Blog: Despite The Political Mudslinging, Americans and Chinese Are Not So Different
Lub Bun Chong is director of C Consultancy Ltd. and author of “Managing a Chinese Partner: Insights From Four Global Companies.”
To state the obvious, the novel coronavirus does not pick sides. But politics does, also stating the obvious.
Instead of a ceasefire, the opposite is happening as the U.S.-China mudslinging match spills into the Covid-19 arena with an intensity unmatched since the trade war started.
But are the American and Chinese people that far apart? And are they politically destined for the Thucydides trap?
It is worth reminding ourselves that it was philosophy, not politics, that first shaped us as “the most intelligent species” on mother earth. Socrates and Confucius were contemplating concepts of life and people at around 500 B.C. And it was philosophy that laid the groundwork for political dogmas, not the other way around.
Yes, people and politics are inextricably connected, and yes, the line between them is a fine one. But people come before politics.
Obviously, there are gaps between the American and Chinese people. But politics aside, I do not think they are that far apart. I hope not.
Consider the contrasting attitudes of the American and Chinese people, not the politicians, to Covid-19 lockdowns.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “from bridal shops to conservation groups, plaintiffs are challenging state-imposed restrictions on travel and business as unconstitutional.”
In China, the official Xinhua News Agency hailed a resounding victory as “collectivism plays an indispensable role in China's Covid-19 fight.”
Beyond these examples and other eye-catching headlines, Covid-19 issues and emotions are essentially the same for the everyday American and Chinese: putting food on the table, keeping the family safe, paying a mortgage, anxiety, solitude and frustration, to name a few.
Further, the contrasting attitudes reflect the relative (but not absolute) importance of individualism and collectivism in American and Chinese societies — not who is right or wrong. These two values co-exist in both societies. They are not mutually exclusive, and most certainly, they are not, and should not, be chips for a geopolitical gamble.
Americans do not reject collectivism. Try telling this to the 129 million Americans who watched the Super Bowl, NBA finals and MLB World Series, and the millions of other sports fans in the world’s greatest sports market where teamwork trumps individual flair.
Likewise, Chinese people do not reject individualism. Try explaining this to the 456 million viewers watching the explosion of individual flair from millions of livestreamers, from an haute couture celebrity to a peach farmer, in the world’s greatest livestreaming market.
Next, consider the history of nationhood.
Both the Americans and Chinese broke free from the shackles of colonialism and imperialism respectively, and they did it against heavy odds. Then, they were plunged into civil war: Union versus Confederacy in America and Communist Party versus Kuomintang in China.
The 1950s to 1970s were tumultuous times for Americans and Chinese alike, albeit in different ways. Americans were torn apart by civil rights and anti-war protests, and Chinese were devastated by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
Both the American and Chinese people paid great human costs to be where they are now.
These, as well as other historical milestones, share a common trait: they are, first and foremost, human tribulations and victories, and are neither "democratic" nor "communist" per se.
Each individual has a myriad of problems, emotions, and values. Categorizing people in political silos of either democracy or communism is an oversimplification, which, of course, is expedient for confrontational politics but of little use for constructive politics.
So, the people of America and China are not as far apart as the political divide appears to suggest.
It’s all well and good to wax lyrical about American and Chinese people, but U.S.-China politics are a fact of life that cannot be swept under the carpet, and this can be summed up in one word: mistrust.
Here again, history is a great teacher.
The U.S.-backed Kuomintang lost the Chinese civil war in 1949, and this ushered in a 30-year era of U.S.-China mistrust and even some military confrontations.
But a love of ping-pong and Coca-Cola brought the American and Chinese people closer together.
And visionary leadership from both sides of the political divide found common ground and overcame mistrust with the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979. Ping-pong and Coca-Cola are still around but the world has changed since then.
Notwithstanding, people come before politics. So, the American and Chinese people are as good a starting point as any for U.S.-China politicians to start the healing process and figure out a way to find common ground again.
Hopefully, there will be some semblance of U.S.-China bilateral stability sooner rather than later.
When this happens, the whole world can put its multilateral act together and work on pressing humanity issues like pandemics, food, environment, and climate, amongst others.
No doubt such progress in this regard would have pleased Socrates and Confucius, two great minds in two vastly different societies that shared a common bond to do good for people.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.
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