On a recent trip to China with my Northwestern Kellogg students, we were all struck by how few Americans had returned to the country since the end of its zero-Covid policy in December 2022.
In Shanghai, our tour guide had hosted only one other US school group, and she expected to have only one more this year – a marked decline from the 30-plus she booked each year prior to the pandemic. In Guilin, where the iconic mountains, a Unesco World Heritage site, had previously been among the most visited places on Earth, we were allegedly the first American group to visit since the beginning of 2020. Only two more are expected this year. One hopes these are low estimates and that more have and will come. But there is no denying that the number of Americans travelling to China, which plummeted during the pandemic, has been slow to recover.
This sharp decline comes at a time when US-China relations have reached their lowest point since president Richard Nixon visited Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972. The public discourse in both countries has become almost exclusively about zero-sum competition, if not outright hostility. While US politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum portray China as the economic and geopolitical threat, Chinese media insist that American democracy is false and that the US is unfairly containing China’s growth and development.
With most of the news coverage in both countries focused on macroeconomic and geopolitical issues, little attention is paid to the lives and perspectives of ordinary people. Opportunities to generate empathy are scarce, and the results are increasingly apparent. In US opinion polls, only 15% of respondents viewed China favourably in 2023, down from 53% in 2018, and from 72% in 1989.
Some concerns are well-founded. In 2018, Americans and Canadians were shaken by China’s three-year-long detention of two Canadian NGO workers in retaliation for the relatively mild house arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive who had been charged with helping her company evade sanctions on Iran. Then came China’s pandemic lockdowns, which prompted most Americans to leave the country.
While completely understandable, the mass exodus of Americans and other expatriates has further curtailed the flow of information and in-person exchanges between the two countries’ business and NGO sectors. Add the fact that Western journalists’ activities are extremely restricted in China, and it is easy to see why the country feels so foreign and opaque to many outsiders. The exciting economic opportunities and fun travel stories of just a few years ago have given way to angst and uncertainty.
But has China changed fundamentally since 2019? Do Chinese people no longer believe in the potential of markets? Do they hate Americans?
My class saw as much of the country as possible in the space of just two weeks. We visited three cities and saw many Chinese and American companies – some thriving, others fighting for survival. Students also dashed around cities and suburbs on their own to conduct independent projects.
On our last day, when I asked them what stood out the most, perspectives varied. Some were impressed by China’s transportation infrastructure and cleanliness, and by the sophistication of its economy. Others remarked on the apparent poverty amid the glamour and glitz of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and many noted the constant presence of government surveillance. But all had been pleasantly surprised by their in-person encounters and meetings with Chinese people from all walks of life – from people on the street to heirs of billion-dollar family businesses. They found the Chinese people to be warm and even humble.
Students who had been wary or suspicious were heartened by the experience. One had previously helped draft anti-China legislation when she worked in government, and another had experienced an intense US-China standoff in the South China Sea. A US Department of State travel advisory had left many students worried, but they wanted to know more about the country beyond what they had read in the headlines.
The joy and sense of relief were mutual. Chinese children and their parents giggled when one of my students picked up a toddler and tossed him in the air. Women selling bowls of noodles for six renminbi (less than a dollar) made sure that students who could not read Chinese received the same discounts offered to Chinese customers. Everywhere we went, people told me that my students were a breath of fresh air – just as fun and open as they remembered Americans to be. They laughed with them, took pictures, and delighted in showcasing their work to them. They had missed these Americans. After years of isolation and negative press, they had grown worried that Americans had changed.
Of course, not all Chinese and Americans would get along, and the trip did not suddenly transform my students into China super-fans. But it did help them appreciate the complexity of the world’s second-most-populous country. They saw first-hand that the Chinese people – almost entirely absent from US news coverage – are not the same as the Chinese government or what US news headlines might suggest.
The US and China must work through many differences, which will not happen overnight. In the meantime, it is crucial that we preserve in-person interactions. Chinese and Americans must not lose sight of their common humanity. The greater the tension between their governments, the more important this becomes. – Project Syndicate
  • Nancy Qian, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, is Co-Director of Northwestern University’s Global Poverty Research Lab and Founding Director of China Econ Lab.