Collaboration between public and private sectors at a local level could be vastly beneficial to US-China relations.
A recent seminar chiefly sponsored by the Shanghai Institute of American Studies brought together more than a hundred experts on politics, diplomacy, trade, education and culture from both countries, to discuss how to carry on the cooperative spirit in both societies.
The seminar, “From a Shared History to a Shared Future,” marked the 150th anniversary of the completion of the US transcontinental railroad.
Huang Renwei, ex-vice president of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the audience that the railroad, completed in 1869, had connected the western and eastern coasts of the United States and put the country on track to become the gigantic marketplace it is today.
“With the efforts of Chinese laborers, the railroad came into being and helped propel the US economy and national power,” said Huang, who chairs the Shanghai Association of American Studies, a non-governmental think tank.
Huang said the momentum of US-China relations substantially comes at local levels, namely, collaboration between Chinese and American localities — provinces and states, cities and cities, counties and counties.
As long as US states are eager to build ties with their Chinese counterparts, “there is no way the two countries’ relationship can deteriorate precipitously,” said Huang.
Eric Hutchings, member of the Utah House of Representatives, agreed that the sacrifices of the Chinese laborers who came to the US to build the railroad in the 19th century are worth commemorating.
“As a result of the railway, people from the east and west (of America) are no longer separated. People traveled, ideas were exchanged, trade boomed,” he said.
Hutchings added that today’s practitioners in US-China relations should draw on the spirit of their ancestors to try to build a bridge, rather than erect a wall.
Part of his vision of building a bridge is to capitalize on opportunities to widen the scope of collaboration between China and the people of Utah.
Hutchings was once part of a delegation to China to promote trade, and China has since emerged as the third largest trade partner of the state, after Canada and Mexico.
Hutchings said Utah had a unique advantage in trade thanks to the location of its capital Salt Lake City, from where “so much of the United States can be accessed in one day’s travel.”
“By rail, goods coming from China can move into the US market quickly and effectively,” said Hutchings.
On top of that, the representative said Utah will soon have an inland port in Salt Lake City to speed up customs clearance.
Compared to coastal states like New York or California, where Chinese influences are greater, landlocked Utah seems to be an unlikely champion of people-to-people exchange with China beyond trade and investment.
But Hutchings surprised the audience by revealing that Utah leads the US in the number of students learning Chinese.
Utah’s Chinese learning program is “unusual and different” because subjects including math and history are sometimes also taught in Chinese by teachers from China, whom Hutchings credited as the ones “crossing the bridge.”
Wu Baiyi, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, voiced concerns that the US often fails to acknowledge China’s role in helping stabilize global markets after the financial crisis in 2008.
“Over time, chapters like the huge sacrifices of Chinese railroad laborers and the fact our nations fought alongside each other during World War II may also recede in our collective memories,” said Wu.
As he sees it, it is necessary for both sides to narrow their cognitive gaps concerning tariffs and intellectual property protection.
Huang of the Shanghai Association of American Studies remains more upbeat.
He expressed the belief that the two sides can and will strike a “historical” trade deal, which will create many “firsts” and serve as a template for China’s negotiations of trade pacts with the European Union and Japan.