The limits to Obama and Xi’s smiles

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a heated exchange between a group of American officials and their foreign counterparts. The Americans, the paper reported, denounced the other side as “deceitful, disrespectful and arrogant… The fact that you ask for ‘mutual respect’ is nothing short of laughable.” Surprisingly, the target of such strong criticism was not, say, China, but Canada, to whom New York State officials were expressing their frustrations over the ironically titled Peace Bridge that connects the two countries. Such negative language belies the very strong affinity Americans and Canadians have for the other, despite a host of trade, environmental, and other disagreements. But it is exactly this strong affinity that counterintuitively allows for direct, even heated, engagement that ultimately facilitates agreement.

Contrast this dynamic with China, where relationships between the two countries’ leaders have grown consistently warmer, while the popular perception among citizens of both countries towards the other remain troublingly negative. Warmer leadership ties were in evidence during President Obama and Xi’s summit in California this June; weeks later, U.S. officials would marvel at vice premier Wang Yang’s penchant for telling jokes at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, suggesting an unprecedented level of comfort. The people of both nations, however, don’t share their leaders’ smiles: only 37 percent of Americans have a positive opinion towards China and only 40 percent of Chinese have a positive view towards the United States, according to Pew Research.

Such deeply unpopular opinion in both nations is one of the most significant, yet under-remarked threats to the bilateral relationship and a hurdle to resolving major areas of disagreement. Stronger institutionalized working relationships at a leadership level will be for nothing if the popular will in both countries ultimately pressures their respective leaders into a more hostile stance. In the U.S., this dynamic is clear: ill will towards China regularly fuels negative campaign rhetoric and demands for “tough on China” policies. In China, the dynamic between popular opinion and foreign policy lacks the transparency of the ballot box, but is arguably all the more brittle because of it: the legitimacy of China’s leadership is acutely vulnerable to popular perceptions that they are advancing the interests of a strong China, limiting the space for compromise. Achieving a more balanced popular perception in both nations must be a priority to reduce the risk of a self-fulfilling hostile relationship.

Chinese tend to have a better understanding of Americans due to the success of American corporate and cultural penetration and far higher rates of direct contact, including permanent migration and temporary exchanges. In 2011-12 more than 194,000 Chinese studied in the United States, compared to less than 15,000 Americans in China in 2010-11. Near universal teaching of English in Chinese schools makes this possible. (In the United States last year, less than 10,000 sat for Advanced Placement Chinese, but at a near tripling of tests taken in 2007, it is nonetheless an accomplishment.) Direct contact is vital to positively countering pervasive misperceptions about the United States and is helping shape a generation of Chinese with positive experiences and ties to the United States.

Despite the success of American soft power, the Chinese are more than capable of decoupling culture from politics: they can love the NBA and still distrust Washington. An important next step can be fostering greater openness for American officials to engage directly with Chinese media. When President Obama granted an interview in 2009 to Southern Weekend, one of the more independent Chinese newspapers, its editor was reported subsequently demoted. Similarly, the U.S. can strengthen people to people ties by taking a leadership role in forging a compromise in which digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube can be accessed in China, even if there are restrictions on group organizing or specific content. Pushing for a reopening of access to New York Times and Bloomberg in China should also be a public diplomacy priority.

Promoting a more balanced American view of China will require the efforts of both nations. In May 2010, the Obama administration launched the 100,000 Strong initiative to increase the number of Americans studying in China over a four-year period. Earlier this year, investor Stephen Schwarzman launched a $300 million private effort to create a Chinese equivalent of the Rhodes scholarship. China too has made nascent efforts with its CCTV America and China Daily news operations and Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese language and culture. None of these initiatives show meaningful signs of impacting perceptions just yet.

Next, China far outpaces the United States in the number of leaders at all levels with direct exposure to the United States, creating an information asymmetry with as of yet unknowable strategic consequences in which China’s leaders understand America better than we do the Chinese. Exchanges must extend beyond students to current leaders, where practical learning on governance can benefit both sides. The China-US Governor’s forum, in its second year, must be only a start.

The media in both countries are critically important in shaping opinions about the other. As such, home country editors deserve closer scrutiny. A Chinese journalist based in the U.S. recently told me that being based here has given him a more balanced perspective on issues, one that he does attempt to incorporate into his reports to his editors’ occasional frustration. Americans with significant exposure to China often criticize what they believe is the American media’s distorted emphasis on stories that reinforce negative perceptions of China. Chinese English-language media may never acquire the legitimacy to truly balance the conversation, meaning that American journalism schools and East Asian studies departments must do a better job of assessing American media bias.

The foundation for a strong U.S.-China relationship must be rooted in deep popular familiarity and, eventually, trust. Such a foundation allows leaders to engage in direct and even heated disagreement with the confidence that compromise will ultimately be reached. In such a relationship, no issue is ever off the table or downplayed in fear that the bilateral relationship is too fragile. As U.S. and Chinese leaders continue to make progress in strengthening ties at the leadership and institutional level, they must also be willing to engage in unprecedented mutual support of each other’s public diplomacy efforts. Smiling leaders can last but for only so long among unsmiling people.

This essay was originally published on HuffPost