Usually, the best way to start building respect and trust is to get together and talk. Face time is important.
Yet despite leaders of China and the United States meeting more often than ever before and voicing commitments to improve Sino-US ties, trust is an issue.
Tough issues like cybersecurity, market access and regional disputes are big problems with no easy solutions—even harder to fix with contradictory expectations and a lack of real trust.
Over half of the general population of each country, influenced in large by what they read in the media, harbor unfavorable views of the other country, with general sentiment trending for the worst, according to Pew. Negative sentiment for China by Americans increased by 16 percent since 2011, with Chinese negative impressions of the US up by 7 percent.
Distrust, in fact, appears to be the norm among the people of each country. A survey by the Committee of 100 found that 56 percent of Chinese and 50 percent of Americans think each nation should trust the other only a little or not at all.
With these negative views as a given, the US-China Bi-National Commission on Trust-Building and Enhancing Relations (BNC) hopes to reverse the trend of increasing popular fear and distrust.
“Strengthening trust between our countries is essential if we are to tackle the big problems that confront us,” said Ernest Wilson III, co-chair of the BNC and dean of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, at a conference last week. “The two sides often pay far more attention to their differences than to the interests they share.”
More frequent meetings that turn out to be ceremonial exchanges where the two sides merely repeat well-established talking points don’t help.
“We have more contact and less trust,” said Jia Qingguo, BNC commission member and dean of the Peking University School of International Studies. “The problem is that meetings are too structured to forge significant breakthroughs and that too many hard won agreements are not fully implemented.”
Notes Wilson, “Clearly, greater and more effective communications is essential to fostering the development of trust.”
To that end, the BNC, a collaboration between the University of Southern California and Peking University, invited senior experts from both countries with extensive experience in politics, diplomacy, economics, trade and communications to hammer out possible solutions.
One worthy solution that I like a lot focuses on young people. The BNC experts found that while majorities of Americans and Chinese see the other country in a negative light, young people are significantly and consistently more positive toward the other country.
In 2011, the German Marshall Fund found that 59 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 had a favorable view of China, compared with only 33-37 percent for other age groups. In 2013, Gallup found that while only 43 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, 72 percent of those between 18 and 29 saw China as either an ally (20 percent) or friendly (52 percent). In China, half of those under age 30 have a favorable impression of the US and are optimistic about the future of Sino-US relations.
Research shows that Americans and Chinese who have even minimal contact with each other tend to see the other’s country in a more positive light.
“More frequent and deeper engagement produces greater understanding of and empathy towards the other, preconditions for greater trust,” said Jia. “Focusing on younger people through new programs utilizing new communication platforms holds the greatest promise for strengthening trust between the two countries over the long term.”
These programs, in the near term, will zero in on social media as young people are heavy users.
“Because of the target audience’s comfort with new communication platforms and the platform’s ability to reduce barriers of cost, time and distance, new programs will use them not merely to facilitate collaboration but to expand awareness of the programs and their benefits,” said Wilson.
Another cool BNC initiative is US-China Exchange, a database (www.uschinaexchange.usc.edu) of hundreds of past and current US-China exchanges, collaboration efforts and their impact. The idea here is to document what has been and is being done to deepen understanding and nourish trust. I found the website fascinating, with keyword searches by topic, location or participant pulling up a treasure trove of information.
Competing visions and expectations will always complicate Sino-US ties, but I think mutual suspicion can be waylaid with a little mutual trust.
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