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The U.S. and China: What Fascinates Us About Each Other?
Before Hu Shuli, editor-in-chief of Caixin Media in Beijing, came to the Aspen Ideas Festival, she conducted an informal survey among her Chinese colleagues. What fascinates you about America? she asked.
Younger people said American universities; older people said American products and gadgets. But everyone Shuli spoke with had one thing in common: a love for American movies.
"Many times a year, we watch American movies," explained Shuli. "Everything [for us] is related with cultural factors." Americans, on the other hand, consume Chinese popular culture much less, in part because they are ambivalent about China in general. "When it comes to Chinese culture, there would be very little that they know or think about," said Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society. China knows a lot more about America."
At the Aspen Ideas festival panel, "What Fascinates Us About Each Other?," these imbalances and other points of interest were discussed by a diverse speaker group.
Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, put the Chinese perspective on culture in context. "Americans are in a very self-doubting mood now, but we still don't appreciate the full measure of our soft power," said Schell.
The Chinese in particular are trying to understand how to garner this more intangible, soft power on the world stage. "In China today this is a big issue: How do you get it? Can you go out and buy it? Can you get a public relations firm?" described Schell. "What does it take to win the respect and fascination of other countries of the world?"
The two largest economic and military powers have a long and complicated relationship. It oscillates between "respect and fascination and love and even hate," said Schell.
Yet despite this fraught history, there are no two countries in the world who need to learn how to interact with each other more than the U.S. and China.
Policy and political diplomacy can only go so far in terms of this fomenting this understanding. So, could cultural exchange -- music, art, food and film -- be one way to deepen the relationship between these two countries? Does artistic and creative dialogue give way to better policy in the arena of foreign affairs?
In November 2011, the Aspen Institute Arts Program sent a cast of cultural representatives including Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Alice Waters and Joel Coen -- to Beijing to perform music, poetry and dance as part of a "Great Conversation" between the two nations. The improvised, collaborative performances between the artists pushed the boundaries of shared values and expectations.
It was unforgettable, according to Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. "That's the strength, the power of the art," she said.
Of course, the experiment in cultural exchange had its risks. "When you let things happen, its dangerous," explained Schell. "But it can also be interesting if something nice happens."