Richer and more complex stories lie behind dominant narratives, as the British Museum’s fascinating new exhibition, China’s Hidden Century, reminds us. It challenges the conventional wisdom that the country’s “long 19th century” was solely a time of decay and decline. It documents domestic turmoil and aggression and plunder by foreign powers – notably Britain – but also resilience and innovation. By looking beyond the Qing court, it includes individuals, ideas and possibilities that complicate our understanding of China’s identity and trajectory. Alongside splendid imperial robes, visitors see a cook’s uniform. They hear not only Empress Dowager Cixi’s words, but those of the feminist and revolutionary martyr Qiu Jin.
At a time when hostility towards the west and especially the US is growing in China, and vice versa, looking beyond headlines and politicians to other parts of the story is crucial. When intergovernmental relations hit the rocks, the contacts between societies and individuals – whether through tourism, academic discussion or shared cultural interests – are even more important. They can offer a less pressured and public space for exploring options. They can help to build understanding and prevent escalation. Conversely, domestic nationalism can make it harder for governments to pull back in a crisis even if they wish to. As the American and Chinese scholars Scott Kennedy and Wang Jisi warn in a recent report on academic exchange, Breaking the Ice: “Less connectivity is not only a product of worsening ties, it also has contributed to the decline of relations … A rise in estrangement reinforced fears about the other side’s motives.”
Gallup says that the proportion of Americans with a favourable view of China has plummeted from 38% in 2018 to just 15% this year – a record low. While it is extremely hard to gauge public opinion in China, the business intelligence firm Morning Consult says it found that 66% of adults saw the US as an enemy or unfriendly, while 64% of Americans believed the same of China. A decade ago, 15,000 Americans were studying in China; in the 2020-21 academic year there were just 382. (The US has seen a less dramatic decline in Chinese students.) Severe pandemic restrictions were primarily responsible – but numbers were already dropping, and there is little confidence that they will return to anywhere near the old levels.
China’s detention of two Canadians after Ottawa arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, at the behest of the US, its sanctioning of academics over criticisms of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the introduction of Hong Kong’s draconian national security law have made scholars and others understandably reluctant to travel there. Even businesses, which have often sought to push back against tougher US action, are having second thoughts. Economic stagnation and governmental attempts to “derisk” supply chains are key, but recent raids at high-profile consulting firms that help foreign businesses assess investments have highlighted concerns about staff safety.
On the US side, the surge in anti-Asian hate, the targeting of Chinese scholars for scrutiny and now state legislation banning or restricting land purchases by Chinese nationals have all made it less attractive. Dr Kennedy and Prof Wang note that non-governmental exchanges are necessary though not sufficient to stabilise ties, and urge both sides to restore connections “across the entire span of the two societies”. The aim is laudable. It will, however, be extremely hard to realise.
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