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An Olympic lift to U.S.-China relations

May the Games help break down walls of fear.

By Cheng Li and Frank Wu / August 4, 2008

It is easy to see the Beijing Olympics either as a coming-out party for China or an opportunity to protest what goes wrong there. A third way, however, would be to see the Summer Games as a means for fostering better US-China relations.Late last year we worked on a survey of US and Chinese attitudes toward one another on behalf of the Committee of 100, an organization of leading Chinese Americans seeking to improve understanding across the Pacific. It found that the people of both nations widely accept the growing importance of the US-China relationship. The polling showed that 52 percent of Americans hold favorable views of China, while 60 percent of Chinese hold favorable views of America

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It would seem that Americans are ahead of their leadership in recognizing the benefits of a strong US-China relationship. The survey showed that the US public often expressed higher regard for China than did congressional staffers. Despite the negativity toward China that seems prevalent on the Hill, there seems to be a remarkably broad understanding on the part of Americans, for example, that China's manufacturing boom has provided them with low-cost consumer goods. Yet this hope is alloyed with fear – fear of China both as an economic threat and a military threat. Fully 75 percent of Americans say that China causes job losses in the US; the same amount are troubled by China's military modernization.

The attention generated by the Olympics could create a better understanding of modern China. Many observers have noticed that cold-war perceptions of China still persist in the US, despite the fact that China as a nation has changed profoundly. As Chinese Americans, we have a high stake in Americans' perception of China. Fear of China may lead to suspicion of Chinese Americans. In the most infamous case, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by auto workers in Detroit in 1982, because the attackers apparently believed he was Japanese and blamed him for the success of imported cars.

Stakes and considerations are much larger than those of the Chinese-American community alone. There is growing recognition that the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral one of our time, with much potential for good. Unlike the Soviet Union in the cold war, China does not pose an ideological challenge to the West. Economic ties have formed a strong bond between our two nations, and military conflict is avoidable with good leadership in Washington and Beijing.