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.)