Monday, September 21, 2015

The Muscatine spirit of public diplomacy

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn Source: Global Times Published: 2015-9-20 18:18:01

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President Xi Jinping's forthcoming trip to the US will be high powered, high profile and high intensity - Internet and big business events in Seattle; a formal state visit and summit in Washington; and activities honoring the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in New York. But there is something that just happened, far from the big cities and bright lights, which could represent a different way of thinking for strengthening China-US relations.

In Muscatine, Iowa, a ceremony was held to dedicate the "China-US Friendship House." The house has come to symbolize the desire of common people for closer ties between China and the US, because in 1985, Xi, then a young local official, stayed in this house as part of a delegation visiting Iowa to learn the latest agricultural techniques. The hospitality and friendship of Americans from the "heartland" made such an impression on Xi - even though his visit was brief and years ago - that he continues to value the experience to this day.

For several weeks, in preparation for President Xi's trip, I have been discussing China-US relations with leading US China experts in Washington and leading China US experts in Beijing. So when I was invited to speak at the Muscatine ceremony, I wasn't sure I could make it. Until I actually arrived in Muscatine, I could not grasp its significance.

I saw how Chinese entrepreneurs and Muscatine residents overcame initial uncertainties, even misunderstandings, to form a strong bond of friendship, respect, business and win-win cooperation. Beyond the sister city, cultural exchanges and investment projects, there is a sense that the continuous exchanges between Muscatine and China have expanded horizons and enriched lives on both sides. Most important, perhaps, is the genuine warmth radiating between American and Chinese people.

If one makes a list of the most memorable events in China-US relations - "memorable" in a positive, productive, constructive, edifying sense - then Xi's visit to Muscatine, Iowa, in 2012 when he was still China's vice president, should be on that list. Why does a simple visit to a small town in America's Midwest farmlands have such significance? There are two reasons.

The first is that Xi's visit to Muscatine personifies one of the core values of his foreign policy - people-to-people communications and exchanges, a kind of "public diplomacy." Whether Xi is speaking about China-US relations, engaging with the world's most powerful country, or about nations participating in the "One Belt, One Road" strategic initiative, people-to-people exchanges always play a central role in Xi's overarching objectives.

The second reason that Xi's trip to Muscatine in 2012 has such significance is that it resonated extraordinarily well with the US public. To most Americans, Xi going to Muscatine was the most memorable part of his entire vice-presidential trip. I attended Xi's lunch in Los Angeles with leaders in entertainment, business and government, but it was Muscatine that stood out in my mind.

Why? How could Muscatine compete with Los Angeles and Washington? Why do we now speak about the "Muscatine Spirit?" I suggest four reasons.

First, Xi meeting with ordinary Americans shows a sense of common humanity. Second, Xi is respecting his own historical roots - his personal, not-so-exalted early career when he was a young county official seeking to learn about modern technologies. Third, it honors a time during the early stages of China's reform and opening-up, when China reached out to the US for advice and guidance, and the US was pleased to cooperate. Fourth, Xi's Muscatine visits, in 1985 and in 2012, though under very different circumstances, each exemplified people-to-people communications, the kind of public diplomacy that now plays a central role in Xi's foreign policy philosophy.

There is something simple, pure and honest about people-to-people exchanges that I saw so wonderfully exemplified and personified in Muscatine.

Now, what is it about people-to-people exchanges that enable them to become effective "public diplomacy?" Here are four characteristics.

First, people-to-people exchanges are done for their own sake; they are not a "stepping stone" to something else and there are no ulterior motives. Second, they spring naturally from many small sources; they do not emanate artificially from a single large source. Third, they have diverse linkages or connections, such as common professions, like fields of science and areas of culture, or common interests, like sports and charities. Fourth, they have diverse timeframes, such as a single one-off events like tourists traveling abroad, or continuing relationships like healthcare professionals working together for the common good.

Issues of contention between China and the US are no secrets, but the world's two largest economies must work together for mutual benefit. Highest importance, certainly, is economic stability and growth. Prosperity will be enjoyed by both China and the US - or enjoyed by neither. With our economies so tightly intertwined, it is today simply impossible for one country to succeed and the other not.

The best way to convert mutual opportunities and common needs into active cooperation and strong relations is through people-to-people diplomacy. The Muscatine Spirit leads the way.

The author is a public intellectual, political/economics commentator, and international corporate strategist. He is host and co-producer of "Closer To China" on CCTV News.

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