I cannot agree with him more. This new administration needs to mend the bridge between our countries and establish a good working relationship to address what we agree and disagree.

In my view, our relationship with China is more complex than how our political leaders portray it; and, most Americans do not look beyond what our leaders and the media tell them. While it is justifiable to accuse China’s actions regarding human rights violations, theft of intellectual properties, polluting the environment, etc., an understanding of history and culture may shed some light on our complicated and mutually dependent relationship with China. 

Historically, China’s exposure and relationship with the Western world have been perplexing and confusing. Early Westerners wanted to spread Christianity and trade with China when they saw exotic products they knew would be appealing, not to mention profitable, to Western consumers, namely tea, silk, porcelain, furniture, spices, etc. The Chinese Imperial Court did not understand and resented foreign visitors who came with ideas that would conflict with age-old management tools that had kept the Imperial Dynasties in power. China’s fundamental beliefs, such as the Emperor being anointed by the Heavens and gods (multiple) to rule whose authority cannot be questioned or that Confucianism was the operations manual to rule a diverse population. Westerners preached there is only one true God who loves all humans and sent a Son of God to cleanse the world of its sins, including those of emperors.

It did not help that most Westerners truly believed that they were superior to the Chinese and felt it was their right to conduct trade with an unwilling partner. These values conflicted with the fundamentally xenophobic attitude of the Imperial Court. Westerners were kept at bay so as not to confuse and stir the population. Mostly, the vast differences in culture, language, religion, and fear of the unknown have kept China from understanding and willing to work with and deal with Westerners. This isolationist attitude contributed in no small way to a foundation of distrust and fear of Western influence from the beginning. Many aspects of this attitude remain an impediment for good relations in modern times.

Then there is the concept of FACE, a vitally crucial cultural trait that Westerners failed to understand and recognize from the beginning. FACE is a concept that cuts through all levels of Chinese society. Respecting and “giving FACE” is subtle but critical within the Chinese milieu of everyday life. Few Westerners understand this concept and do not know when they have “insulted” their Chinese counterparts when they inadvertently cause a “loss of FACE.”

I view this “misunderstanding” as a hurdle to good relations even today. For example, it is the American way to speak frankly, be outspoken, not mince words when our diplomats do their jobs; our positions are always made clear with little room for misinterpretation. It is expected and proper if these discussions were held behind closed doors and diplomats express themselves unabashedly. It is a different matter when leaders do not consider FACE in our public comments before sitting down to discuss issues. I understand that sometimes it is to flex political muscles to show strength, resolve, and leadership. But I have seen these “preemptive” strikes put the Chinese in a defensive mode to save FACE, making discussions after these public statements challenging and less productive.

It was not that long ago that China was our political and military enemy during the Korean War. Our problems did not start there. China was invaded by the Japanese, fought a civil war in which a communist region took power, further distancing the country from the rest of the free world. Before that, China suffered deadly addiction to opium forced upon them militarily by the West, mostly England, for the sake of trade. Left isolated after Mao took over, except for help from the USSR, communist China suffered famine and unspeakable hardships. Slowly they tweaked their system to support a market economy that pulled them out of poverty on a slow climb to economic prosperity, not to mention its military strength and influence in all of Asia and other continents. With this historical backdrop, one cannot blame China’s attitude towards the West when Chinese leaders will not allow themselves to be bullied and look down upon when dealing with the West, especially in public.

I hasten to add that in the process of building itself up, China has committed many illegal and questionable acts such as intellectual property theft, subsidizing competition, and ignoring the impact on the environment through industrial growth. I guess that they consider these the casualties of growth, not unlike what the U.S. lived through in the ’50s and 60’s when our industries polluted the environment in no small way. China appears to be on the mend on some of these issues as I believe they are now the largest employers of engineers to produce new products and boost their industries in “green” technologies.

Further, as Americans, we are freedom lovers, and we promote basic human rights around the globe, and we are not shy about criticizing China for its human rights violations. Here again, my view is that China will gradually evolve as we did when denying human rights to African Americans and Asians decades ago. We still have a long way to go on this front, and I hope that as China continues to evolve, they will improve on this front.

Historically, China has been a difficult country to govern because of its diversity – over fifty languages, different cultures, lifestyles, habits, religions, etc.  The one-party system seemed to have worked during their darkest hour when starvation and poverty caused unspeakable suffering. With their newfound position as a super-power, I hope that the current and future leaders will loosen their grip on controlling every aspect of life in the name of survival. I guess that China is still getting used to its position and place in the world, and they are reconciling their past with the West as it moves forward on all fronts.

I wish that moving forward, the U.S. and China will engage in a useful dialog to resolve our differences. I know there are issues we agree on, so I hope we build strong bridges to support our mutual interest while striving to understand each other’s positions on issues we disagree with. One day, my aspiration is we will not refer to China as our “adversary” but call each other “partners” in an evolving world.

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