I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

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First off, I have to say that since I started using Google’s Chrome browser, WordPress has loaded up far more quickly in China than it ever did on Firefox or Explorer.  It definitely makes posting through the VPN easier than it was last semester.

I’m sitting in my Starbucks by the 公园前 (Gongyuanqian) metro station and I noticed that by the register there is a small box filled with cards and the words “Vote Me”  written on the outside of the box.  I picked one of the cards up and it’s a chance to vote for your favorite barista with the chance to win a free drink if your card is chosen.  Not a novel idea to those of us from societies where voting is the norm, but always interesting in the context of China.  While not quite as exciting or far-reaching as the first direct student union election at the university last semester, it’s nevertheless another way to introduce the concepts of democracy and elections into common parlance.  Perhaps it is also why the English translation on the box is not quite grammatically correct; the newness of the concept may mean that it is not quite readily translatable from Chinese to English.  Next time I come back, I must make a note of the Chinese used to express this concept.

Speaking of introducing new ideas into common parlance, Secretary of State Clinton is wrapping up her Asian tour in Beijing today.  There has been a lot of press about her willingness to downplay human rights abuses, much to the chagrin of Western human rights organizations.  However, I applaud Hillary for her pragmatic and magnanimous approach to U.S. – China relations.  To begin with, she is trying to wrest U.S. – China relations back into the realm of State from the Treasury Department, where most of U.S. – China policy was conducted during the latter years of the Bush administration because of Paulson’s supposedly deep understanding of China from his days at Goldman Sachs.  The realty is that to build a successful partnership between the U.S. and China, the realm of cooperation is going to have move beyond economic matters where we usually end up butting heads with China anyway.  Hillary has it right that we need to create a deeper relationship with China and actually find some issues where we can collaborate on this deeper level.  President Hu echoed this sentiment when he told her, “Now it is more important than any time in the past to deepen and develop China-US relations amid the spreading financial crisis and increasing global challenges.”  For too long, U.S.-China relations have turned on economic issues, which are certainly important in the midst of this global economic downturn, but the nature of the economic issues are also very different today when most of the world is hurting, China included.  I just hope that Hillary’s first visit to Beijing is a harbinger of a new approach to U.S. – China relations that could actually lead to some meaninful progress on important global issues.  I think it was wise of her to try to divorce the human rights issue from the other pressing issues confronting both the U.S. and China.  I am certainly not advocating forgetting about the human rights abuses that take place on almost a daily basis here, but as someone on the ground, I don’t think beating the government over the head about Tibet, a lack of political discourse, and freedom will engender any progress on those issues without an overarching positive and productive relationship that can be built by finding common ground on other issues.

China Calls

February 3, 2009

My winter vacation in the States is quickly coming to an end.  I head back to China this coming Thursday for my last semester before returning home  in June.  The posting has been sporadic this vacation because I have  been running around like a madman trying to see friends and family, while attempting to put my thoughts on China and my experience there in some sort of coherent manner.  However, when I return, the posting will resume in full force.

I’ve noticed a lot of American media attention being paid to China’s own economic crisis.  It seems as if the New York Times has a story every day about laid-off migrant farm workers in Guangdong province, outflows of foreign currency, or the difficulty recent Chinese college graduates are having finding employment upon graduation.  Perhaps my own senses are heightened to such news stories because I currently live there, but there does seem to an interesting fascination by the American media with today’s China and I am all for it because the more people know about the country, the better the chances of a closer relationship between the two countries.

I also read today that it seems most likely that Secretary of State Clinton will be making Asia her first foreign destination and I could not be happier about that decision.  Many in the press claim that she has chosen Asia because special envoys have already claimed the other foreign hot spots, but I want to believe that her choice of Asia is for more important and serious policy reasons than just the mere fact that there were no other foreign countries for her to travel to without appearing to just be following one of the special envoys.  When Secretary Clinton travels to Asia, I look especially forward to the China portion of her trip and how she will be able to hopefully begin a new chapter in U.S. – China relations.

I was fortunate to catch some of Sen. Hilary Clinton’s confirmation hearing live this past Tuesday and it made me really happy to see her back in the limelight and displaying her impressive knowledge of world affairs.  After the long and drawn-out primary battle between her and President-elect Obama, it was really nice to hear her on the same page as her former rival and her poise and confidence displayed during the hearings gave me hope that she can truly begin to rebuild our image around the world.

While I recognize the number of trouble spots around the world seems to grow daily, especially with the latest Middle East conflict thrown into the mix, I was disappointed not to hear more from Sen. Clinton or the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the future of U.S. – China relations.  I could chalk my disappointment up to a bias from spending the past five months in a classroom with Chinese students whose overriding concern about the incoming Obama administration was how he and his team would handle U.S. – China relations.  However, my disappointment with the lack of vision for U.S. – China relations goes back to the days when I was an undergraduate at Yale, where I had the good fortune to study modern Chinese history with Jonathan Spence and China’s market economy with Nicholas Lardy.  In much of the scholarly reading I’ve done related to China over the last decade, I was always struck by how short-sighted and black and white much of the literature has been.  Our own government’s policies towards China seem to mirror this reactionary and binary approach to U.S. – China relations.  To be over-simplistic, policy responses usually fall along the lines of military/human rights issues are bad and anything that allows American companies to profit from China’s rapid growth are good.  Thus, much of the talk about U.S. – China relations still revolves around Tibet, devaluing the yuan, trade disputes, and human rights violations. One possible exception to this approach were the Six Party talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear capabilities where the U.S. and China engaged as equals and were working towards a common, longer-term goal.  I am not saying that the aforementioned issues are not important.  They are, but the approach to dealing with them is often couched in a U.S. reaction to some policy decision rather than the crafting of a grand strategy framework laying out the approach to U.S. – China relations going forward.

In her statement at the confirmation hearing, Sen. Clinton mentioned China five times, two of those five times China was mentioned in the context of either Russia or other large emerging economies like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.  Here is her most substantive comment regarding China is as follows:

We want a positive and cooperative relationship with China, one where we deepen and strengthen our ties on a number of issues, and candidly address differences where they persist.  But this a not one-way effort – much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad. With both Russia and China, we should work together on vital security and economic issues like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and reforming financial markets.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Clinton’s words of cooperation and goodwill, but what was missing from that statement was a commitment to developing a long-term framework for U.S. – China relations.  I just hope that soon-to-be Secretary Clinton and her team, including Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs begin to map out a proactive approach as opposed to a reactive approach to U.S. – China relations in the coming years.  While China is still considered a developing country, it is really becoming too big to ignore and the best approach going forward is going to be to figure out how to build a true partnership between the two countries.  

Best to of luck to Hillary and her team at State.