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Trump and China: OPC group discusses relationship that’s ‘simply too important’ to fail

This article by Eric Westervelt is reproduced with permission from the Overseas Press Club of America 

Left to right: Xiao Qiang, John Pomfret and Mary Kay Magistad. Photo: Eric Westervelt Left to right: Xiao Qiang, John Pomfret and Mary Kay Magistad. Photo: Eric Westervelt

Despite Donald Trump’s tough talk about China, author and journalist John Pomfret told an OPC/West gathering in the San Francisco area in early January that history shows that the relationship is deep, complex, and “simply too important” to fail.

Pomfret’s new book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, charts the history of that relationship, and how, from the American Founding Fathers to the present, each country has influenced the other in abiding and often surprising ways, including how the Founding Fathers studied and admired aspects of Chinese culture, and how trade with China just after the birth of the American nation helped the US economy get going.

Donald Trump’s apparent preference for closer ties with Russia may over time prove to be a new twist on an old theme – US presidents coming in with one set of assumptions about China, and adjusting them upon realising how a constructive, multi-faceted relationship with China serves US interests. An added challenge this time is how to deal with China’s efforts to cement its desired role as the region’s predominant military, economic and political power, including by creating islands and putting military bases in the contested South China Sea.

Joining the conversation was Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s School of Information, and founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital, which monitors and translates Chinese journalism and social media. He said while many Chinese on social media initially expressed a preference that Trump would win the election, because they figured a businessman would be all about transactional business and not about ideology, the post-election tone has become more uncertain.

“Right now, I see confusion and silence,” said Xiao Qiang, “There is uncertainty…people just don’t know what to do.”

John Pomfret's book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present John Pomfret’s book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

Xiao Qiang grew up in China and, like Pomfret, was in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy protests, Pomfret as a correspondent, Xiao as a protester. Shortly after, Pomfret was kicked out of the country, and Xiao went into exile in the United States, first helping to lead the human rights group Human Rights in China, and then founding China Digital Times.

Xiao recalled how, growing up under Mao Zedong’s leadership, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, he heard plenty of anti-American propaganda, but as soon as China started opening up, American films, music and culture poured in, and his generation – like the pre-Mao generation – couldn’t get enough of them. America was initially idealised and emulated, both at the personal and the official levels – as China rose as a global power and global economy, America set the standard, but was also increasingly – and is still – seen as the competitor to beat.

How that will play out between President Trump and current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has shown a willingness to be muscular in consolidating power at home and claiming territory in contested waters, will be a critical variable in determining the stability, or lack thereof, in the Asia/Pacific region, and whether the United States might get pulled into a conflict there – or choose to cooperate on an issue like halting North Korea’s progress on building up its nuclear weapons capabilities.

The conversation was moderated by OPC member Mary Kay Magistad, who opened NPR’s bureau in China in 1996, and returned to Beijing for more than a decade for the BBC/PRI program “The World.” She now hosts the “Whose Century Is It?” podcast with The World.

The Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal hosted the event, attended by more than 30 former foreign correspondents, at its Emeryville headquarters, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco.

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OPC/West is an informal affiliate of the OPC. The group of about 70 current and former foreign correspondents based in the San Francisco Bay Area, first formed in the spring of 2016. New members are welcome. Interested? Contact OPC members Markos Kounalakis at [email protected], or Mary Kay Magistad at [email protected].

Eric Westervelt served for more that a decade as foreign correspondent with NPR’s international desk, returning to domestic news in 2013 to cover a national beat covering American education.

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