Technologies and globalization are making our world more interconnected and interdependent; at the same time, they are invisibly shaping the mindsets of younger generation. These facts fundamentally impact the future relations among nations, and U.S.-China relations are no exception. Contrasting ethical values between the U.S. and China used to be regarded as one of the origins of divergence and conflicts. However, it is important to consider the role of the younger generation in transforming varied ethical values into innovative and constructive forces. Tough as it could be, the transformation does have potential to enrich the globe as well as ourselves.
Be Aware of the Role of Youth
It is difficult, yet critical, to take a long-term, forward-looking view on U.S.-China relation. What is even more challenging is to stay aware of the decisive power that younger generations possess to reshape this intricate relationship.
Evidence seems to suggest a deepening mutual understanding between the youth of the U.S. and China. The mechanism that facilitates such understanding is supported not only by government efforts (a critical factor in former decades), but also by a self-motivated force among the young people to learn from each other and celebrate common values. Despite the general view of this issue, some hard numbers may still provide a shock; Over 230,000 Chinese students are now studying in the U.S., making the largest percentage of foreigners enrolled in U.S. higher education. The number of K-12 public school students in the U.S. learning a Chinese language has risen to over 100,000, three times the amount when compared to five years ago. Education aside, another lively affair is their shared passion for music and fashion; both Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber broke touring records in Shanghai, each selling nearly 20,000 tickets within the first minute of booking. The common ground of American and Chinese “future leaders” is irrefutably expanding.
Despite these encouraging trends, it would be hasty to predict a honeymoon-style relationship based on these initial, and possibly outlying, statistics. A number of disputes (some initiated by young people) have caused mistrust, even tension, between the two nations.
Due in large part to the proliferation of the Internet, such tension will likely be more widely felt than in the past, and could potentially spill over to create larger consequences. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, there was hostility among the Chinese blogosphere towards U.S. multinational companies due to their reluctance to join relief efforts, leading to a nation-wide boycott of U.S. products. Though this boycott was short-lived, the potential for youth to transform negative perceptions into meaningful actions is worth watching. In the U.S., despite the small number of organized campaigns against China, many students and young people have been influenced by the viewpoint that, "Chinese workers steal U.S. jobs,” "China funds dictatorships,” and, “China’s military power will threaten U.S. safety.” Such viewpoints may severely affect U.S.-China relations if other variables shift. Moreover, as the aforementioned cases illustrate, much of the divergence seems to relate with U.S.-China difference in ethical values, which makes the subjects of disputes even touchier.
These mixed exposures to “sunshine and showers,” illustrate the diversity and complexity that the U.S.-China relationship involves; it is like a hotchpotch of conflicts and compromises, a pas-de-deux of competition and cooperation. Though most analysts agree that severe military or economic conflicts are unlikely to unfold in the coming decades, it will still be difficult to predict how random events and factors, both locally and globally, may create ripples, even waves. Given this volatility, rather than attempting to predict unknown conditions that may occur, U.S. and Chinese youth seem more concerned to learn how competition and cooperation may navigate them to contribute more for global wellbeing, and how ethical values may impact this contribution.
Not Easy to Forge a Common Approach
One of the most popular postures among Chinese bloggers in recent years has been “Shootering Style,” also known as “Aircraft Carrier Style.” By mimicking the pose of flight deck officers, young Chinese celebrate the successful operation of their first navy aircraft carrier - a reputed ‘milestone’ for the country. It is natural for young Chinese to take pride in their rising national prominence. However, this rise in power coincides with increasingly heated competition with the U.S. on numerous aspects – among which technological and military events receive the most focus among youth. With a long-term view of this situation, it can be seen that the U.S. and China will face a growing animosity towards each other as China’s global presence starts to compete with that of the U.S.
As exemplified in the military situation above, a major driver of future U.S.-China relations will be competition, as it has been over the past several decades. Yet more importantly, today’s Chinese youth are more confident than their parents in this competition – they have grown up with higher quality education, rising household income, and a public perception that seeks to define China as a “global innovator/consumer” rather than a “global factory.”
However, the confidence (sometimes overconfidence) of “Little Emperors” to compete and challenge may remind us of a stereotype of global power interactions: a rival-minded, ethics-absent, dangerous model of competition. Throughout history, this model has caused worldwide tensions and damaged the international community by virtue of extending military conflicts, using petty squabbles to inflame tension, and by passing blame on virtually every global issue. This stereotypical model is difficult to forget. Even now, both U.S. and Chinese youth are feeling the “gravitational pull” of this model, because stiff economic competition has sometimes nurtured unfavorable views between the citizens of each country.
According to a U.S. Senate report, "there has been a steep rise over the last three years in the number of Chinese who view the United States as an enemy." It is a well-established view among the middle-aged Chinese population that U.S. policy is to “contain” China. Through family or educational impacts, such a model of antagonism will weigh on youth’s perceptions against the U.S. From the U.S. perspective, the situation is no better. An increasing number of Americans had a "mostly unfavorable" view of China, according to a 2008 survey released by the Gallup Organization. Economic issues, such as fear of job losses and the implications of a widening trade gap, prove to be significant contributors that “fan the flames” of this unfriendliness.
Short-sighted political opportunists may take advantage of these perceptions, stirring up sentiments to score cheap political points, and reviving the model of rivalry. Unfortunately, ethical issues are politicians' stock-in-trade. By casting surface-level blames on each other without delving into ethical and historical roots, politicians try to institute a presumption of moral superiority, which tends to induce conflict between the two people. Young leaders need to be daring enough to steer U.S.-China relations out of this “gravitational pull,” and to forge a relationship that honors their global responsibilities.
Let the Ethical Power Work
In the typical model of power diplomacy, more often ethics is paired with condemnation and conflicts rather than with establishing constructive forces towards common good. Luckily, the world cannot take this gridlock, and such stereotypes are fading fast. A refreshing idea is how the power of ethics can inspire the U.S. and Chinese youth and leaders to achieve success beyond what have been historically achievable. Both the U.S. and China have cherished their ethical traditions and have made efforts to pass these ethics on to future generations. This ethical inheritance is becoming a more important idea as thriving social media outlets and youth-based economies allow for younger generations to influence foreign policies on a measurable level. Therefore, it is not an unrealistic prediction that young, ethical leadership can play a significant role in reshaping bilateral relations in the future.
The first step towards a bilateral relationship of global goodwill is to place the competition on an ethically-centered basis. Yet, as ethical idealists have always noted, money is the primary obstacle. Political disputes that seem to diminish world-wide welfare usually serve as “smoke screens” to disguise profit-oriented business competition. As a case in point, recently leaked documents illustrate that, in rounds of world trade discussions, governments of both the U.S. and China tend to bargain through trade pacts to compete at lower environmental standards. This is simply not a sustainable basis of competition. If the U.S. and China are "racing to the bottom” as this suggests, both countries will be failing to establish a sustainable business landscape and will only unleash negative externalities. Resolutions have to be made so that ethical leaders will push companies/government to implement Green Initiatives. Options such as environmental tariffs and/or “green subsidy” competition could create additional burden for polluting exporters in both nations, leading to a possible deceleration of bilateral trade, but will instigate environmentally responsible operations throughout the global supply chain.
In fact, profitability and ethical leadership do not need to be viewed as a contradiction. For example, statistics show that the number of environment-related start-ups in Silicon Valley has increased dramatically over the past decades, some of which are extending business lines in China. Likewise, Chinese wind turbine and solar cell manufacturers have found their exports welcomed by U.S. markets. Leveraging their competitive edges to international success, these enterprisers contribute to the green economy and improve local job markets (especially for young labor). When the competition model adopts an effective mechanism, money is not "in the way,” but "along the way.” The agenda of “ethical economic competition” also involves; promotion of labor rights, respect of intellectual property, and cross-border data protection. Young leaders in both nations should be inspired to make sustainable and actionable plans that solidify the ethics-based competition in these dimensions.
Swampy Fuzzy Zones
However, taking ethical motivation as a panacea will be underestimating the ambiguity it entails. In several cases, both nations will run into areas where ethical perspectives do not overlap, where different ethical values can lead to disagreements over specific strategies. What seems more painful is that we are culturally immersed in these values and may not be able to hammer out the differences in a short-time negotiation.
For example, Chinese multinationals have been accused by the U.S. of damaging the well-being of the areas in which they operate, especially in Africa. Many critics assume that these companies refuse to take social responsibility, but Confucian ethics provides a different look at this situation. In social interaction, Confucianism puts weight on “harmony, but not sameness”, and this embeds interpersonal relationships with emphasis on non-interference in private matters, giving or making face for others, and maintaining positive guanxi (social connections). With this in mind, it is hard to imagine Chinese corporates exposing environmental calamities or urging local authorities to promote human rights, bearing the cost of destroying the guanxi they tactfully managed. This concept contrasts with modern business ethics. Again, surface-level finger-pointing emerges, and has been blamed for recent anti-China riots in many African cities.
Whereas China faces ethical problems with its outward investment, the U.S. has faced questionable ethical interactions with its military and security intervention in the 21st century. The U.S. justifies these operations as proactive steps towards combating global terrorism. However, these proactive steps may induce possible infringements on other nations. Such perceived infringements include military operations on Pakistani soil without cooperative knowledge, and airstrikes that have resulted in Pakistani military casualties. Chinese ethics may consider this as overriding and usurping the rights of host nation, an important ethical line not to cross. Some politicians and media incorporate this fuzziness into propaganda against each other, which in turn may have caused youth of the U.S. and China to hesitate from active ethical engagement.
But they do not. Though it is hard to see through the fuzziness, younger generations in both countries tend to aim higher than their parents. They are smart enough not to equate ethical considerations with ideological concerns, and they no longer take comfort in pragmatic approaches. Mobility and information networks help them explore more possibilities. With more U.S. students paying on-site visits to Chinese schools and businesses, exposure to Chinese interpersonal behavior is helping them understand the ethical background for their actions and inactions. Facing the ethical challenges in a globalized setting, it is more important than ever for both youth to, as the Delphic inscription has it, "know thyself". For instance, Chinese bloggers are launching Country Ratings Polls for China, hoping to explore Western perspectives on their economic and ethical presence. More reflexive reports and data online will help future leaders reassess their ethical stands in the richer-than-expected context.
Aside from the rising ethical introspection, the youth of both U.S. and China are blessed with a historical context that allows for them to redefine ethical identities. With today's emphasis on diversity and ethnicity, it has become popular among U.S. youth to substitute the metaphor of "melting pot" with "salad bowl" or "mosaic". They celebrate the diverse ethical and cultural values weaved into the social fabric, and may propose creative ethical solutions based on multi-cultural exposures. For China, as moral traditions were discredited during the Cultural Revolution, it takes efforts to rebuild them among the youth. Though it is pitiful to have their venerable traditions fade with time, young Chinese are given opportunities to take a look outside of the Confucian perspectives, and distinguish the tools that work best to address problems from ethical fuzziness between nations.
We are not in lack of the ethical building blocks to specify and honor joint obligations. What we need are young practitioners who will turn these obligations into viable codes of conduct. These codes may come in all shapes and levels of significance, but they will have to articulate the common expectations of ethical leaders, and serve as roadmaps and guidelines for real-world practice. More importantly, the U.S. and China have to make their codes available to other stakeholders, using these codes to set global expectations for their concerted efforts. This layout is challenging indeed, but young leaders in both nations will not be squandering this chance to make a mark in history.
Optimistic Prospect and Challenges Ahead
Ethics-based U.S.-China relation seems to be a promising story ready to unfold. Yet is such a prospect a Utopian ideal, or does it represent a feasible plan? We are generally optimistic about executing these plans in the real world because the youth ethical presence proves to be stronger and smarter over time.
Younger generations are proud of their high degree of creativity in getting voices heard. More than 15 years ago, anti-sweatshop activists in U.S. universities held protest marches where they dressed as sweatshop workers and occupied administration buildings in order to influence public opinion. In their spirit, anti-sweatshop organizations in China now try to capture the public’s attention, but in their own fashion. Starting in 2010, more than 100 Chinese college students initiated an undercover investigation into Foxconn (a manufacturer of Apple products) regarding the overtime workload and underpayment. They contacted several newspapers and Internet forums to release the investigation report, subsequently releasing more information about the exploitation of Chinese workers by U.S. firms, which pushed MOHRSS (the Chinese regulator for labor rights) to respond in 2012. Thus we know Bill Hewlett’s comment works on international politics pretty as well:" Creativity is an area in which younger people have a tremendous advantage".
But there are several factors that curb the passion for young ethical engagement, and as a result it is still challenging to channel ethical powers to form a structure of constructive bilateral relations. A major barrier is the mainstream failure to recognize transitions in youth political participation, in both the U.S. and China. Conventional political activities (such as contacting law-makers in the U.S., or attending political meetings in China) are seeing a diminishing role among youth participants in politics. On the other hand, individual-based participation in consumption and contact politics (e.g. boycotting certain brands or writing blogs about ethical issues) is on the rise.
Failure to recognize the concerns and priorities of today’s younger generations prevent stakeholders from accounting and preparing for the potential ethical impact on U.S.-China relations. In this respect, government support and educational forces are weak and deficient.
However, younger generations keep feeding the fire by themselves. What differentiates the Millennials from other generations is the role of the Internet. Online cooperation and communication facilitate conversations on ethical issues, and hereafter transform ethical concern into actions.
The Trans-Pacific Student Contest is a strong case by itself - students from different nations (who may do not have prior interaction with each other) can make contact through the Contest Matchmaker to contribute ideas that may foster innovation and leadership regarding global issues. Another illustration is the thriving of international volunteering. A great number of young American volunteers have joined the anti-poverty and earthquake relief programs in China. Online media coverage of their contributions attracts a more significant youth focus, which serves as a feedback loop that expands over time. In general, "Positive Energy" is strengthened by online interactions, and turns into action more effectively than ever.
Young generations are “the sun at eight or nine in the morning.” Their mindsets and work ethics enable them to pursue an ambition of global impact. In this scenario, collections of individual and ethical actions by young people will reshape and solidify U.S.-China relations. With a growing ethical presence and a focus on mutual interactions, we expect U.S.-China relations to strike a balance of competition and cooperation, and accomplish common goals that serve not only the objectives of each country, but in turn will benefit the international community as a whole. To reach these goals we must set sail –"Sail, not tie at anchor; Sail, not drift”. We sail, with the courage and aptitude to exhibit leadership in this ethically challenged world.
Appalachian State University
Nationality: United States