Beijing, CHINA--Living in Beijing this year before starting college, I observed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's China visit alongside Chinese young people. From that vantage point, I saw a trip that succeeded in improving U.S.-China government-to-government engagement. But Secretary Clinton's visit also made clear that if the Obama administration wants to maximize the possibilities for a positive and constructive long-term future for U.S.-China relations, American leaders should make additional efforts to connect to ordinary Chinese people, especially Chinese youth.
Before Secretary Clinton's visit, public perception of her in China was vague yet, overall, somewhat negative because of critical remarks she made about China as First Lady and in the recent presidential campaign. But since appointed as Secretary of State, she has struck a decisively conciliatory note concerning China. Her pre-departure speech at the Asia Society in New York introduced a new mantra that the Chinese media immediately picked up on: the U.S. wants a "positive and cooperative" relationship with China.
In particular, some Chinese young people whom I interviewed liked Secretary Clinton's use of an ancient Chinese aphorism to propose that China and the United States are "in a common boat," an idea which "must continue to guide us today." Secretary Clinton repeated that proverb in her meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and she has emphasized positive themes every time that she has spoken while in China. As a result, Ms. Clinton undoubtedly leaves China with a more positive image for herself and the U.S. in Chinese eyes than before her trip.
But this does not tell the whole story. The loudest group of Chinese youth is known as fen qing, or "angry youth." Described by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker as "the new generation's neocon nationalists," the rage of these young people finds clear expression on the Internet. Moments after Secretary Clinton's speech at the Asia Society, the "angry youth" were at work, criticizing her statements on blogs and discussion boards. "Let's judge by her deeds, not her words," said one poster, using a traditional saying, and several others agreed in more colorful and less Confucian language.
Few mainstream young people here appear ready to let the "angry youth" be the voice of their generation, though, suggesting that the United States could play a considerable role in shaping its own image. Indeed, the views of young Chinese people about the United States are clearly in flux. President Obama's election has been warmly greeted by the Chinese (75% of whom supported him over Senator John McCain, according to a poll conducted by the China Daily and the U.S. embassy) and seems to have strengthened the belief that the United States is a fundamentally noble country, standing for "freedom, opportunity, and choices," in the words of a high school graduate I spoke with who hopes to study in the West.
So American leaders should seize this unique opportunity to give a fresh, positive impression of the United States to Chinese young people. This certainly does not mean ignoring differences and tensions that exist between the two countries or failing to stand up for U.S. interests. Instead, it focuses on what Secretary Clinton herself has recognized is the job of American diplomats: "repairing relations, not only with governments but with people," and with an eye to the future.
Of course, Secretary Clinton's trip to China was very brief and therefore could include only one non-governmental public event. In deciding to visit a power plant, she chose to emphasize energy efficiency, a policy theme of extraordinary importance to the entire planet. No one can criticize her for that choice--but it was an event for policy experts, not to connect to ordinary Chinese.
Thus it isn't surprising that when I talked on Sunday with some Chinese teenagers getting their morning Starbucks, as Secretary Clinton was departing Beijing after going to church, their reactions were mixed. Their positive feelings were coupled with a sense that this was only the first step in a new, still somewhat unclear direction. "It seems like the trip was successful," said one 19 year-old, quoting an idiom, "the journey was not made in vain." But, he reminded me, "It's only her first trip."
Future trips, and future diplomatic efforts in China, should focus on broadening direct outreach to ordinary people, especially young people. Doing so is the firmest foundation for building a long-term cooperative relationship between what are clearly going to be the two most important countries on the world stage for my generation.
One untraditional but promising way for American leaders to connect to Chinese youth occurred to me during a recent conversation with a young Chinese professional. He reminded me that the lives and concerns of young people in China and the United States are quite similar, despite the profound dissimilarity of the societies in which we have grown up. Chinese youth, he observed, don't save much money, have a hard time finding jobs even after earning a college degree, and, most fundamentally, just want to lead happy, healthy, and interesting lives. That sounds pretty familiar to me.
U.S. foreign policy in China would be well served if, alongside our immediate and essential policy objectives, our leaders could connect directly and sympathetically with ordinary Chinese people, whose concerns about the economy, access to adequate health care, better education, secure jobs, and a happy life are, at bottom, also the concerns of ordinary Americans. These are at the core of identifying and furthering the common interests of the two countries.
We should be speaking directly to the Chinese people about an America that wants to give Chinese students the opportunity to learn from the United States, not to deny them visas; an America that wants to make its policies understandable, not opaque; an America that wants to continue representing "freedom, opportunity, and choices"; an America whose young people are eager to learn more about and connect with China. We should also be looking for ways to build programmatic bridges between the younger generation in both countries, not simply bridges between government officials and business people in both countries.
This is the best way to allow China and the United States to remain in the "common boat" that Secretary Clinton described--not only "today," but also tomorrow.