The world’s most important relationship isn’t the superpower showdown most analysts would have you believe. It’s a constantly shifting, symbiotic relationship shaped by millions of people, not just officials in Washington and Beijing. They range from the mayor of Wichita, Kansas to a hacker in Shanghai; from a self-described “Berkeley hippie” who defends modern Chinese communism to the Beijing-based inventor of e-cigarettes; and from an American casino magnate reshaping China’s version of Las Vegas to an unsung migrant worker in the gritty town of Dongguan.
But Foreign Policy’s inaugural Pacific Power Index is not a list of the 50 most powerful individuals in the U.S.-China relationship. Instead, it is a story about the power of that nexus itself, and its ability to impact American and Chinese lives. Each person recognized here has been profoundly shaped by the intersections — sometimes the collisions — of these two great powers. Taken together, their 50 stories illuminate the vast architecture that links the two countries, a largely invisible series of bridges spanning the realms of business, government, finance, military, media, and academia.
The web’s power to connect people across vast geographical distances enables environmental activists like Peggy Liu and Ma Jun to pressure officials, and even Western companies, into doing more. It allows pro-Communist Party voices like the baby-faced nationalist blogger Zhou Xiaoping to find an audience on distant shores. And it allows curious Americans and Chinese a real-time look into the other’s public discourse.
But the Internet's disdain for borders terrifies the Chinese government, which continues to cling to the Marxist-Leninist notion that the press must serve only state interests. Authorities ruthlessly censor unfavorable coverage, effectively expel troublesome foreign journalists, and constantly patrol the (widely reviled) Great Firewall of censorship. The wall blocks "netizens," as China's tens of millions of Internet-savvy youth are known, from easily accessing foreign sites like Facebook and Twitter, denying Americans and Chinese a shared digital public square. But the blockade is riddled with gaps. Wildly popular native web platforms like Weibo and WeChat — with about 167 million and 468 million monthly active users, respectively — allow investigative American reports like those on the family wealth of party leaders to leak back in to the mainland. Truth has a way of going viral.
Since economic reforms began in late 1978 under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, many of China’s now 1.3 billion energetic and passionate citizens have embraced doing business the capitalist way with gusto, resourcefulness, and a distinct Chinese flair. With the fast rise of Chinese companies and an exploding class of Chinese nouveaux riches, it’s sometimes hard to tell at this point whether American or Chinese society is the more corporatized.
The hundreds of billions of dollars in transactions the bilateral relationship generates each year have touched every facet of life in both countries. American conglomerate DuPont exports feed for pigs in Hunan, where the villages are emptied of young farmhands who have become the migrant workers who assemble iPhones for export to North Carolina. Chinese-made telecom switches process (and perhaps snoop on) orders sent to e-commerce behemoth Alibaba from an American (or is that Chinese?) ThinkPad set on a dinner table in Oakland. White-collar wage slaves in Shanghai shake off the morning cobwebs by lining up for Starbucks coffee, while workers in Tucson churn out cheap solar panels for distant Chinese bosses.
Unlocking the immense artistic potential implicit in the space where two great nations meet requires first transcending the divide between two devilishly different languages — hence the crucial role of prolific translators like Howard Goldblatt and Internet-age language deejays like Jessica Beinecke. There will someday be a great work — or pop phenomenon — that captures the imagination of both peoples while drawing deeply from both cultures. And perhaps that day isn’t far away — Hollywood is certainly hoping to crack the code first.
But for that to happen, Chinese cultural gatekeepers like China Film Group Chairman La Peikang will have to do more than embrace Western culture on its own merits; they will have to recognize that their own censorship hinders the flowering of a modern Chinese culture capable of achieving global resonance. Until that time, American pop culture will continue to exert a curiously powerful hold in China, from pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters traded on the streets to the smooth jazz of Seattle-born saxophonist Kenny G. Yep: He's still big in China.
It’s hard to imagine U.S. President Barack Obama sending his daughters to enroll at Beijing’s elite Peking University. (Oh, how the Tea Party would pounce.) But the reverse already happened: In 2010, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, enrolled as an undergraduate student at Harvard, a brand name that hundreds of millions of Chinese — even those living in rural whistle-stops — would instantly recognize. The younger Xi joins a massive influx of Chinese students who, over the past decade, have penetrated deep into the U.S. ivory tower, from the dormitories of Stanford and MIT to the classrooms and mess halls of elite prep schools like Exeter and Deerfield. In the 2013-2014 school year alone, nearly 275,000 Chinese came stateside to study.
Although more than 100,000 American students have done the reverse as of 2014, the relationship remains mostly one-sided. That’s partly because U.S. education is valued in China for allowing students more freedom and creativity, as well as a leg up in job searches. The trend isn’t entirely new, however: In 1854, a Guangdong native named Yung Wing graduated from Yale and returned to China to play a key part in its modernization.
Ever since, education has traditionally provided a relative safe haven for the bilateral relationship, even when military and political ties strain. But that might be changing due to accusations, some legitimate, that Chinese applicants are cheating their way into U.S. institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, China’s own soft-power education initiative has gone over like a lead balloon. Its government-funded Confucius Institutes, which teach language and culture at over 400 institutions worldwide, suffered a withering critique in June when an open letter from the American Association of University Professors argued that the institutes “are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”
If he were alive today, Mao Zedong would surely condemn modern China’s culture of lucre-lust — but even the ruthlessly doctrinaire Communist Party chairman might crack a smile at the ability of Chinese cash to project power abroad. It’s not just China’s concerted push to make the renminbi, or “people’s currency” — each denomination of which bears Mao’s face — the world standard. But supplanting the dollar will take years, if not decades. In the meantime, China is deploying its burgeoning coffers, investing $14 billion stateside in 2013 alone. An April 2014 white paper published by Rhodium Group and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that Chinese investment into the United States “by most measures, now exceeds flows in the other direction.”
As China opens its vault, American politicians have scrambled to attract Chinese capital to areas still shaking off a nasty Great Recession hangover. Governors from California’s Jerry Brown to Michigan’s Rick Snyder, as well as mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Wichita’s Carl Brewer, have all recently trekked to China to talk up their states and towns investment destinations. Chinese investors are responding, and not because they’re feeling charitable; U.S. assets look like a good buy. Chinese buyers are snapping up American homes, pumping more money into U.S. property than anyone else outside the country, while tycoons such as Wang Jianlin are reshaping the skylines of major American cities.
History rightly views the 1972 handshake between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Communist Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing as a key moment of mutual rapprochement — but barely four years later, Mao was dead, and Nixon had resigned in disgrace. In their own ways, both countries have been devolving central power to the private marketplace ever since.
As a result, even between the two governments, much power now concentrates in the purse. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson enjoys tight relationships among China’s policy elite; Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China’s central bank, influences New York stock markets from his office in Beijing; and U.S. trade representative Claire Reade translates American worker complaints about unfair Chinese trade practices into World Trade Organization (WTO) lawsuits.
That doesn’t mean traditional diplomacy is dead. In particular, the two countries’ massive militaries are surprisingly eager to increase the frequency of joint exercises, bilateral communication, and other exchanges. In July 2014, U.S. Navy chief Jonathan Greenert visited counterpart Wu Shengli in Beijing and got the red-carpet treatment. In September 2014, Wu attended a maritime symposium in the United States, at the invitation of Greenert. Peace, it seems, is getting its chance.