Looking beyond survey findings to real hope in Sino-US ties

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 6, 2018
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The national flags of China (R) and the United States. [Photo/Xinhua]

I'm definitely an optimist. For me, a glass is usually half full, almost never half empty. So, while a recently-released Pew Research Center survey shows that 6 percent less Americans view China favorably than in 2017, the news is less troubling than at first sight.

Upon closer examination, the glass is definitely more than half full. The devil, as they say, is in the details!

It's true that this year's survey shows only 38 percent of the 1,500 telephone respondents viewed China favorably, compared to 44 percent last year; however, those who viewed China unfavorably remained static at 47 percent, with a rising number in the "not sure" category.

And compared to 2016, the last American presidential election year, the 2018 numbers are far better. In the former year, China was much discussed and maligned during the campaign, so that, although 37 percent had a favorable opinion of China – one point lower than now – 55 percent were unfavorable, which was an all-time high since the survey was first conducted 13 years ago. In fact, last year's favorable number was the highest since 2012.

I actually find this year's figures surprising, in that I thought they would be far more negative. Given how the Trump administration has gone after China with such intensity on so many levels way beyond the purely economic, even labeling China as a strategic competitor in the U.S. National Security Strategy last December, I would have expected a much lower total of favorable comments, and a much higher number unfavorable.

It also bodes extremely well for bilateral relations that almost half – 49 percent – of respondents in the 18-29 age group viewed China favorably, while those in the 30-49 group were 37 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable. Old codgers like me (50+) were 34 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. 

So, for the future, those figures bode well for international relations generally. According to Senior Pew Researcher Jacob Poushter: "We actually see around the world that young people are more positive (toward) other countries' foreign power than the older generation."

I've thought for years that most of the resources that a country spends on soft power are better spent on young people. It's not rocket science to believe that most of us harden our views as we get older and more set in our ways.

So, the Pew survey points the way forward for China and other countries. While we respect the old, we have to concentrate on winning young hearts and minds. Remember President Trump's six-year-old granddaughter Arabella singing a Chinese folk song in Mandarin on video for President Xi last November and warming the hearts of billions? 

In our age of increasingly more sophisticated technology, neither youth nor lack of a common language is any problem.

Back in the Jurassic Age of technology when I was growing up – namely, pre-Walkman, PCs and mobile phones – we students had pen pals. I had two in Sweden and in the Congo. High tech back then was snail mail. We used those archaic aerograms: one sheet of light blue paper, pre-stamped. After writing, we folded it, licked to seal and then popped it in a mailbox to be ultimately sent abroad by air. 

It took weeks or months to get a reply if nothing went wrong along the way, a not infrequent occurrence. Frankly, the excitement wore off quickly and the slowness and iffy nature of it all quickly got tedious. With the internet, communications are instantaneous and have the added value of voice and video. And unlike then, language is no problem today. 

Tencent's WeChat has superb translation software that's surprisingly accurate and improves with each passing day. So, why can't we connect the Arabella's to their peers around the world whether in China, the U.S. or Europe, or, to a communal device in a remote village in Africa or the Pacific Islands?

The potential rewards are huge and can last a lifetime. Friendships are forged between individuals, classes, families and countries. It is said that word-of-mouth is the most potent and believable way to advertise and market. All will get to know each other better as fellow travelers on Planet Earth. 

Some of these families or friends will certainly even visit each other. In each case they will become flesh-and-blood people, not merely a category or label to be manipulated. 

I'm convinced that this will make a huge difference over time. It won't merely move the needle in future Pew surveys and their ilk, but has the potential to reset bilateral and international relations and walk us backwards away from the precipice.

The author is a research fellow for the think tank Center for China and Globalization, senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice president of ABC Television in New York.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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