US-China Diplomacy: Make Music to Bring Harmony Amid Global Mayhem

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Reflecting on the recent flurry of US-China diplomacy, journalist and author Yuen-ying Chan underscores the importance of people-to-people exchange, the vital track-two diplomacy that can forge ahead and maintain calm and control amid the complications of the strategic competition between the great powers.

US-China Diplomacy: Make Music to Bring Harmony Amid Global Mayhem

People to people: The New York Philharmonic in Hong Kong on July 4, with Music Director Jaap van Zweden on the podium and virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn performing (Credit: Chirs Lee/New York Philharmonic on Facebook) 

What must veteran American diplomat Henry Kissinger have been thinking when he landed in Beijing on a surprise visit, which was announced on July 18 once he was already in the Chinese capital? That the US-China relationship urgently needs rescuing before tensions between the two countries lead to hot conflict? That he felt compelled to make the long-haul trip – arduous for any person let alone a 100-year-old – to do whatever he can to stem further deterioration of ties?

The Chinese confirmed that Kissinger had met China’s US-sanctioned defense minister Li Shangfu, who in June had refused to sit down with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was later received by China’s leader Xi Jinping, recognition of the very high regard the Chinese still have for a man they consider an “old friend”. Kissinger’s sudden insertion into the fraught US-China dialogue came even as American President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry was himself in town, ensconced in talks with counterpart Xie Zhenhua and other senior officials. Kerry’s arrival followed trips to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen – the string of cabinet-level visits prompting speculation that, with the “spy balloon” incident earlier this year behind them, the US and China are finally working to set up those “guardrails” needed to prevent a serious clash between them.

The geopolitics commentariat and keen-eyed protocol watchers in both countries have been pouring over the readouts and video clips of the encounters (the position of Xi Jinping’s seat when he joined the meeting between his foreign policy chief Wang Yi and Blinken, or Yellen’s nodding bow when she approached Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng), trying to decipher the mixed signals coming out of the flurry of diplomacy. But few are hopeful that quick fixes are in prospect as the leaders from both governments keep up the verbal assaults against each other – Only a day after Blinken had left Beijing, Biden spoke at a campaign fundraiser and derided Xi as a ”dictator” who was embarrassed by the balloon debacle and the shooting down of the airborne monitoring device by the American military because “he didn’t know it was there”. After all, the list of contentious issues seems only to be expanding: trade and tariffs, export controls, the chip war, the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, human rights, sanctions on individuals, and alleged spy activities, among others.

Educational exchange: New York Philharmonic musician with Chinese student in Shanghai (Credit: New York Philharmonic on Facebook - courtesy of Shanghai Orchestra Academy and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)

Educational exchange: New York Philharmonic musician with Chinese student in Shanghai (Credit: New York Philharmonic on Facebook - courtesy of Shanghai Orchestra Academy and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)

Track-two diplomacy post-Covid

Yet, all is not lost as the world struggles to jumpstart business, travel and social activities, as it emerges from the three-year pandemic nightmare. Certainly, every country is figuring out how to re-engage diplomatically in person with allies, partners, neighbors and, as in the case of the US and China, adversaries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year – a cardinal sin in the rules-based international order – spurred the US, Europe and other like-minded such as Japan and Singapore to circumscribe President Vladimir Putin’s regime by applying a raft of sanctions on Moscow from excluding it from the SWIFT global bank transfers messaging system to closing off Russian airspace. This has complicated relationships even between friends (consider the US and India) and heightened the perception in the West that a China/Russia axis of authoritarianism was forming to counter or undermine the liberal order favored – some might say dominated – by the Western democracies.

On the US-China file, the Blinken-Kerry-Yellen parade is a welcome indication that the diplomats (excepting those in military-defense roles) are back to having their jaw-jaw to avoid war-war. But it may be that old-fashioned people-to-people exchanges – the so-called track-two diplomacy of visits by non-state actors – are at the leading edge of efforts to restore civility and control to the complex relationship.

It would be premature to declare the full return of track-two diplomacy, unofficial engagements between the two countries involving private non-government citizens and organizations. Such activities had been largely paralyzed (or immobilized) in recent years not just by the pandemic which prevented physical meetings but also by official sanctions and mutual hostility from both governments, Yet, there are signs that some non-state actors are taking delicate steps to reinstate unofficial relationships. The hope is that these low-key exchanges, especially in the cultural sector, will sow the seeds for restoring US-China ties, the most important bilateral relationship in the world, to some semblance of normalcy.

The world has moved far beyond the innocent days of the 1971 ping-pong diplomacy, when the US table tennis team visited China. As the first American delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949, the historic visit was the opening gambit in the cautious engagement that eventually led to the establishing of formal diplomatic relationships between the two countries on January 1, 1979. Quaint as the ping-pong diplomacy may seem today, reaching out in such a manner across a variety of fields and platforms could facilitate understanding and offer an effective way to prevent conflict and war.

Make music for harmony

In early July, nine members of the New York Philharmonic (NYPhil) spent six days in Shanghai conducting master classes and giving two performances to sold-out audiences. Days before, the full orchestra delivered three concerts in Taiwan and two in Hong Kong, which were dutifully reported in the official mainland media. The tour marked the first visit to China by members of the storied orchestra, considered among the best in the world, since 2019. It was part of the Shanghai Orchestra Academy and Partnership, a joint initiative launched in 2014 with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with support by the US-based Starr Foundation, chaired by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the American business leader with longstanding connections to China through American International Group (AIG), the finance and insurance multinational that he led for nearly 40 years. Even during the pandemic, the NYPhil musicians had offered online courses to aspiring music students in China.

During the NYPhil group’s visit, the partners announced that a newly commissioned 90-minute oratorio about Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany for China – in the late 1930s, over 30,000 Jews, among them more than 400 musicians, found their way to Shanghai – would have its premiere in Shanghai this November and would be performed in February 2024 at New York City’s Lincoln Center, with Chinese conductor Yu Long at the podium. Titled “Émigré”, the concert is to be jointly produced by the NYPhil and the SSO.

The NYPhil’s tour is likely to be only the overture to more symphonic harmonizing. Musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra could also tour China soon. The return of the City of Brotherly Love’s world-class instrumentalists would be especially symbolic as it was the first US orchestra to visit China in 1973, two years after the American ping-pong team. That set the stage for what became known as music diplomacy, which memorably included the visit to the mainland by the American violinist Isaac Stern in 1979. The Philadelphia Orchestra was supposed to tour Asia, including China, in May 2023 but cancelled in October 2022 due to Covid-19 and the onerous quarantine restrictions placed on visitors at that time. The Chinese government only began to loosen its pandemic measures in December 2022.

Cathy Barbash, who was recently in Shanghai to speak at a seminar hosted by Shanghai Refugee Museum, said that her interaction with various Chinese cultural colleagues could not have been warmer. For over 30 years, Barbash has been consulting for both US and Chinese cultural organizations, including advising the Philadelphia Orchestra when it visited China in 1993. “The desire for cultural engagement has never waned,” Barbash told me in an interview. “That it continues no matter the relationship of the governments – that is not unique to the US and China. Where there are fraught relationships between the US and other governments, when all else fails, when everything else is difficult, the communication that culture provides always remains. Sometimes culture is the only thread that continues to tie us together. When no one else is talking to each other, people in culture can still talk to each other so it’s not totally walled off.”

Scientific solidarity needed

US-China collaboration and exchanges are continuing in education and research, though the US has kept in place the suspension of the Fulbright Program of academic exchange with China (Hong Kong included) that was ordered by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2020. (Legislation to reinstate the program is pending in Congress.)

Global cooperation for pandemic preparedness: Columbia University researcher David Ho (left) with Professor Lau Chak-sing, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at The University of Hong Kong, July 14 (Credit: Yuen-ying Chan)

Global cooperation for pandemic preparedness: Columbia University researcher David Ho (left) with Professor Lau Chak-sing, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at The University of Hong Kong, July 14 (Credit: Yuen-ying Chan)

Harvard University Professor and China specialist William Kirby has been visiting China including Hong Kong in recent months to reboot Harvard’s many China-related exchange programs. "The major purpose of my trip is to plan our reengagement with China," Kirby told China Daily in June, noting that this involved not only public programming but also "more research collaboration with our Chinese colleagues". In 2024, Harvard will launch a summer school in Shanghai in collaboration with Fudan University. “We want to re-engage”, he declared. "The idea that these two countries can actually separate … entirely from one another and be self-sufficient in many areas where they depend on one another is not only a mythical idea, it won't happen. It's also a dangerous idea because both will be poorer for it, and both will be less technologically advanced as a result."

New collaborative arrangements are being forged on advanced scientific research as well, despite horror stories of the harassment of China-born scientists in the US. In July, noted virologist David Ho of Columbia University announced in Hong Kong that he is teaming up with fellow scientists in Hong Kong, Beijing, and worldwide, to create a global alliance to conduct research in emerging infectious diseases and to prepare for the next endemic, which he said is inevitable. “We expect another pandemic but no expert could tell you when or where or exactly what part. The environmental changes, the dynamics of human interaction with various animal species, and more jumping of viruses from animals to humans would all have pandemic potential.”

Ho, who arrived in Hong Kong after spending a week in mainland China, including a visit to Tsinghua University, told reporters that preparing for the next epidemic would take a global collaborative effort. Considering that no single institution can do the job, he is trying to rally researchers around the world, China included, to pursue “a comprehensive set of research initiatives on surveillance, diagnostics, antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies, viral evolution and resistance to therapeutics, antibody engineering, vaccine development and pathogenesis.”

No substitute for in-person intellectual exchange 

Meanwhile, more China scholars and policy experts from the US are traveling to mainland China and Hong Kong to learn firsthand what is happening on the ground. They certainly have picked up nuances missing in public media reports and official briefings.

Taisu Zhang, professor at Yale Law School, who recently visited six Chinese cities in 10 weeks reported on his Twitter feed that “the overwhelming and obvious impression was one of negative economic sentiments, even pessimism, across the board: tentative spending on behalf of consumers, lack of confidence on behalf of entrepreneurs and investors, general miasma in the financial and legal services sectors, all responding to a perceived lack of fiscal and institutional commitments in government policy, despite positive pro-economy rhetoric being issued for over half a year now.” He added: “The general impression among academic observers… is that the central government still has quite a bit of unused policy firepower (stimulus of all kinds, various institutional commitments it could issue to the tech and real estate sectors, etc.), but has thus far been somewhat hesitant to put its money where its mouth is…”

Regional security specialist Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), was among a group of scholars brought together by the US-based Mansfield Foundation who met academics, civil society leaders and politicians in Hong Kong in June. The main message she picked up from the discussions, she wrote on Twitter: that the world should not give up on Hong Kong, that “HKers are going to stay to do their part in maintaining HK’s special status under the [‘one-country-two-systems’ framework] to fight for their rights”, and that “failure is not final.” She recounted that she and her group heard several of their interlocutors describe “HK authorities as more red than Beijing” and argue that the US should restore the Fulbright program. “The message was clear,” she concluded. “Come to HK and see for yourself…Get your info from the academics who are actually there. Strengthen HK autonomy, of which the legal system is the basis. Lift the sanctions/reestablish government-to-government contact. And finally – don’t despair.”

Instead of building walls and throwing up barriers, governments and institutions on both sides should promote and facilitate such visits.

Diplomatic dance card: First Blinken (shown here meeting Chinese leader Xi on June 19), then Yellen and Kerry, with "old friend" Kissinger stepping in (Credit: Leah Mills/Reuters/Pool)

Working together to save the world

The world needs to work together to save humanity and the world. Forget about decoupling and de-risking, verbal blinders that obfuscate. War is looming. Another pandemic will happen. The world is gripped by extreme weather, scorching heat, killer floods and toxic air from out-of-control forest fires. For the first time, people around the world can now feel climate change, a remote concept to many, particularly those in developed countries of the Global North, only a few months ago. The global supply chain is broken. Technology, in particular artificial intelligence, could wreak havoc on all industries and all walks of life. The disruptions and complications keep coming.

Too many black swans are lurking in the dark and soaring in the open sky. The survival of the planet at stake. We live in precarious times. A world fraught with risks is calling for imagination and bold action, not mutual tongue lashing. The time to act is now. Education and culture is one sector that offers a relatively safe space to facilitate communication and understanding so desperately needed today.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Yuen-ying Chan

Yuen-ying Chan

Journalist, author and media consultant

Yuen-ying Chan is an award-winning journalist and media consultant. She served as professor and founding director (1998-2016) of The University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. Earlier in her career, she spent 23 years in New York City covering immigration, campaign finance and US-China relations for the New York Daily News, NBC News and Chinese-language dailies. She is co-founder of the Environmental Reporting Collective, a global network of journalists in Asia and Africa, and is on the board of management of Digital Asia Hub.

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