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Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

By , a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

China’s infamous zero-COVID controls and restrictions on international travel have left the country more isolated than at any time since the mid-1970s. Many Chinese urbanites see their country shifting in the direction of North Korean isolation and increasingly use a term coined several years ago, “West Korea,” to describe their own nation. China is not yet a Hermit Kingdom, but my recent trip there post-outbreak of the pandemic, the first by a Washington think tank expert, convinced me that China’s growing isolation is as dangerous for the world as Pyongyang’s is.

When U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, they both seemed to have understood that reducing their countries’ mutual isolation should be a top priority and that doing so would be in the self-interest of both countries as well as benefit the rest of the world. This is urgently needed because the situation has become dire.

Looking out of my quarantine hotel window next to the Beijing Capital International Airport provided the initial clue that China had turned inward. Flights into Beijing are down by over two-thirds from their 2019 levels, and I saw no foreign airlines coming in for a landing during my 10 days there. In the city, the absence of international visitors was even clearer. My hotel, part of a major American chain, had so few guests that the restaurant was only open part of the week.

China’s infamous zero-COVID controls and restrictions on international travel have left the country more isolated than at any time since the mid-1970s. Many Chinese urbanites see their country shifting in the direction of North Korean isolation and increasingly use a term coined several years ago, “West Korea,” to describe their own nation. China is not yet a Hermit Kingdom, but my recent trip there post-outbreak of the pandemic, the first by a Washington think tank expert, convinced me that China’s growing isolation is as dangerous for the world as Pyongyang’s is.

When U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, they both seemed to have understood that reducing their countries’ mutual isolation should be a top priority and that doing so would be in the self-interest of both countries as well as benefit the rest of the world. This is urgently needed because the situation has become dire.

Looking out of my quarantine hotel window next to the Beijing Capital International Airport provided the initial clue that China had turned inward. Flights into Beijing are down by over two-thirds from their 2019 levels, and I saw no foreign airlines coming in for a landing during my 10 days there. In the city, the absence of international visitors was even clearer. My hotel, part of a major American chain, had so few guests that the restaurant was only open part of the week.

China closed its doors to international tourists in early 2020. I encountered nary a backpacker nor well-heeled tour group in fancy buses, once familiar sights in China’s big cities. Since then, many multinational expatriates and their families have left, as have the Western teachers who taught their children. Global CEOs used to flock to China; now, they stay away. Embassies are short staffed, as Beijing is no longer a sought-after destination for enterprising diplomats and is now more of a hardship post than it used to be—thanks chiefly to zero-COVID policies. Only a handful of American journalists are left following multiple rounds of expulsions and a visa process that can take years.

Western scholars like myself mainly avoid China because of the long quarantine, but some experts also fear they might be treated like Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat turned scholar who was unjustly imprisoned for nearly three years along with fellow Canadian Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of an extradition request by the United States.

There is a dearth of young Americans who might once have been the next generation of China experts. According to a U.S. official, there are now less than 300 American students in the entire country, down from over 11,000 students at the peak in 2018.

Foreigners that stay constantly ask themselves why. The answers vary from their spouses being Chinese to not wanting to disrupt their children’s schooling to having a lucrative job. One friend confessed that he has not moved away out of a sense of duty. “If I left,” he asked, “who would be here to witness this?”

The number of Chinese traveling abroad has likewise dwindled. Chinese business executives, tourists, and scholars have largely stayed home—in some cases due to their own anxieties about traveling or wanting to avoid the long quarantine when returning. The political risk of extensive interactions with foreigners appeared to rise before the pandemic, but many scholars told Foreign Policy that their university would not approve their overseas travel, fearing they would bring COVID-19 back to the country. There are still large numbers of Chinese exchange students abroad—including more than 300,000 students in the United States as of 2021, the most recent year for which there is data—but most have been cut off from home because of quarantine demands.

The consequences of physical isolation and limited direct contact are profound. Mutual understanding is the first casualty. Reading documents and holding online meetings are no substitute for extended face-to-face interactions. My conversations in Beijing and Shanghai gave me far greater insight into the range of official and personal opinions on the United States, Ukraine, Taiwan, technology competition, COVID-19, and other issues than I could obtain online. And by being on the ground, I could see how those views and debates are being shaped by China’s domestic social dynamics.

Moreover, the dearth of extended in-person exchanges strengthens the formation of an echo chamber in China’s policy community, characterized by an unchallenged consensus that demonizes the United States, defends every Chinese action as justified, and concludes that Beijing is winning in its struggle against Washington. The only effective way to penetrate this distorted view is extended and repeated face-to-face engagement and diplomacy. Effective communication—both listening and speaking—is critical whether the goal is greater cooperation or effective deterrence.

I was deeply worried when a Chinese foreign-policy expert and longtime friend told Foreign Policy that he no longer needs to travel to the United States because everything he needs is available online. “If I went to the State Department,” he said, “I would just be given talking points.” But without traveling and talking to a wide assortment of Americans, not to mention people in other countries, it is almost impossible to understand the origins of American policies or how Americans evaluate Chinese policies. The same logic applies to Americans watching China from their offices.

Limited connectivity also breeds estrangement—a combination of dehumanization of the other side, a lack of empathy, and the act of giving up hope that problems can be tackled and the relationship can be repaired. As in Washington, I encountered a high degree of fatalism in Beijing about the trajectory of ties. The result was intensified planning for worst-case scenarios, which generates a vicious cycle of action and countermoves by both sides, leading to a further escalation of tensions.

That is where the United States and China find themselves right now, but it is not where they have to remain. At the Xi-Biden meeting, the sides used the three and a half hours to discuss a wide range of topics, clarify their red lines on Taiwan, and strike a common note—directed at Russia and North Korea—opposing the use of nuclear weapons. But even more noteworthy was their agreement to empower senior officials on both sides to engage with one another on a regular basis. They went beyond endorsing ad hoc communication and announced that dialogue would be pursued through several working groups.

Some Americans understandably fear that dialogue with Beijing is a Chinese stalling tactic. The right posture is to give talks a chance and, if they go nowhere, suspend them. And it appears that greater dialogue will not interfere with the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to restrict advanced technologies that could aid China’s military, expand support for American innovation, speak out on China’s human rights abuses, or meet its commitments regarding Taiwan.

The next step will be for both sides to commit to facilitating greater international travel in both directions—first for business executives, scholars, and students and eventually for tourists. This would involve permitting an increase in flights and, in China’s case, providing more visas and gradually reducing quarantine times, even below the recently set eight-day threshold. To minimize any public health risk, China could increase the frequency of testing for international arrivals, and for its domestic population, it could scale up vaccinations, acquire and distribute sufficient therapeutics, and prepare hospitals for an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The final step would be to find a solution to the standoff over limiting the number of each side’s journalists posted in the other country. China should welcome back U.S. reporters, as their coverage is likely to be more nuanced and balanced when they are on the ground than when they try to report on China from overseas. And the United States should be able to find a way to ensure that all arriving employees of Chinese media organizations are, in fact, genuine journalists.

Expanding direct, in-person communication between American and Chinese governments and societies is central to responsibly pursuing strategic competition in a way that reduces the likelihood of outright conflict, strengthens U.S. national security and economy, and increases the possibility that the United States and China could collaboratively address climate change and other global challenges.

Scott Kennedy is a senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 

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