What my mother’s changing fears about China say about Sino-US relations

(Originally published by South China Morning Post on January 27, 2019)

“Did you see state dept warning about going to China? Maybe re-think plans to travel there esp since you are a journalist. Love, mom.”

I woke to this text a few days before my annual trip to Hong Kong, where I would be reconnecting with colleagues at the Post’s headquarters.

I told my mother there was nothing to be concerned about, but she persisted. During our back and forth I explained how (a) my upcoming trip was to Hong Kong, which has a “Level 1” State Department travel advisory, and not mainland China; (b) dozens of American journalists live in Hong Kong, and none has been hauled off by the local authorities; and (c) even if I was going to mainland China, the country has a “level 2” rating, which is the same as Britain and Italy.

Here’s where we are after Canada arrested Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, China detained some Canadians, and the US State Department renewed its warning to Americans travelling to China. In other words, confusion and paranoia. Long gone are the days when the biggest concern Americans had about China was whether there would be any creature comforts.
Which brings me back to my mother’s understandable misperceptions.
When, many years ago, I announced to her that I planned to study Mandarin in China, she made it clear that she thought the idea was insane.
I told her she was insane, even though I wondered to myself whether she was right. I filled part of my backpack with granola bars and soy milk boxes in case she was.
My mother’s concern then wasn’t out of ignorance. That was 1991, when many American kids were still being told to “clean up their plates” because children in China were starving – a reproach that long outlived the reality of widespread starvation in the country.
The American media aren’t great when it comes to their presentation of other countries.

Consider the current misperceptions about the country’s two closest neighbours: Mexico is full of rapists and killers; Canadians suffer needlessly under a single-payer health care system.

The picture portrayed of China when I was preparing to live there nearly three decades ago was even more distorted. And memories of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were still fresh.

Ironically, Americans were probably safer in Beijing, even in the chaos of June 4, 1989, than in some parts of major American cities.

A few years later, China’s economic transformation turned assumptions on their heads for anyone spending time in both countries.

In 2005, I took Shanghai’s maglev to Pudong Airport, marveling at this cutting-edge train to an impressive new air terminal. Twenty hours later, I landed at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, which felt like a refugee camp, and then wound up in the decrepit, subterranean hell of New York’s subway.

Critics of this line of argument will point out that China’s lack of private property rights and opposition-free central planning makes the building of modern infrastructure easier. But that’s another discussion entirely.

Regardless of the methods of China’s transformation, that trip in 2005 drove home for me, literally, where I should be concerned about any lack of creature comforts.

The irony in all of this is how, 30 years ago, the concern my mother expressed was about food and heat.

Today, despite all of the intervening years of China’s economic development, as well as bilateral cultural and investment exchange with the US, the concern is about security and freedom. The bilateral relationship is clearly on the wrong track.

In the current fog of detentions and legal proceedings, actions, reactions, justifications, explanations and denials, no one knows who or what to believe. And so it becomes difficult for either side to know what is risky when it comes to entering each other’s territory.

Is this the sum and substance of what is universally referred to as the world’s most important bilateral relationship? For the time being, yes.

As the arrests accumulate, Beijing and Washington may or may not be making some progress towards an agreement that would end a bilateral trade year that has dragged on for more than half a year.

Let’s just hope the next turn in the relationship doesn’t validate my mother’s concerns

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