On Wednesday, Oct. 9, the 12th annual and first Vassar local CHINA Town Hall meeting took place in the Villard Room. The CHINA Town Hall meeting is sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUCR), a non-partisan and non-profit organization. This same organization laid the foundation for the 1960s ping-pong diplomacy, an exchange between table tennis players from the two countries that marked a detente between the United States and China. The event comprised an expert discussion on future Sino-American political and economic relations, as well as a live national discourse featuring Former Secretary of State and Professor Condoleezza Rice and NCUCR President Stephen A. Orlins, followed by a question-and-answer session.
To kick off the event, Professor of Geography and NCUSCR Public Intellectual Fellow Yu Zhou introduced Executive Director and Founder of the American Mandarin Society, Chairman and Co-Founder of Lingo Labs Inc. and Deputy Director of the Office of China Affairs at the University of Maryland Nathaniel Ahrens ’97 as local speaker, along with Professor and Chair of Political Science Fubing Su as expert presenter. Ahrens, an accomplished entrepreneur and policy practitioner, has hosted Vassar faculty in East Shanghai and conducted students’ first International Studies trip to China. The Vassar CHINA Town Hall meeting was Ahrens’ first return to Vassar since his graduation.
The event, explained Zhou, was the largest meeting in the Town Halls’ history, encompassing more than 100 sites in the United States and China. The first of its kind at Vassar, it posed a discussion regarding Vice President Mike Pence’s controversial speech on the Chinese government’s alleged influence on the U.S. congressional elections and Beijing’s military involvement in the South China Sea.
Opening the discourse, Su acknowledged the alarming nature of Pence’s remarks. He further recounted the complex history of Sino–United States relations from the Cold War onward, wherein China was repeatedly regarded as a prospective rival of the United States. However, Su expressed his individual optimism about the relationship between the two nations, given major shifts toward positive American public perceptions of China.
Su added in an emailed statement: “By no means, the current trade war will end on a peaceful note. The ball is on the Chinese court now. How the Chinese leadership responds will shape the future course. In my view, President Trump and [V]ice [P]resident Pence have not closed the door and labeled China the arch-rival. The immediate goal of this war is to force China to abandon many unfair trade practices and give American businesses, particularly high-tech firms, a chance to compete in the Chinese market. If the Chinese leaders continue to push back, I am afraid that the United States may drift to containment at a faster pace.”
Su elaborated, citing his optimism on recent news from Chinese leadership, which seems willing to make certain concessions. However, as Su stated, “[O]ne headwind may be rising nationalism and the shaky economy. After decades of reform, China has not moved away from a development model based on heavy investment and huge dependence on export … Their own rhetoric in the past few years has also raised the anti-[W] est sentiment.”
In contrast, both Ahrens and Zhou aired their concerns toward the imminent threats that this international relationship may face. Specifically, Ahrens said, “[I expect a] much darker next generation of Cold War.” In both the economic and the geo-political spheres, Ahrens expressed that Pence’s remarks were indicative of a grim future that has its root in an already troubled relationship.
However, Ahrens explained his view on how relations between the two nations can improve going forward. As he wrote, “Despite my concerns about where things seem to be heading, I think we can and must work towards a mutually compatible future and a shared vision for humanity. This will require China to make certain changes in the political, economic, and security spheres, and will require the U.S. to work quietly and constructively with China, as well as focus on getting America’s own house in order. I think a major question is whether the current U.S. administration has the diplomatic subtlety and the political will to do so.”
Zhou also disclosed his concern for United States–China relations given current economic realities and nationalistic sentiments on both sides. She remarked, “Basically, the U.S. and China economies have been deeply and comprehensively intertwined. The U.S. has gained in concentrating on higher profit end and China on lower profit end. But China’s economy is moving to higher-tech content, so the conflict is inevitable … The future is extremely uncertain and there is not a bright end.”
Furthermore, Zhou noted the ostracization of Asians in conflicts over the years, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, World War II Japanese internment and the 1982 racially charged murder of Vincent Chen in Detroit.
Following the brief response session, the meeting shifted to a live national discussion between Former Secretary Rice and Orlins. The 45-minute conversation included questions from both Orlins and the audience, addressing central issues regarding the countries’ differing approaches to human rights, religious freedom and military policy, and the symbiotic relationship between the two nations in techno-economic growth.
Opening the discussion, Rice recounted eyeing “only a few horse carts, a few automobiles, and a lot of bicycles” in her first visit to Beijing. However, she stated that this does not reflect the modern-day capital. This remark set the tone for her acknowledgment of China as a burgeoning power on the international stage. In her answers, Rice mentioned China’s key role in tracking terrorism finance, further resolving the North Korea situation and instigating global techno-economic development. Specifically, she opposed the unnecessary use of military force in conflicts, condemned tariffs wars stunting free trade between the two nations and advised the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. She also added that Sino–United States competition does not have to foster conflict, still demonstrating confidence in America’s ability to break through barriers set by other competing nations. Regarding the One-China Policy, which states the disputed claim that Taiwan is included in the People’s Republic of China, Rice stated, “We can open international space for Taiwan without violating the [policy].”
At the same time, Rice firmly addressed the environmental issues raised by technological and economic development for both countries, especially China, and encouraged further transparency on the part of the Chinese government regarding persecution of Chinese Uyghur Muslims: “Why not let the International Red Cross come and see what is going on with the Uyghurs so that people can advocate for these people who are basically very helpless?”
Rice concluded by evincing full trust in the necessity of the United States’ openness to Chinese students and U.S. students’ immersion in Chinese culture and history through direct interaction. She stated, “I think we’re going to do best in that regard…any way that we can find to get away from governments trying to get to know each other and getting our people to know each other.”
In the ensuing exchange, one attendee mentioned structural shifts in Chinese foreign policy, to which Zhou added further anxieties, especially with regard to the nationalistic attitude adopted by leaders from both nations. Responding to a statement about a more auspicious politico-economic relationship for the countries, she also emphasized the irrationality of the current situation.
With its goal of informing and educating attendees, the CHINA Town Hall meeting served as a symposium for expert speakers and visiting listeners alike to engage in conversations on two of the most powerful giants on the international economic and political stage today.
Bringing the discourse to a close, Ahrens recalled a fleeting yet enlivening historical moment, still very much relevant to considerations of today’s international relations: “In his toast to Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Jimmy Carter quoted Franklin Roosevelt, who, on the day before he died, wrote, ‘[I]f civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.’”