A Dangerously Isolated China Needs to Keep Talking to America

China’s infamous zero-COVID controls and restrictions on international travel have left the country more isolated than at any time since the mid-1970s. Many Chinese city dwellers see their country shifting in the direction of isolation from North Korea and are increasingly using a term coined a few years ago, “West Korea,” to describe their own nation China is not yet a hermit kingdom, but my recent trip there after the outbreak of the pandemic, the first by a Washington expert, convinced me that China’s growing isolation is as dangerous to the world as that of Pyongyang.

When US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, both seemed to have understood that reducing their countries’ mutual isolation should be a top priority and what doing so would be. in the own interest of both countries and for the benefit of the rest of the world. This is urgent because the situation has become serious.

Looking out the window of my quarantined hotel next to Beijing International Airport provided the initial clue that China had turned inward. Flights to Beijing are down more than two-thirds from their 2019 levels, and I didn’t see a single foreign airline land during my 10 days there. In the city, the absence of international visitors was even clearer. My hotel, which is part of a major American chain, had so few guests that the restaurant was only open part of the week.

China’s infamous zero-COVID controls and restrictions on international travel have left the country more isolated than at any time since the mid-1970s. Many Chinese city dwellers see their country shifting in the direction of isolation from North Korea and are increasingly using a term coined a few years ago, “West Korea,” to describe their own nation China is not yet a hermit kingdom, but my recent trip there after the outbreak of the pandemic, the first by a Washington expert, convinced me that China’s growing isolation is as dangerous to the world as that of Pyongyang.

When US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, both seemed to have understood that reducing their countries’ mutual isolation should be a top priority and what doing so would be. in the own interest of both countries and for the benefit of the rest of the world. This is urgent because the situation has become serious.

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Looking out the window of my quarantined hotel next to Beijing International Airport provided the initial clue that China had turned inward. Flights to Beijing are down more than two-thirds from their 2019 levels, and I didn’t see a single foreign airline land during my 10 days there. In the city, the absence of international visitors was even clearer. My hotel, which is part of a major American chain, had so few guests that the restaurant was only open part of the week.

China closed its doors to international tourists at the beginning of 2020. I did not meet a backpacker or a wealthy tour group on luxury buses, which were once known sights in China’s big cities . Since then, many multinational expats and their families have left, as have the Western teachers who taught their children. Global CEOs used to flock to China; now, they stay apart. Embassies are understaffed as Beijing is no longer a sought-after destination for enterprising diplomats and is now a tougher place than before, thanks mostly to zero-Covid policies. Only a handful of American journalists remain after multiple rounds of deportation and a visa process that can take years.

Western scholars like me mostly avoid China because of the long quarantine, but some experts also fear they could be treated like Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat-turned-scholar who was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three years along with his fellow Canadian Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada. detain Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of an extradition request from the United States.

There is a shortage of young Americans who could have been China’s next generation of experts. According to a US official, there are now fewer than 300 US students nationwide, down from more than 11,000 students at their peak in 2018.

Foreigners who stay constantly wonder why. Answers range from their spouses being Chinese to not wanting to interrupt their children’s schooling to gainful employment. A friend confessed that he has not shied away from a sense of duty. “If I were to leave,” he asked, “who would be here to witness this?”

The number of Chinese traveling abroad has also declined. Chinese business executives, tourists and scholars have largely stayed home, in some cases due to their own anxieties about travel or to avoid lengthy quarantine upon return. The political risk of extensive interactions with foreigners appeared to be heightened before the pandemic, but many scholars said foreign policy that his university would not approve his trips abroad, fearing that he would bring back COVID-19 to the country. There are still large numbers of Chinese exchange students abroad, including more than 300,000 students in the United States as of 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, but most have been cut off from home due to quarantine demands.

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The consequences of physical isolation and limited direct contact are profound. Mutual understanding is the first casualty. Reading documents and holding online meetings are no substitute for extended face-to-face interactions. My conversations in Beijing and Shanghai gave me much greater insight into the range of official and personal views on the United States, Ukraine, Taiwan, technology competition, COVID-19, and other issues that I couldn’t get online . And by being on the ground, I was able to see how these views and debates are being shaped by China’s internal social dynamics.

Moreover, the lack of extensive face-to-face exchanges reinforces the formation of an echo chamber in the Chinese political community, characterized by an unquestionable consensus that demonizes the United States, defends all Chinese action as justified, and concludes that Beijing is winning in his fight against Washington. The only effective way to penetrate this distorted view is through extended and repeated face-to-face engagement and diplomacy. Effective communication, both listening and speaking, is critical whether the goal is greater cooperation or effective deterrence.

I was deeply concerned when a Chinese foreign policy expert and longtime friend said this foreign policy that you no longer need to travel to the United States because everything you need is available online. “If I went to the State Department,” he said, “they would just give me talking points.” But without traveling and talking to a wide variety of Americans, not to mention people from other countries, it is almost impossible to understand the origins of American policies or how Americans evaluate Chinese policies. The same logic applies to Americans watching China from their offices.

Limited connectivity also breeds strangeness: a combination of dehumanization of the other side, lack of empathy, and the act of giving up hope that the issues can be addressed and the relationship repaired. As in Washington, in Beijing I encountered a high degree of fatalism about the trajectory of ties. The result was intensified planning for worst-case scenarios, which creates a vicious cycle of action and counteraction on both sides, leading to further escalation of tensions.

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That’s where the United States and China are right now, but it’s not where they need to stay. At the Xi-Biden meeting, the parties used the three and a half hours to discuss a wide range of issues, clarify their red lines on Taiwan and make a joint note, aimed at Russia and North Korea, opposing the use of nuclear weapons. . But even more remarkable was his agreement to empower senior officials from both sides to engage with each other on a regular basis. They went beyond endorsing ad hoc communication and announced that dialogue would continue through various working groups.

Some Americans understandably fear that dialogue with Beijing is a Chinese containment tactic. The correct stance is to give the talks a chance and, if they go nowhere, call it quits. And it appears that greater dialogue will not interfere with the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to restrict advanced technologies that could help China’s military, expand support for American innovation, talk about abuses by China’s human rights or fulfill its commitments to Taiwan.

The next step will be for both sides to commit to facilitating more international travel in both directions, first for business executives, academics and students, and eventually for tourists. This would involve allowing increased flights and, in China’s case, offering more visas and gradually reducing quarantine times, even below the recently established eight-day threshold. To minimize any risk to public health, China could increase the frequency of testing for international arrivals and, for its domestic population, could increase vaccinations, procure and distribute sufficient therapeutics, and prepare hospitals for a increase in cases of COVID-19.

The final step would be to find a solution to the conflict to limit the number of journalists from each side posted in the other country. China should welcome American journalists, as their coverage is likely to be more nuanced and balanced when they are on the ground than when they are trying to report on China from abroad. And the United States should be able to find a way to ensure that all employees coming from Chinese media organizations are, in fact, genuine journalists.

Expanding direct, face-to-face communication between US and Chinese governments and societies is critical to responsibly pursuing strategic competition in a way that reduces the likelihood of all-out conflict, strengthens security and domestic U.S. economies and increase the possibility that the United States and China can collaboratively address climate change and other global challenges.

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