Remarks of Donald M. Bishop

Minister-Counselor, Foreign Service of the United States, Retired

at the Tai Initiative’s Pacific Northwest Conference on U.S.-China Relations

Seattle University, April 12, 2013



Conf 3It’s an honor for me to speak at this gathering of Americans who are committed to a closer and better future between China and the United States, a future strengthened by more regional and local association.  That kind of association is exemplified by all your myriad activities, and by Carson Tavenner and the Tai Initiative.  Washington state and the Pacific northwest are our nation’s trailblazers in regional, state, and local initiatives with China, and I look forward to learning more about them during the conference today.

As Carson mentioned, my field in the State Department was Public Diplomacy.  In a 31-year career, I spent 25 years overseas, seven of them during two assignments in Beijing, and another six years in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  I count myself fortunate to have had the chance to lead America’s official Public Diplomacy in China.  That included the Embassy’s media relations — and more press conferences and photo ops than I care to remember — and the Embassy’s portfolio for education, exchanges, and culture.

The portfolio included the Fulbright program, bringing American academics to teach in China, and sending Chinese academics to study or teach in the U.S.  It included English teaching, promotion of study opportunities in the U.S., cultural preservation, the International Visitor Program, and many other odds and ends.  In connection with these programs, I had the chance to travel to many parts of China, to see its amazing geographic variety, gaze on many of its wonders, and to meet Chinese from many walks of life.

Everywhere I went in China, I met Americans — doing business, teaching, studying, joining Chinese counterparts for conferences and research, telling the story of U.S.-China relations during World War II, and teaching English.  I met the President of my own alma mater not at the Embassy, but quite by chance at a historic site.  He never checked in with the Ambassador, let alone me!

I soon realized that while I was working Uncle Sam’s official Public Diplomacy, our work at the Embassy touched only a small portion, a very small portion, of a large and growing relationship.  Chinese and Americans are always coming together, and working together, on their own.  They do so without asking permission, without asking the Embassy to give a nod or hold a hand.  That’s one of the reasons I’m pleased to join a conference that recognizes that state, local, and individual initiatives are at the center of U.S.-China relations.

I thought I might share my thoughts under three subheads.  First, let me speak some of the national bilateral agenda — the kind of issues that preoccupy Washington and the Embassy.  Second, let me share my sense of how change in China — some game changing trends — now outpaces the agendas of Chinese and American leaders.  That means that non-government exchanges are more important because they are more nimble.  These first two parts are the long windup.

Finally let me talk about the importance of knowledge and understanding in all that we do.  We need to know more about China, and we need to know more about our own country.  That’s the pitch.

I come here from “the other Washington,” the “east coast Washington,” the land “inside the beltway.”  The news media constantly let us know that the bilateral U.S.-China relationship includes a full plate of grave issues.

Americans buy more from China than China buys from the U.S., and the U.S. China-trade deficit — more than $300 billion each year — is a large share of our worldwide trade deficit.  On this, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are agreed.

The dollar-yuan exchange rate set by the Chinese government still remains is too high.  Put a microphone in front of Senator Schumer, and he’ll be happy to tell you all about it.

The Treasury finances our own domestic budget deficit by selling bonds, and China owns more than a trillion dollars of our bills, notes, and bonds.  They talk about this on MSNBC and Fox both.

The one-child policy and its reliance on forced abortion, the narrow channeling of faith into organizations the Chinese government controls, and harsh policies toward Tibet all give pause to Americans, for human rights lie at the core of how we understand our own nation and the future of humankind.

The list of grave issues goes on.  In American eyes, too much Chinese patience with North Korea hazards stability in Northeast Asia and the Pacific.  This is in the news as North Korea is apparently preparing for another nuclear test.

People in Redmond know at first hand that the lack of protection for American software, patents, copyrights, and trade secrets, combined with computer intrusions, trouble American government and businesses, and they undermine the trust that must underlie more investments, business, and prosperity.  The list could go on.

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There is, of course, more to the U.S.-China relationship than these grave issues.  Almost all the departments and agencies of the federal government now have dialogs and programs in China, and away from the cameras there is progress in areas as diverse as mining safety, the drug trade, aviation routes and safety, nuclear safety, and legal exchanges.  There’s cooperation on the environment and disease control.

But in a time when television talking heads are far too often shouting heads, it is easy to see the areas of contention rather than the many areas of cooperation.  Fortunately for the national agenda, many fine minds in diplomacy, defense, trade, and commerce are constantly working them.  Governor Locke – Ambassador Locke — is at the center of all this.

At the Embassy in Beijing we groaned about more and more high level visits by administration delegations, visiting China for intensive discussions and dialogs.  We saw nearly the entire cabinet, the heads of many federal agencies, the White House, and scores of members of Congress.  Little by little, perhaps more slowly than we hope, problems are addressed, and the relationship proceeds more comprehensively and smoothly as the years pass.

So I declare myself an optimist on the future of the U.S.-China relationship, and we must be optimists.  In the face of so many challenges, I base much of that optimism on some game-changing trends that, in a way, sidestep many of the “grave issues” we spoke of.

Game changer number one:  China is changing on its own.

China’s leaders may yearn for a steady-state China that allows the government and the Communist Party to apply more of yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems — to solve social problems as the nation modernizes and becomes more prosperous — to secure their own legitimacy — and to see China’s neighbors and partners yield to China’s lead.

Time, however, will not allow for such a carefully calculated future to unfold.  China’s own economic growth is agreeable, yes, but it is also disruptive.  And China’s leaders lose some sleep over the unintended consequences of earlier decisions.

In a China with more education, more of China’s citizens believe the government and Party should listen to them with more respect.

In a country with more geographic mobility, the flow of people toward work in the cities, along with the mixing of rural people from all regions with established urban populations, has caused frictions.  These are made more acute by China’s continued reliance on the hukou household registration system which denies rural migrants access to social services like education in the cities.

In a country with more social mobility, the eager, ambitious, and accomplished resent inherited position and wealth from the class known as “the princelings.”

In a country with more wealth, there is more greed and selfishness, and more inside dealing and corruption.  People know this and resent it.

In a country where all can plainly see — in the air and in the water — more pollution, people ask why the Chinese government rails against the U.S. Embassy for publishing the data from its own air quality monitors.  And why the well-to-do bring food into China from Hong Kong rather than trust what they can buy far more cheaply at local markets.

More believers — the number of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and Muslims is growing — shows that people yearn for surer guides to morality and justice than either the old teachings of Chairman Mao, or the new gospel of wealth, can provide.  It’s fair to say that this discomforts a political system grounded on atheism.

In a country with more social media, news of incidents and abuses at one end of the country rocket everywhere.  This undermines the old confidence in benevolent rule from the center.

In a country with more internet access, more netizens question why so many websites are blocked, why internet searches of common words bump against the filters, and why someone decides that individuals cannot be trusted with basic knowledge of China and the world.

All these game changers and their unanticipated consequences are homegrown domestic responses to China’s own modernization and growth, the basic engines of transformation in China.  They demand homegrown solutions.

Second game changer:  There are deep grooves in the cultures of China and America that are mutually attractive. The passage of time, and more contact and dealing, are reawakening them.

A century ago, many knew that China and the United States, the two largest countries on the eastern and western shores of the Pacific, were natural partners and friends. Ours were the two great countries of work, respect for education, and business acumen. U.S.-China trade and the early American investments in businesses, in hospitals and medical schools, and in education pointed the way to a future of cooperation and rapport.

China and America were sharing ideas when the Boxer Indemnity Scholars began to study in the U.S. and when organizations like Yale in China sent Americans there. Chinese listened to the lectures of John Dewey, and Americans read the novels of Pearl Buck and Lin Yutang.

The partnership deepened when President Roosevelt — using what we would now call sanctions — opposed the Japanese conquests in China. And of course China and the United States were allies during the Second World War, when Flying Tigers and Hump Pilots and the men who built the Burma Road were living legends in both countries.

After the war ended, Senator Fulbright had the vision that the international exchange of scholars could help make the world a more peaceful and more prosperous place. The first group of Fulbright scholars went to China in 1946.

This sense of national affinity took a nosedive after 1949.  In the view of China’s new rulers, the new socialist China and an “imperialist” America were enemies.  Our two nations fought one another in the Korean War, and there was continued official hostility for three decades after liberation.  President Nixon’s visit to China, and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, allowed a more natural relationship to resume. Ideology separated China and America for three decades; more than three decades of contact now pull us together.  You can see it in business, trade, education, and even in the movies.

The untold thousands of Americans who have visited China since 1979 have been delighted by Chinese welcomes.  So have Chinese who visited the United States.  Hard work, respect for education, and business acumen have different shapes in both countries, but our common appreciation for these joins rather than divides Americans and Chinese.  Old stereotypes and new misconceptions dissolve when individual Americans and individual Chinese become friends.  China is what I call a “relational society,” and good relations can trump old ideologies and old stereotypes.  You all have seen this in your own work.

A third game changer also sidesteps the grave issues that occupy the national agenda.  It’s that local and regional, and private and independent sector initiatives are becoming a larger force in U.S. China relations.  The center of gravity in the relationship, its momentum, is no longer solely owned by the U.S. government, the Congress, or the White House.  Rather, the relationship is shaped increasingly by business, trade, commerce, education, and the work of NGOs.  This should be no surprise since local and individual initiative is at the core of American culture.

From the Embassy, I had an opportunity to align our nation’s official Public Diplomacy toward important bilateral goals.  Realizing the importance of helping China develop the rule of law, for instance, I “leaned” as many programs as possible toward law schools.  What I was doing in our official Public Diplomacy was only a thin slice of the bilateral relationship, but I could apply some focus.  Official programs were already institutionalized and structured.  And I could ask the Ambassador to give what we were doing some visibility.

Time and again at the Embassy, however, I became aware of local initiatives, agreements between “sister” towns and universities, visiting groups of students, and important exchanges only when I received a courtesy invitation to attend a reception.  I only learned of conferences on dozens of useful topics when I read about them in the newspaper, or was asked to say a few words at an opening.  Said again, U.S. Public Diplomacy is sizable and important, but it is dwarfed by the volume of privately organized initiatives.

I’ve acknowledged that local, regional, business, private, and independent exchanges are more extensive than Uncle Sam’s official programs, but it’s in their nature to be smaller and relatively uncoordinated.  I trust that one takeaway from the conference will be awareness of what your neighbors are also doing, along with some sharing of best practices.  Who, too, can doubt that Seattle can benefit from collaboration with Bellevue and Spokane and Washington County, Oregon, as you continue your work.

Contemplating the stresses in the bilateral relationship, judging the effect of game-changing trends, aware of the importance of local and private initiative, I believe, then, that we must do everything to increase the number of fields of contact and cooperation, and multiply the points of entry for Americans to deal with China.

More is better.  More that reflects local and regional genius is needed.  We must open more fields, break more paths, build more trust, and find more commonalities.  This means more exchange students both ways, more exchange programs, more sister cities, more conferences, more investment, more partnerships — both ways.  You in Washington and the northwest are in the lead, and you are in the best position to build more.

I’ve drawn a happy picture here, a picture from a high altitude, perhaps.  You know better than I that exchanges and relationships are hard work.  Different languages, different cultures, different national narratives, asymmetric expectations, rigid institutions, and deeply imbedded organizational values can make things difficult.  Yet still our countries become closer.

What I’ve said so far is the long windup.  Here’s the pitch.

First, in a future characterized by more contact, Americans need to know more about China.  At the Embassy I met educators, local and state government leaders, principals of NGOs, business people, and missionaries.  When I joined them for meetings, I was surprised when many of them asked about things they could have learned before they left.  And they assumed too many parallels between what Americans do, and what Chinese do.

They assumed, for instance, that Chinese legislators played a role similar to American legislators.  They met teachers and saw how teaching methods could be more effective, without understanding that because of the examination system, Chinese teachers and schools had no incentive to adopt them.  They saw impressive urban schools but failed to understand the poverty of education in China’s rural areas.  Some Americans see Chinese at worship in churches, and assume a freedom of religion when in fact faith is tightly circumscribed.  I noticed that visiting Americans often did not understand how in China there are parallel governing structures, one we recognize as “government,” the other the Communist Party, and the Party is in the driver’s seat.

In saying that Americans need to know more about China, I’m not sentencing all of you to read think tank studies and the latest academic monographs, as helpful as they can be.  China’s growth and importance in the world have drawn the attention of authors, essayists, and magazine editors, and many of these individuals have written vivid and accessible – and brief — accounts.  The journalists who represent America’s major news outlets in China report on this week’s and this month’s crises, yes, but they also write reports on more downhome topics that can be quite revealing.

I also recommend watching Chinese films — not kung fu movies or historical romances, but the dramas set in recent or contemporary China.  The films can convey images, model Chinese ways of thinking through things, and portray human dilemmas.  Discerning filmgoers can also perceive when Chinese films pull their punches.

And — there’s a necessary parallel to this need to know more about China.  It’s the need to know more about the United States.

Every American in China, like it or not, represents American society, democracy, and enterprise.  Older Chinese were taught that American words about these were just verbal disguises for imperialism aimed at keeping China down.  Younger Chinese have questions about all of these American values and commitments, and Americans who deal with Chinese need to understand their American values before they can represent them.  Americans need to think through how more enterprise, more democracy, more free speech, the freedom to believe, and less control are in China’s own interest.

We could discuss this in dozens of ways.  Let me use just one.  China’s decline in the nineteenth century and its turmoil in the twentieth century bruised China’s pride.  Since the late nineteenth century, China’s intellectuals and leaders have grappled to understand the sources of power in the west.  One of the first conclusions was “the west has superior weapons and technology, and if we have them, we can restore our power.”  The next was “the west has a strong economy, so we must plan and build one.”  A decade or two ago, thoughtful Chinese saw that there were links between the markets and enterprise economy and American democracy, and they began to think about liberalization.  Recently, some Chinese, noticing that economic exchanges and democratic participation depend on underlying trust, have begun to focus on what we would call the public virtues, and how these rest on religion.

These are things, then, that Chinese are trying to understand, and many are eager for conversations on these topics.  This means that Americans who visit China, or meet Chinese students here, need to have thought these things through too.  How does American military power support international stability? Why do markets and enterprise produce growth, prosperity, and happiness — and reduce envy?  How have Americans balanced the reality of many faiths with the principle that the church and state are separate?  What is it about democracy, with all its tension and argument, that strengthens a society?

I was involved in President Clinton’s 1998 visit to China.  Ask me about it offline sometime; a nine day visit by a President frazzles any Embassy.  I recall, however, how well he made the case for an open society to Chinese students and faculty at Beijing University.

“In the world we live in, this global information age, constant improvement and change is necessary to economic opportunity and to national strength. Therefore, the freest possible flow of information, ideas, and opinions, and a greater respect for divergent political and religious convictions will actually breed strength and stability going forward. It is, therefore, profoundly in your interest, and the world’s, that young Chinese minds be free to reach the fullness of their potential. That is the message of our time …”

Let me close. I said earlier that a century ago many understood that China and the United States are natural partners. In a new century, we need the bracing wind of the original vision.  Over a century, our countries’ populations and economies have become larger.  Transportation and communication have brought us closer. And the stakes have become even greater.  This is true of the U.S.-China relationship in general. Our countries deal with one another on grave issues.  China wants trade, investment, technology, and knowledge.  More Chinese voices ask for more respect, more faiths, and more freedoms.

Who brings Chinese and Americans together?  The Embassy and U.S. government officials will continue to do their high-level work.  I am persuaded, however, that the initiative has shifted to local programs with all their wonderful variety.  Yes, business will expand and so will education exchanges.  But now the list includes airliners and museums and basketball and forestry and eco-partnerships and an abundance of the gifts of the American northwest.

Uncle Sam needs you.  So does China.  It needed you yesterday. It needs you now.  It needs you tomorrow.