Michael Szonyi, Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, presented the keynote speech at the 2019 Harvard College China Forum, held from April 12 to April 14, 2019.
Below is the speech delivered by Michael Szonyi on the Forum’s keynote opening panel on Friday April 12, 2019.
I don’t need to review for you the increasing strain between the US and China over the last year. Relations between the U.S and Chinese governments have deteriorated, in part driven by problematic situations in both Beijing and Washington that have encouraged unproductive brinksmanship.
While tensions between the two capitals is not historically unique, the current situation is something new. We used to be able to assume that continued engagement between the two countries would lead to improved relations. I don’t think that is the case anymore
I will leave it to the experts to explain whether President Trump and Vice-Premier Liu He’s meeting will be the catalyst that will lead to an end to the trade war, but the lasting damage will not be in forgone trade opportunities over the past year or so, but in the erosion of trust and the ability to compromise that will scar future interactions.
While it may seem like I am painting a bleak picture of the world’s most important relationship, there is a lesson to be learnt from our current situation. The lesson is this: we cannot rely on governments to fix this. People—including many of you in this room—will have to. And as Harvard’s President Larry Bacow told Xi Jinping last month in Beijing, sometimes people can do things that governments cannot.
Obviously mutual understanding is a crucial element in this fix. I wrote in my introduction to the Fairbank Center’s book, “The China Questions”: “With U.S.-China relations moving into uncharted waters, educating and informing policy makers and the public is more important than ever.”
Just as President Trump says that he wants to close a trade deficit with China, so we at the Fairbank Center hope to close the “understanding deficit” between our two nations. Organizations like the Fairbank Center and the Harvard College China Forum have a responsibility to do this, and to help to rebalance the US.-China relationship in favor of good will and mutual respect.
The Fairbank Center’s mission—to advance scholarship in all fields of China Studies—is premised on the idea that if we can better understand China’s complexities from multiple disciplines and approaches and see China through the eyes of different people of all walks of life, this enables us to develop a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of issues that affect China, the U.S. and the world.
But I think our role needs to involve more than just acquiring understanding. It means reorienting ourselves. It means not just passively riding on the coattails of U.S.-China engagement for financial gain. It means refusing to leave engagement in the hands of our political leaders.
Instead, I want you to actively think about how you can contribute to improving this relationship.
A “win-win” relationship can no longer be just about making money from business transactions between the U.S. and China. Our relationship is too important to be considered merely transactional.
This may mean that sometimes we have to adopt positions that are unpopular in our own country, or forgo activities that marginally increase profit but cause damage to the other side. It may mean thinking critically about our own country’s failings – in Xinjiang, on the southern border of the United States – rather than engaging in knee-jerk criticism of the other side.
In my job as Director of the FC am asked all the time by the media to comment on 中美关系. I’d like to ask you to consider the U.S. and China not as a single, abstract relationship, but as multiple real relationships embodied in personal connections. I have an important message for you. 中美关系 is you.
In my own work as a historian, whether writing about Quemoy in the Cold War or about Ming soldiers, I’ve tried to argue that ordinary people’s lives are as important to the study of history as the lives of emperors and statesmen.
In the same way, I want to convince you that in their own way the relationships that are personified here tonight are as important as those of political leaders in distant capitals.
While listening to panelists’ expertise will no doubt prove enlightening this weekend, we presenters fully cannot embody the rich range of experiences that texture the relationships bridging our shared Pacific. In particular, there are important experiences that are not represented among tonight’s keynote speakers, notably those of women and those not in positions of privilege. Your role should therefore be to be active participants this weekend in meeting and discussing with those sitting around you, particularly those with experiences that differ to your own.
As a result, my task for you at this forum is a simple but important one: to think about how you personally can build lasting relationships here that are more than transactional exchanges of business cards, and driven by more than personal ambition. Instead, consider how your individual relationships here can contribute to a better understanding and a better relationship between our two nations.