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On the night of November 3rd, I, like many of the 360,000 Chinese students in the U.S., was compulsively refreshing the electoral map and rooting for the Democrats to win by a landslide.
In the previous four years, Chinese students had watched in shock and horror as the Trump administration relentlessly escalated tensions with China. Many of us struggled to position ourselves in the “New Cold War.” We watched with alarm the arrest of American scientists accused of transferring research from their labs to China; growing fears that assume Chinese students are spies; not to mention GOP senator Tom Cotton’s suggestion on social media that the US should block Chinese students from taking STEM courses.
And then, in 2020, those of us still remaining in the U.S. faced even more fear and stress as we struggled to keep ourselves safe in the face of the novel coronavirus. This was compounded by the xenophobia incited by Trump’s rhetoric about the “China virus” and “Kung Flu.” To top it all off, we had to constantly worry about the administration’s ongoing threats to our visa status.
No wonder we’ve been worried about future relations between Washington and Beijing, and rooting for the battleground states to turn blue. It’s become obvious that China and its citizens are targeted as the scapegoat of the U.S.’s economic problems by the Trump White House.
In 2018, the Washington Post published an op-ed titled “How to repair the U.S.-China relationship — and prevent a modern Cold War” by Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States. Carter warned of the perils of a “modern Cold War” between China and the U.S. if prominent American government officials of the Trump administration continue to embrace the “China Threat Theory.”
Two years later, Carter’s concerns still ring true. What Carter has foreseen is a vicious cycle – if elites on both sides of the Pacific Ocean continue to embrace the idea of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” between the East and the West, eventually it will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ideological differences aside, it is within the U.S.’s strategic interests to seek collaborations with China on transnational issues such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, terrorism and extremism, and other escalating international disputes such as the current Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict. Instead of taking a confrontational stance with China on trade, science, and technology on the basis of an expansive notion of “national security” to obstruct legitimate commercial transactions and academic exchanges, the U.S. will benefit more economically if it seeks cooperative relations with China.
As a member of the first U.S. congressional delegation to China led by Carter in 1979, the young Sen. Biden met with Deng Xiaoping and has witnessed the transformation of modern China through his term with the Bush administration and the Obama administration. The Biden administration is expected to normalize the U.S.-China relationship for strategic gains, but he is simultaneously under increasing pressure from public opinion to “tough it up” on China – a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2020 found that 73 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and seemed to fault China for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is hard to estimate how much weight the mainstream U.S. media outlets, from the centrist to the right political spectrum, have played in shaping the popular sentiment of China. Despite the preoccupation of the mainstream U.S. media with China’s “belated congratulations” to Biden, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin recognized the significance of Kamala Harris’s victory as the first female Vice President-elect of the U.S., quoting a Chinese household saying that “women hold up half the sky.”
Modern China and its people are more multifaceted than many Americans assume. Urban Chinese in mainland China who were born during and after China’s Reform and Opening actually have much in common with young liberal Americans on stances such as gender equality, climate change, racial equity, and economic equality. My generation of Chinese females have actually benefited from the controversial one-child policy – we get to enjoy the best education our families can afford, being the only child of the family. As a result, the majority of students in colleges and graduate schools in China are actually female and we have witnessed the rising social status of females in China. But just like the young liberal Americans, we acknowledge the fight for broader gender equality for women and the LGBTQ+ community is still ongoing, not only within China but across the world.
Joe Biden has certainly made some mistakes during his long service in the U.S. Senate. But he never fails to project a sense of empathy, partially due to the public knowledge of his humble upbringing and his personal loss. It is expected that Biden, with this sense of empathy, will not only provide healing for a polarized America but will also be able to repair diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. As young Americans and young Chinese alike look forward to the U.S. defeating racism and resentment, we might find ourselves having more in common than we realize – as long as we are able to see each other’s struggles sympathetically.
Liuchang “Helen” Tan is a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at The New School for Social Research where she is also an Editorial Fellow at Public Seminar.