30th November 2023 – (Beijing) The complex dynamics between the world’s two largest powers, China and the United States, pivots profoundly on the connections between their peoples. Though geopolitics looms large, the everyday bonds of academia, business, tourism and culture constitute the ballast for this delicate relationship. Mutual understanding must be forged through human bridges, not solely official summits.

With Beijing and Washington delicately resetting ties after years of downward drift, restoring robust exchange between their societies assumes urgent priority. The recent Xi-Biden summit yielded tentative progress, including China’s pledge to welcome 50,000 American students. But fulfilling the promise of that new ‘San Francisco Vision’ requires enacting its spirit of openness and exchange at all levels.

Recently, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns underscored this very point, stating “The people-to-people exchange is the ballast to keep the relationship stable. Our two governments have a competitive and contested relationship, but at the people-to-people level, it’s really important that we stay connected.”

He warned against the perils of diminished engagement, saying “We cannot have the next generation of American students not know about China and not speak Mandarin. Otherwise, we will feel the impact in 20 to 30 years. We need more young people to understand China. We need to recruit people who are China specialists.” Ambassador Burns acknowledged the U.S. cannot afford to depopulate the relationship by curtailing the free flow of students, scholars, tourists and other citizen emissaries. Grassroots ties must be nurtured, not neglected. The reservoirs of goodwill and understanding they provide offer the buffer against mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington. Renewed commitment to exchange promises to place relations on a healthier trajectory for mutual benefit.

Once lively people-to-people ties have eroded sharply since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. In the academic realm, Chinese student enrollment in the U.S. plunged from nearly 370,000 to around 300,000 as visa hurdles multiplied. American students in China dropped even more precipitously, from over 11,000 to barely 350 last year.

Direct flights connecting both countries – the lifeblood of tourism, business travel and familial visits – withered to a trickle. After approaching 350 weekly flights pre-pandemic, the tally fell below 100 and remains a fraction of past levels despite some restoration.

This breakdown in exchange spawned mutual misgivings and deepened estrangement. Chinese views of the U.S. have grown sharply negative, while Americans’ favourable opinions of China recently hit an all-time nadir. Both societies question the other’s intentions and regard engagement with wariness.

These fissures did not arise spontaneously. The pre-pandemic relationship already suffered from intensifying strategic rivalry. Former President Donald Trump then exploited anti-China sentiment domestically. Beijing’s stringent lockdown policies compounded isolation.

But severed human connections deny both peoples the touchstones to counter mounting hostility. Virtual alienation supplants grounded understanding, while extremist voices go unchallenged. Renewing the modest but indelible experiences that bind Chinese and Americans remains imperative.

Fortunately, the eagerness for grassroots reconnection persists, led by China’s provinces and America’s cities. The recent US-China Sister Cities Conference in Suzhou highlighted the durability of local partnerships. Unique pairings like Seattle and Chongqing foster localized bonds that elevate the overall relationship.

Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “It is education that must transform nations.” At the local level, these exchanges educate through cuisine, arts, and shared experience versus didacticism. Regular Chinese cultural festivals enliven cities like Chicago and San Francisco, showcasing authentic glimpses of China.

Amid friction between capitals, civic engagement sustains goodwill. Mayors and governors maintain pragmatic cooperation on climate, technology and investment across borders even when federal politics intrude. These organic relationships reinforce the reality that most Americans and Chinese harbour favourable views of each other’s cultures.

Executives assembled at the recent Xi-Biden summit exemplify the commercial ballast stabilizing relations. Bilateral trade exceeding $750 billion annually directly benefits wide swaths of each society. American icons like Apple, Starbucks and Ford are woven into the fabric of Chinese life through thousands of stores and joint ventures.

Despite trade disputes and import substitution policies, China’s vast consumer market beckons America’s marquee names. Tesla has capitalized on booming Chinese EV demand, selling twice as many cars there than in the U.S. market in 2022. American companies also rely on unmatched Chinese manufacturing scale and technical talent.

Equally, Chinese brands like Lenovo, Haier and Huawei thrive in U.S. and global markets. Their innovations spawn partnerships with American firms to fuse complementary capabilities. Supply chain integration across high-tech industries binds both economies in enterprise.

Even amid political headwinds, executives recognize shared commercial interests as the keel. Bilateral investment supports millions of jobs in each country. Prudent leaders avoid measures that inflict self-harm without promised rewards. The prosperity of Chinese and American business is interdependent, not a zero-sum proposition.

Rejuvenating educational exchange promises enormous yet neglected opportunity. Stricter U.S. visa policies have deterred Chinese students, even as their numbers in America still top all other nations. American academics rely on these students to sustain scientific innovation and fill graduate program cohorts.

Chinese universities have prioritized recruiting global talent, launching programs taught jointly in Mandarin and English. American students should be encouraged to avail these openings and immerse themselves in one of humanity’s most dynamic societies.

Student exchanges cultivate lasting empathy and insight. As one American participant on a recent Flying Tigers history tour remarked, experiencing China firsthand defies the one-dimensional portrayals back home. The power of human interaction dissolves engrained misunderstandings.

Through academic exchange, generations of Chinese and American scholars have built bridges of collaboration. Science knows no borders; its universal language transcends transient politics. Students returned home to become steadfast advocates for productive relations, carrying the torch of scholarship and friendship. Their potential to shape the future remains unlimited.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that “all distances in time and space are shrinking.” Global connectivity should foster collaboration, not friction between great nations like China and America. Technology can expand dialogue, not wall it off.

Leaders have broken ground to stabilise ties, but true rapprochement requires societal buy-in. The commitment must run deeper than lofty documents. It demands actions enabling Chinese and Americans to engage as students, innovators, travellers and citizens.

Opportunities abound in arts and sports for inspiring exchange. The Philadelphia Orchestra recently completed a commemorative China tour, epitomising musical harmony. The upcoming Olympic Games offer venues for honouring excellence and human bonds transcending politics.

Channeling public energies into productive exchange is the surest means to rebuild the relationship’s eroded underpinnings. While wisdom dictates differences between China and the U.S. will persist, judicious statecraft can nurture empathy and cooperation.

Henry Kissinger noted, “What is above all needed is an honest exposition of fundamental divergences in outlook and analysis rather than their concealment behind tactical manoeuvrings.”

Fostering honest dialogue and camaraderie between their societies is the imperative shared by China and the United States. Heeding the wisdom of their people offers the path forward. Visionary leaders will listen and respond to this call.