(Forbes) – It is no secret that the world’s two largest economies–the U.S. and China–don’t always see eye to eye in terms of values, politics, economics, and leadership. However, despite on-and-off competition and cooperation between their governments, the lives of American and Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly intertwined. While initiatives like the Strategic and Economic Dialogue address political and economic issues, leaders from both countries recognize that daily interactions between Americans and Chinese form the backbone of U.S.-China relations. To address this practical reality, leaders sought to provide an alternative to discuss issues typically left off the agenda of foreign policy meetings. The result was the U.S.-China People-To-People Exchange (CPE).
In 2010, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and State Councilor Liu Yandong, launched the first CPE in Beijing. The exchange focused on four pillars: Culture, Education, Science & Technology, and Sports. A Women’s pillar was added the following year, with the first-ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer taking the lead. The most significant achievements of the CPE have been the creative advancement of bilateral relations and the encouragement of public-private partnerships to advance social good.
By operating outside strict government and policy parameters, the CPE has facilitated the development of important relationships among multiple stakeholders including the media, NGOs, academia, and business. Steering clear of conventional foreign policy issues, the exchanges have focused on practical issues such as education, science and technology exchanges, and the NBA’s expansion into Chinese markets. The CPE also encouraged artistic freedom by removing barriers to cultural events such as film festivals and art exhibitions.
The CPE has encouraged the use of private resources for social good, a relatively new concept in China. For example, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues of the U.S. Department of State and its Chinese counterpart, the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), brought together business representatives from both countries to leverage public and private resources to advance women’s rights. A significant outcome was a breast cancer initiative supported by Goldman Sachs. The initiative aims to train Chinese health officials to establish awareness campaigns for breast cancer–still a taboo topic in Chinese society.
The CPE helped pave the way for discussions of issues sensitive to the Chinese government. For example, the breast cancer initiative inspired discussions about women’s health, including domestic violence and violence against women. This led to further dialogue about the rule of law, judiciary and legal reforms, NGO development, and human rights.
Through this government initiative, non-government stakeholders benefited from government facilitation and alignment of policy priorities. The Chinese gained valuable insight into tackling a women’s health issue and leveraging the power of public-private partnerships. Meanwhile, U.S. government and business leaders were able to forge relationships with key Chinese leaders. Most importantly, the process has led to increased trust and mutual understanding on both sides.
In 2014, to demonstrate continued U.S. commitment to the CPE, First Lady Michelle Obama sent a personal message to CPE delegates. The White House also dispatched Tina Tchen, a high-level Chinese-American official, to lead the dialogue on women’s issues. Future plans include additional knowledge exchange and technical support programs.
The CPE is in an indication that governments alone cannot maximize the potential of U.S.-China relations. While the wisdom of government leaders is required to recognize the complexity of the relationship, it is a chance for non-government actors such as business, civil society, and other sectors to seize opportunities and benefit from a new era of U.S.-China diplomacy. It just needs some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
By Wenchi Yu, July 18, 2014 in Forbes