Importance of Culture Cannot Be Forgotten in U.S.-China Relationship

As tensions between the two nations remain stubbornly high, more and more cultural exchanges must take place just as soon as health conditions in both countries allow for them.

Bing Dwen Dwen, the roly-poly panda mascot of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, became a global sensation during the Games. Demonstrating just enough flair, excitement and humor, Bing Dwen Dwen was so sought after that Chinese companies could not keep up with the demand of people who wanted the souvenir.

The same reaction often is demonstrated in the United States when China sends pandas to American zoos. The animals become instant favorites. Ask a child, and he or she will tell you that the panda eating bamboo and rolling all over the ground is “funny.” Ask his or her parents, and you likely will hear the words “big and cute” when they discuss the panda.

Of course, pandas have no idea how much they are entering Americans of all ages. They are content, surrounded by a habitat and food familiar and comfortable to them. They are the happiest of cultural phenomena.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute has outlined the history of Chinese pandas at that zoo. According to the Smithsonian’s website, which I am quoting extensively here, “on April 16, 1972, the giant pandas Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) arrived at their new home. Over the next 20 years … [they] symbolized cross-cultural collaboration between the United States and China.

“The arrival of the giant pandas drew millions of fans from around the world to the Zoo. It also gave the Smithsonian an unparalleled opportunity to study giant panda behavior, health, reproduction and ecology. … Over decades of joint efforts with Chinese partners, the Zoo’s breeding, veterinary and ecological research has provided critical data for the management of giant pandas in human care and valuable insights for the conservation of wild populations.

“On Dec. 6, 2000, giant pandas Mei Xiang (female) and Tian Tian (male) came to live at the Zoo. Unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the Zoo’s second pair of pandas are on loan. In exchange, the Zoo contributes funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China.”

The undated photo shows Ling Ling (R) and Hsing Hsing, a pair of giant pandas as a gift from the Chinese government, at the Washington National Zoo, the United States. (Photo/Xinhua)

Politicians often speak of win-win situations, and no one will doubt that both countries have positively benefited from “panda diplomacy.” As tensions between the two nations remain stubbornly high, more and more cultural exchanges must take place just as soon as health conditions in both countries allow for them. No more time must be wasted.

People all over the world – but most especially in the United States and China – must always remember the importance of culture. For our purposes, we will describe culture as the people, animals, music, literature, sports and more that educate, inform and entertain one society and that can also be shared with other societies. Culture must cross borders; it must be sent all over the globe.

I have written here on China Focus and elsewhere of the important part all of us must play in being cultural ambassadors. We do not need to be famous people; rather, we must be content to provide a glimpse of what our society is like. We also must be gracious in respecting the host nation’s behavioral and other norms. And, yes, we must be curious to learn about the people we are meeting.

These and other reasons explain why I was upset when former President Donald Trump sought to slam the door on thousands of Chinese students who wanted to study in and experience the United States. His nonsensical claims that China was sending its college-aged population to the U.S. in order to gather classified or other secret information that would then be sent back to China infected Americans’ thinking. Instead of seeing these students for what they were – young adults eager to learn while also being ambassadors for China – too many Americans instead saw the students as troublemakers who needed to go elsewhere.

Graduate students from China pose for photos before the Columbia University Commencement ceremony in New York, the United States, May 22, 2019. (Photo/Xinhua)

Likewise, I was angry when the ridiculous “China Initiative” damaged Americans’ thinking about Chinese scholars who have spent years working in the U.S. These scholars, often researching side by side with educators from America and other parts of the world, have made critical advances in the understanding of science, medicine, technology and more. They have earned Americans’ respect, and we can be thankful that the Department of Justice has abandoned further prosecution of Chinese scholars.

Recently, I learned that most U.S. students who study abroad do so for roughly 2-6 weeks. That information excited me; I hope in the near future to bring a group of my students to China for a stay of perhaps 14-21 days.

Because of my interest in sports media and sports communication, I hope they can examine the similarities and differences between the sports media industries in China and the United States. I anticipate my students showing that contentment, graciousness and curiosity I mentioned above. And, if my cultural exchange dream comes together as I want it to, then soon after we return home, a group of Chinese students will visit us so that they can ask many of the same questions my students will have asked while they were talking to Chinese sports journalists and team officials.

What I refer to above is not naive. It is just the opposite, in fact, because what I desire is grounded in the fundamental belief that cultural exchanges build friendship and respect.

I am eager to play my part in making that happen, and I hope you are as well.


The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.