Constructive Communication Between the U.S. and China Gets Harder

At the outset of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidency, many people hoped that relations between the United States and China, after four years of battering, would slowly start to improve. That hasn’t been the case.

“The one thing that has held over from Trump to Biden is that the U.S. is doing a bad job talking to our own people about China,” Alan Bersin, the executive chairman of the supply chain software Altana AI and a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said last week during a discussion as part of the DealBook D.C. policy forum.

The communication breakdown between the two countries is bad for diplomacy and for the economy, but some experts believe a tough-on-China message is needed. Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who was also part of the discussion at the forum, said there was some overarching bipartisan agreement on China issues that doesn’t exist in other areas. “We have to confront a Chinese regime that is telling us every day they are not only going to take our lunch, but the entire global economy,” Mr. Casey said.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), speaks during a discussion on China at the 2022 New York Times Dealbook conference in Washington.Credit…Valerie Plesch for The New York Times

Later this month, the United States and China may face another looming threat in their already fraught relations: An American law will go into effect that will likely ban most imports from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is home to much of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority population and the source of accusations of forced labor. China has denied those allegations and has vowed to retaliate if the U.S. law is enforced. Mr. Bersin said there was general uncertainty from both the U.S. private sector and the Chinese about what might happen then.

Restrictions on traveling during the early part of the pandemic made maintaining the relationship close to impossible, and the United States’ standing within China became progressively worse over misinformation being spread in the United States about the coronavirus. “Being blamed by some U.S. lawmakers for purposely unleashing a deadly virus on its own population to infect the West, which is obviously ludicrous, has caused the once-positive image of the U.S. for the average Chinese citizen to fade,” said Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “All they hear from us is simplistic bad Chinese rhetoric.”

The answer to start mending relations between the two global powers is to try to create a dialogue between the average Chinese citizen and the average American, said Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is very little interaction between the two populations right now,” she said.

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A regional strategy. Documents obtained by The Times show that China is pursuing a regional agreement with Pacific island nations that would expand Beijing’s role in policing, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity, in an apparent attempt to win friends and gain greater access to the strategically important island chains.

Discontent among the population. The Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance, which the pandemic has aggravated, are pushing a small but growing group of Chinese to look for an exit. Younger Chinese in particular are embracing the view that they might need to flee the country in the pursuit of a safer and brighter future abroad.

A new trick for internet censors. To control the country’s internet, China’s censors have relied for years on practices like on deleting posts, suspending accounts and blocking keywords. Now they have turned to displaying users’ locations on social media, fueling pitched online battles that link Chinese citizens’ locations with their national loyalty.

An uncertain harvest. Chinese officials are issuing warnings that, after heavy rainfalls last autumn, a disappointing winter wheat harvest in June could drive food prices — already high because of the war in Ukraine and bad weather in Asia and the United States — further up, compounding hunger in the world’s poorest countries.

Her proposal: The U.S. government should fund a U.S.-centric, Chinese language media outlet that could give Chinese citizens a more complete picture of what is being said about China in America. Even if it were censored in China, the broadcast could be accessed by some Chinese citizens when they traveled abroad.

Cheng Li, a scholar in residence at the Brookings Institution who studies the Chinese middle class, supported the proposal, saying, “The Chinese middle class does want to engage with the U.S., and lots of Chinese citizens are educated in the U.S.”

But while encouraging more conversation between America and Beijing may be a good thing overall, some fear that opening up communication channels will leave Americans vulnerable to Chinese government-sponsored misinformation campaigns. Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said that though Chinese misinformation campaigns were not as active as those from Russia, China had engaged in similar attempts to use fake social media accounts to influence U.S. public opinion.

Participants: Bob Casey, U.S. senator (D-Pa.); Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Charles Freeman, senior vice president for Asia, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Renée DiResta, technical research manager, Stanford Internet Observatory; Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow for foreign policy, Brookings Institution; Robert Daly, director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Wilson Center; Alan Bersin, executive chairman, Altana AI; Jonathan Gold, vice president, supply chain and customs policy, National Retail Federation.

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