The U.S. and China’s Populations Are Decoupling, Too

The U.S. and China’s Populations Are Decoupling, Too
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks with Yuxuan Zhou during a visit to the Li-Pi record store in Beijing, China, April 26, 2024. (AP photo by Mark Schiefelbein).

Recent visits to China by officials from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden have featured attempts to broaden out the U.S.-China relationship beyond the tensions on display between the two governments. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made Chinese cuisine a central part of her last two trips to Beijing, hosting a lunch with an all-female lineup of Chinese economists on one occasion and dining on famous Yunnan mushroom dishes on another. On his visit last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took in some basketball and bought albums at a local Beijing record store.

Both trips sought to humanize the bilateral relationship and perhaps signal to the Chinese people that Americans have a fondness for all sorts of things about China, even if that doesn’t extend to its government. As with the U.S. Congress’ Select Committee on Competition with the Chinese Communist Party, these are attempts to distinguish the CCP from the Chinese people. With limited access to uncensored information in China and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries at very low levels, this is harder than perhaps ever before.

The problem of people-to-people exchange is much more severe on the U.S. side. Despite increased bilateral tensions and fears in China about gun violence and anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S., nearly 300,000 Chinese students still elect to study at U.S. universities each year. By contrast, the number of U.S. students studying in China has plummeted to new lows since the pandemic, with only about 900 U.S. students currently in China. As Blinken noted in his departing press conference, this imbalance creates a knowledge gap about China in the U.S. that will affect the new generation of policymakers, diplomats and analysts. And given current tensions and potential areas of conflict—from China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to its role in the U.S. fentanyl epidemic—expertise on China is badly needed.

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