People-to-People Diplomacy: the Core of Repairing Sino-American Relations

March 01, 2022
About the author:
Brian Wong Yueshun, Ph.D. candidate of the University of Oxford, TI Youth Observer


Fifty-one years ago, a Chinese table tennis player greeted his American counterpart, who accidentally stumbled onto the bus of the Chinese entourage at the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan.
Zhuang Zedong shared with Glenn Cowan a portrait of a renowned tourist destination in China, and in doing so, extended an invitation that eventually culminated in the thawing of one of the, if not most important, diplomatic relationships of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Zhuang and Cowan’s friendship, through what is now dubbed “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972. Five decades have since passed.
The tale is often told in alluding to the complex nature of international relations—that relations ebb and flow, warm and cool in conjunction with shifts in public sentiment. What is missed from this recounting approach, however, is that what had occurred following that fateful encounter on the bus was far from coincidental. 
Helming China’s foreign policy throughout the first two decades of the country’s modern history, was none other than Premier Zhou Enlai, a remarkable statesman and intellectual who firmly advocated and embodied compassionate, humanistic diplomacy—one centered around encouraging and preserving people-to-people interactions and friendships between civilians and governments, and thus, between China and the world at large. 
Fifty years on, Sino-American relations appear to have reached a new turning point. From tensions over trade talks and economic terms of cooperation to clashes over China’s and America’s domestic policies and governance to the talk of diplomatic boycotts and rebuking of much-celebrated academic exchange and open, civil dialogue, much of the goodwill instilled into the relationship since Nixon and Mao’s seminal meeting and the Shanghai Communiqué appears to have dissipated.   
China’s recent hosting of the Winter Olympics came off the back of the country’s resilient and largely effective campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic, a string of substantial successes in tackling poverty and inequality within the country, and historical highs of approval ratings amongst its domestic population. Yet it has also coincided with heightening hostility towards the country in the international arena from certain quarters, who prefer to frame China as a systemic rival and threat to their values and domestic policies. Whilst China enjoys continuously high favorability ratings in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, and parts of Southeast Asia, the country’s image has suffered from setbacks in Central and Western Europe, North America, and parts of Northeast Asia.
The structural causes for such disparities—ranging from economic explanations to media portrayals, from the politicization of areas that ought not to be politicized to the populist onslaught in reaction to the pandemic—have been elaborately discussed. What has perhaps been neglected thus far, however, is the role played by the vastly reduced people-to-people interactions. 
Elaborate quarantine restrictions induced by China’s watertight response to the pandemic have contributed significantly to the difficulty of non-Chinese-citizen visitors to travel to mainland China and to engage in a face-to-face manner with their counterparts there. Additionally, geopolitical flare-ups and bubbling xenophobic sentiments in Washington have made life vastly difficult for Chinese journalists, academics, and students seeking to navigate the American visa regime during the global health crisis. The nationalism espoused by an extremely small and yet vocal segment of the Chinese population has not helped, either, in encouraging skeptics to travel to the country. 
The deterioration in the quantity and quality of people-to-people ties across the Pacific over recent years has taken a substantial toll on Sino-American relations; indeed, this is a cost that must be taken seriously. There are three areas of particular pertinence here: the academic-educational, the economic-financial, and the civil society-organizational. 
First, academic-educational exchange between the two countries has drastically shrunk. Whether it be former US President Donald Trump’s impudent cancellation of the Fulbright program for Chinese scholars, the American Establishment’s adoption of the China Initiative, or mainstream American politicians’ adoption of wider Sinophobic rhetoric targeting ethnic Chinese students, it is clear that the U.S. has become a precipitously unsafe environment for many aspiring Chinese students and scholars. On the other hand, China’s restrictions on international travel and increasing scrutiny over the curricula of international universities seeking to set up domestic campuses have precluded many a potential opportunity for deepening and strengthening collaboration and robust debate between academics studying China and their counterparts in the country. This poses a particular concern when combined with the surge in inflammatory, emotively lopsided coverage of Chinese politics and civil society by certain media outlets and academic factions in the West, whose reporting on China has become the dominant voice of commentary on the country’s political status quo and trajectory. 
A rekindling of academic exchange programs, lifting of quarantine and visa restrictions for academics and students alike, and incorporation of more rigorous and open-ended components of free debate to educational spaces would be pivotal in ensuring that the generations of Chinese scholars studying America and their American counterparts studying China remain personally connected. Disagreements are part and parcel of academic inquiry, but they need not be antagonistic and rooted in ignorance—the human touch most certainly helps with that. 
Second, it is undeniable that China remains a highly lucrative destination for international investment. With an economy that is forecast to overtake that of America’s by no later than the mid-2030s, and considerable consumption potential yet to be fully tapped into, it is apparent that China offers international investors a site of reliable returns.
Yet, the past three years of heightening geopolitical tensions and the difficulty of getting into the country have left many investors stranded in a difficult limbo. They may well be keen on pursuing deeper ties with the Chinese market, yet the impediments to in-person exchanges, face-to-face due diligence preparatory work, and additional interactions have left many disillusioned and deterred. It would be deeply disingenuous to argue that there is thus an exodus of expatriates from leading Chinese hubs of investment, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen: most opt to stay, for they are drawn in by the culture and economic opportunities there. However, for those who do indeed leave, this is very much regrettable, and a trend that should ideally be reversed. 
Identifying ways to circumvent in-person travel restrictions through virtual communicative platforms and digital technologies, as well as more sustainable modus operandi for businesses as they transition away from an in-person-exchange-dependent model would be pivotal in maintaining the economic and financial ties across the Pacific. These ties, in turn, play a critical stabilizing role in bilateral relations, as noted by Premier Zhou Enlai, at the peak of Japanese aggression spearheaded by the ruling party in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the stability and perseverance of Sino-Japanese people-to-people ties, specifically those between the business and cultural communities, that facilitated the normalization of relations in 1972 under the Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. 
It is on this note that we come to the final dimension of the problem at hand. Analyses of Sino-American people-to-people diplomacy would be grossly incomplete without at least some acknowledgment of the role played by the civil societies and non-government organizations on both sides of the Pacific. 
Non-profit, non-government organizations serve as crucial pillars in enabling collaboration across a wide plethora of areas, where we need the two largest powers in the world to come together, to work together. Whether it be tackling climate change through committing to systemic and norm-centric shifts, seeking to resolve the ongoing and future public health crises through raising transparency and accountability standards, or, indeed, figuring out common solutions to shared challenges such as mechanization of labor and the challenges of the metaverse, there is much that Beijing and Washington alike can learn from one another. The crux of this, ultimately, lies with the people who shape and steer their respective societies’ policies. 
Allow me to conclude with a more personal reflection. The past two years have not been easy. Due to the pandemic, I was left stranded in Hong Kong (home) and have been unable to return to the United Kingdom, where I am pursuing my Ph.D. studies. At a time of increasing polarization and mistrust between the East and West, some view the path forward as one where one party prevails, and others must admit defeat. 
I, for one, refuse to subscribe to this sort of all-or-nothing, zero-sum rhetoric. I believe in a world where East and West, China and America alike, can win—and win in a way that benefits the people of both countries. I refuse to live in a world governed by dogmatic stereotypes and monolithic presumptions about how governance ought to work—just as I would loathe living in a world where conflict, skepticism, and antagonism between peoples is normalized. So long as they occur within the boundaries of the law, with the mutual interests of all parties in mind, human-to-human ties must be advanced and deepened between China and America and beyond. 
We must each do our part, however small or minutiae, in building bridges, not burning them.
This article is from the February issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the February issue, please click here:
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