October 19, 2018

The meeting between US President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping on Dec 1 at the G20 summit created a brief reprieve for the two countries to explore whether they can bridge the divide on a range of thorny issues.

The United States and China are at an inflection point where the stakes could not be higher: On one trajectory

is a costly trade war with the realistic potential for extensive collateral damage as well as a new Cold War; on another, each country’s stability and prosperity provide an opportunity for the other’s continued economic growth.

While there are very real issues that must be addressed as part of any long-term solution, the path forward lies in understanding that these problems, which have consumed so much of our national dialogue, do not tell the complete story. To truly understand what our countries stand to gain by working together, we must look past the daily diet of suspicion and distrust on both sides, to our countrymen who are living examples of cultural and economic exchange.

As a US businessman pursuing new opportunities, I took my first trip to China in 1991, and have been back more than 100 times since. In 2011, I attended a dinner with Cheng Siwei, former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. He spoke passionately that evening about the Flying Tigers-elite American airmen who helped China defend itself from Japan before the US formally entered World War II-a subject of which I had only a cursory understanding. He explained how indebted the Chinese people still feel to the US for this act of heroism.

To think that a group of US volunteers created a legacy that, more than 70 years later, still moves Chinese citizens, is a testament to the power of “citizen diplomacy” -everyday people shaping international relations at the grassroots. I felt compelled to offer more US citizens and Chinese people the chance to experience this kind of intimate cross-cultural exchange, to help demystify each country to the other.

This inspired Better Angels, a documentary film envisioning a peaceful, mutually beneficial future for our two countries and exploring the stories of individuals reaching across the US-China divide. For five years, our cameras followed the lives of US and Chinese citizens.

From an employee at a Chinese factory in Alabama, to a former US Marine coaching football in Beijing, to a Chinese teacher improving children’s math skills with an abacus in South Central Los Angeles, these citizen-diplomats have run into plenty of obstacles due to the different customs and approaches of our two countries. But they found their way with open-mindedness, compassion and hard work.

As filming came to a close, I looked up and saw a landscape that needed these stories more than ever.

I want the Chinese to see the US that their president saw 30 years ago as a young man visiting Iowa: a place that welcomes diversity and seeks to learn from it. I want US citizens to see that China is a mirror of our own growth, and its expanding middle class and demand for consumer goods could even be the catalyst for our further economic growth and success.

Through the lenses of ordinary citizens bridging the physical and metaphysical distances that divide them, it is easy to see that the foundation for a functional relationship is already set.

It is my solemn hope that, like those whose stories are told in Better Angels, all US and Chinese citizens can model the diplomacy we wish to see emulated by our leaders, and that together we can unlock the true potential of the US-China relationship.

The author is an American businessman and producer of Better Angels, a documentary on US-China relations.


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