Experts say cultural diplomacy is critical to the China-US relationship

World Today

When China decided to open up to the world 40 years ago, it underwent a cultural shift. Today, it looks like a whole new country. CGTN’s Karina Huber looks at some of the other cultural changes the country has gone through with its biggest trading partner: the United States.

It was a ping pong match in 1972 that marked the first cultural exchange between China and the U.S. since the Cold War. That same year, China sent two pandas to the U.S. – Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing – in what has become known as “panda diplomacy”.

In 1979, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. In the 40 years since then, cultural exchanges between the two nations have flourished.

“The National Committee on US-China relations was at the forefront of that—sending the first of everything you can think of to China and bringing delegations from China,” said Margot Landman, Senior Director for Education Programs at the National Committee on US-China Relations.

Today, three of the top ten grossing films in China are American. American television shows like House of Cards, Sex and the City and Friends are also big hits there.

One of China’s biggest exports to the U.S. is students. More than 350,000 Chinese students are enrolled in U.S. colleges.

Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at the Institute of International Education, said those students contribute over $13 billion annually to the U.S. economy. She said they also bring other benefits.

“For Chinese and Americans to study together, to be in dormitories together, to be in labs, and library teams and athletic teams together really creates the possibility of deep understanding on both sides and deep comfort in dealing with each other on both sides,” said Blumenthal.

But in recent years, Chinese students have been made to feel less welcome in the US.

The Trump administration reportedly considered banning student visas to Chinese citizens over concerns they are working as spies. But Blumenthal said Chinese students, like all international students, are heavily vetted before arriving on U.S. soil.

“International students are no more a threat to us than any kind of international visitors, and we have to be very careful not to demonize the large numbers of students from China who are coming here for a legitimate desire to get a U.S. education,” said Blumenthal.

Dinda Elliott, director of programs at the China Institute, said political tensions between the U.S. and China have altered American perceptions of China – and that could have a negative impact on cultural exchanges.

“There is an increasing feeling that China is not moving forward with market-driven reforms, and so there’s a sense that it’s becoming more closed, the control over the internet is stronger and I think that that has some influence on the way Americans see the level of their interest in Chinese culture,” said Elliott.

Landman agrees, but said in times when governments disagree cultural diplomacy is needed more than ever.

“We’re not going to agree on everything. Nobody agrees on everything. You have the best marriage in the world and you don’t agree on everything. And these are countries with very different historical, cultural, political economic traditions. I don’t think agreement should be a goal. I think genuine understanding and communication should be a goal,” said Landman.

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