Ambassadors discuss US-China relations, Hong Kong protests

Tensions were high in the Annenberg School for Communication auditorium as Clayton Dube of USC’s U.S.-China Institute sat down with Ambassador Jeffrey Bader and Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Los Angeles Zhang Ping for a discussion on United States-China relations Tuesday. 

The discussion was held just hours after the U.S. Senate approved the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, legislation dedicated to supporting protesters in Hong Kong fighting for democracy. 

Zhang, the former Chinese ambassador to Fiji, opened the conversation with a statement on China’s development since the beginning of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Zhang said China is “going through profound changes unseen in a century,” in reference to the recent technological boom as well as the protests happening in Hong Kong. 

“China-U.S. relations are also going through some profound changes,” Zhang said. “Some people perceived [China’s development] as a threat to the U.S. supremacy, so they are trying to depict China as a major adversary.” 

Bader, the founding director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, outlined what he believes has changed between China and the U.S. over the last few decades, criticizing the current state of the trajectory of the country’s economic reform. 

“Since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping presided over the … Chinese Communist Party, China has been committed to restructuring its economy away from the Maoist, state-centered model towards a market-driven model,” Bader said. “There was, for some period after that, sort of a drift in economic restructuring and reform in China under subsequent leadership. In the last five or six years, it’s the consensus of most Western observers that there has been backsliding. The drive towards economic restructuring and reform and market-based change has been substituted for by an emphasis on civility and party control.”

In a later response to both Bader and the moderator, Zhang rebutted claims that economic reform in China has halted.

“China is a very big country. As we said, it’s pretty easy when you start reform because there are lots of things that can be changed easily,” Zhang said. “After certain years, what’s left? what we called hard blows, which are difficult because that kind of reform needs to be studied carefully in order to minimize the negative impact on the people … I don’t think the reform process has been slowed down.” 

As the hour wound down with a discussion on trade and economic ties between the two countries, the unease in the room did not. Dube discussed the state of human rights in China, directly referencing the government’s detention centers in Shanghai, prompting Zhang to criticize American coverage of Chinese affairs.

“The pressure on China is very much, I’ll say influenced by the Western media reports on China, which in most cases we think is pretty biased, or intentionally biased,” Zhang said. “I think they try to portray it as an issue of human rights. That kind of media influence has played a role in the perception of China. That’s why I think we need to present China in a very objective way.” 

Some students in the audience scoffed at Zhang’s response. Some got up and left the auditorium. Of the students who stayed were seniors Shichen Liu and Siyi Zhang, two public policy graduate students from China. They both criticized Zhang’s tendency to be out of touch with the people of China. 

“[He] has a tendency to… represent the officials,” Liu said. “He said a lot of official words and didn’t say a lot from his own perspective. He was there to represent the government.” 

“We want to hear something different from the Chinese side, like not what the Chinese media will say,” Zhang said. “Maybe something from his own interpretation and experience.”