06/18/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

Are American Dreams Compatible With the China Dream?


Americans and Chinese, like peoples everywhere, have dreams. China's top leader, President Xi Jinping, frequently refers to the China dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation. This is not a new departure. For over a century the dream of Chinese reformers has been to restore the country's wealth and power, not so that China could aggrandize itself at the expense of other countries but so that it could protect itself, restore national dignity, and ensure the economic security of its people.

For many decades this dream remained a vain hope. Only in recent years has realization of the Chinese dream of a strong nation and a prosperous people come within China's grasp. A good relationship between China and the United States has contributed to bringing closer the realization of this dream. American investments have poured into China, and Chinese students have flooded American institutions of higher learning, gaining the knowledge and experience that can accelerate and sustain China's modernization process, and eventually make the country more open and tolerant of dissent.

As the son of educational missionaries, I grew up in western China during the turmoil of World War II. I was a high school student in Nanjing and Shanghai during the Chinese civil war and the communist revolution, leaving only when the Korean War erupted. I accompanied three congressional delegations to China during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and lived in Beijing for seven years as a U.S. government official. I know from firsthand experience that

China's bumpy road to modernity has been filled with pitfalls, but the contrast between the poverty and misery of my early years in China and the rising prosperity one now sees throughout the country is astounding.

History provides ample evidence, however, that as countries change, so do their dreams. Gaining the strength to protect oneself also gives one the capability to run roughshod over the interests of others. In a well-ordered international system there must be constraints on the arbitrary use of power. The U.S. domestic political system is based on this concept. It is equally relevant to China's concept of peaceful development.

For Americans, a strong and prosperous country is not a dream but a reality. Aspirations for world conquest have never been part of the American dream, which has focused primarily on personal freedom and equal opportunity to better one's position in life. The United States emerged as the so-called "sole superpower" not by an act of conquest but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, its principal competitor.

Nevertheless, people in both China and the United States worry whether Chinese and American dreams are compatible. They see that alongside the many areas of common interest between the two countries, there are troublesome frictions that need constant attention. In both countries, attitudes are divided over whether cooperation or competition will be the dominant feature of U.S.-China relations in the future.

In President Obama's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March this year, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to building a new model of relations aimed at reducing the possibility of confrontation and conflict, enhancing mutual respect, and expanding areas of cooperation. The same month, First Lady Michelle Obama used her visit to China to emphasize the human side of the relationship, sending the message that the bonds between China and the United States must not just be between leaders but must be strengthened by people-to-people interactions and the cultivation of shared visions, especially among young people.

This is a difficult but achievable task. We must constantly ask ourselves: are Chinese and American dreams more likely to be compatible if we let differences dominate the relationship or if we expand cooperation, contain frictions, and build on common interests. The noblest dream for any country is to have strength that contributes to the peace, security, wealth, and happiness of all nations. This is the dream that China and the United States should share.