The Report

In April 2014, the U.S.-China Bi-National Commission on Enhanced Relations and Trust Building released a report Building U.S.-China Trust Through Next Generation People, Platforms, and Programs. Ernest Wilson, Dean of the USC Annnenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and Jia Qingguo, Dean of the Peking University School for International Studies, spoke at roll-out events in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. A Chinese language version of the report is being prepared and will be shared at events in China later in 2014.

Click here to download a copy of the report (1 mb pdf download).

Executive Summary

American and Chinese economies and societies have never been as closely joined as they are today. Leaders of the two countries meet regularly and state clearly their commitment to improving U.S.-China ties. Yet, major differences between the two countries dominate the headlines and polls show that people in the two countries have less respect for and trust in the other country. In short, we have more contact and less trust. Our current efforts are not building trust.


Yet strengthening trust between our countries is essential if we are to tackle the big problems that confront us.  Moving forward on tough issues such as cybersecurity, market access, and regional disputes requires building a much stronger foundation of mutual understanding that we have been able to achieve.

There are important sources for U.S.-China distrust. They include the need to adapt to changes associated with China’s rapid economic rise, the different histories, values, and political systems of the U.S. and China, inadequate open and sincere communication, and the temptation to score domestic political points in ways that negatively affect perceptions in and of the other country.

The U.S.-China Bi-National Commission on Trust-Building and Enhancing Relations (BNC) finds a serious imbalance in how the two nations work at and discuss our relationship. There is much energy and attention focused on official Washington-Beijing based talks and too little financial support for and focus on people-to-people engagement. An increase in such exchanges and in media attention paid to them will foster deeper understanding and greater trust. Absent a wider portfolio of more inclusive and innovative U.S.-China programs, progress on large and contentious strategic and economic issues will be limited.

The BNC is comprised of senior experts from both countries with extensive experience in politics, diplomacy, economics, trade and communications. All have a deep knowledge of U.S.-China relations and have long been committed to strengthening ties between the two governments and peoples. For over a year, the BNC has been looking into U.S.-China relations, public attitudes toward the relationship, reasons for distrust, and the vital role of communication in building trust. Meetings with current and former officials, influential scholars and civic leaders, and media have honed our understanding of the obstacles to greater trust and given us insights as to how to overcome them.  The Commission is chaired by Ernest J. Wilson, III, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and Wang Jisi, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.

In this report we show why U.S.-China relations matter and why action is needed now to reverse the trend of increasing popular fear and distrust. We also recommend several steps to build trust and improve U.S.-China relations, including a follow-up to the Obama-Xi Annenberg Sunnylands Meeting to convene high level leaders from business, education, philanthropy and local communities to pursue concrete steps of trust-building cooperation.

At present, the near exclusive focus on what separates us (and media attention to leaders trying to resolve those tough matters) hinders understanding of all that binds us and on the great progress made in U.S.-China relations and the positive impact of many current collaborations. Those collaborations address shared challenges (in diverse realms such as fighting disease, reducing pollution, improving city life, and increasing disaster readiness) and foster enhanced understanding and trust. The recent report U.S.-China Economic Relations the Next Ten Years is the product of a American and Chinese team of scholars advised by a prominent list of former officials, business and civic leaders. It does not ignore issues in the U.S.-China economic relationship, but emphasizes the complementary nature of our intertwined economies. That and similar work as well as every day exchanges involving thousands of Americans and Chinese merits more attention from leaders and the media.

We are convinced that a more balanced approach to nurturing the U.S.-China relationship is overdue. We advocate

  • an increase in “track II” efforts, where influential experts, sometimes including former office-holders, meet in private over extended periods to examine the tough, seemingly intractable, issues. These bi-national groups can explore greater ranges of options than normally considered in official “track I” diplomacy and can focus on long term progress rather than near term “deliverables.”
  • expanded support for and publicity regarding the broad range of sub-national and non-governmental exchanges and cooperation, especially those initiatives focused on youth which take advantage of new technological or organizational platforms.

This is not to dismiss the traditional “track I” diplomacy of high-profile visits and dialogue between the American and Chinese bureaucracies. That, of course, must continue. It is vital that ideas and attitudes developed in “track II” and sub-national and civic programs be understood and, as appropriate, incorporated into those “track I” Washington-Beijing discussions. Top officials also have a key role to play in highlighting and drawing media attention to successful sub-national and civic collaborations. Increasing American and Chinese consciousness of the existence and benefits of cooperation will foster greater trust and strengthen the capacity of all to address the difficult problems in the relationship.

A Snapshot of Existing Exchanges

The amount and depth of contact between the two nations, through the mechanisms of government, market and civil society, is dramatically greater now than at any time in the past. This report analyzes bilateral activities in six realms: diplomatic, media, education/science, cultural, business, and people-to-people.

Diplomacy     The two governments have built substantial channels of communication, including regular and frequent meetings involving the heads of state, ministers, and other officials. Too often, however, these exchanges seem primarily ceremonial and constrained by narrow restatements of well-established positions. 

Media     There has been a tremendous expansion of investment in this area, but the impact on both societies has been limited. While lifestyle and consumer magazines from U.S. organizations have proven popular in China, many companies are frustrated by restrictions on news-gathering and access to Chinese viewers and readers. Chinese organizations have not faced those challenges, but have yet to gain significant audiences in the U.S.

Education/Science     This realm has, perhaps, seen the greatest advances in both the scope and impact of exchanges. Large numbers of students, educators, and researchers are gaining valuable experience in both short and long-term programs. Knowledge is shared, collaborative projects undertaken and completed, and much that is learned is transmitted to others. Though the number of Americans studying in China has grown significantly, many more Chinese are gaining deep experience in the U.S.

Cultural     From the first ping-pong visits to high-profile tours by performers, cultural exchanges have received media attention and been widely popular. American cinema, television, music and video games are well-established and have garnered large Chinese audiences. Aspects of Chinese culture have travelled well, but most commercial cultural efforts have not had much success in the U.S. Windows into the rich diversity of both countries cultures still need to be opened wider.

Business     Companies and businesspeople are, of course, represented in other realms as well. Trade and investment has grown spectacularly and the world’s two largest economies have become quite interdependent. Many hurdles have been overcome and economic ties have been a source of stability in U.S.-China relations. At the same time, friction has increased over market access, regulatory transparency, and protection of intellectual property. There are notable exceptions, but, given their resources and reach, firms have not done all they could to facilitate other exchanges.

People to People     Organized exchanges involving civic groups and professional associations are common and are varied in aims, scope, durability, and impact. They are often starved for resources and even the most effective among them receive much notice. China’s government has endorsed and is increasingly providing funding for non-profit organizations in some fields and some have forged ties with American partners. American and Chinese interest in each other’s country is high and tourism is flourishing. It is growing especially fast from China. Visits tend to be short and contact limited by opportunity and language, but on an average day more than 10,000 people are making long journeys to see and explore the other country.

What We Need to Do Now: Next Generation People, Platforms, and Programs

The Commission advocates a more balanced approach to strengthening U.S.-China ties than currently exists. We believe that American and Chinese governments, agencies, and organizations at all levels need to provide encouragement and support for “track II” discussions and what we call “Next Generation Public Diplomacy.”

We have already noted a recent example of a foundation-funded “track II” effort, the U.S.-China Economic Relations discussions and report. Others are needed in the economic sphere, but also to examine issues such as cybersecurity, territorial disputes, climate change, and food safety. Foundations can enable ad hoc or established groups to facilitate informal and candid discussion of assumptions and concerns and a fuller range of possible avenues for progress. The experience of such discussions can deepen understanding and build confidence, especially when the spirit and ideas of the sessions are effectively communicated to policymakers. It is necessary to evaluate the impact of these efforts in opening channels of communication, in fostering institutionalized links across the Pacific, and in “expanding the possible” for traditional “track I” dialogues.

The Next Generation Public Diplomacy that we advocate seizes on the more positive outlook that young Americans and Chinese have of each other’s country and embraces new technological and organizational platforms for U.S.-China exchange and collaboration. While majorities of Americans and Chinese see the other country in a negative light, half of those under age 30 have a favorable impression of the other country. The opportunity here is great and has been partly recognized by both governments which are exhorting and to a lesser degree funding their students to go abroad. This is only a start. Most young people will not be able to pursue degrees in another country, but they can be engaged in learning about the other country and its people and, thanks to rapid technological advance, can become engaged in discussions and problem-solving with people in the other country.

Below are key principles the Commission has identified to guide this Next Generation effort.

  • Leaders and groups from all sectors should sponsor task-oriented exchanges and collaborations, setting realistic goals, and meeting them.

Such collaboration is already widespread in academia and businesses resolve production and other challenges daily, but more could be done to involve Americans and Chinese in working together to assess problems and develop and implement solutions. It does not matter that solutions developed for traffic problems in one city may not be applied in another, though they often are transferable. There is value in what participants learn through collaboration. Mobilizing skills and expertise across boundaries can nurture creativity and produce breakthroughs.

These are mostly “bottom-up” efforts, but national leaders should endorse such local initiatives and encourage sub-national governments and civic organizations to come up with innovative ways to work with partners across the Pacific. Drawing attention to these efforts and what they yield will change attitudes about the U.S.-China relationship and yield greater public support for efforts to resolve issues that divide the two countries.

- Bring young people, especially, into these efforts and take advantage of new platforms for communication and collaboration.

Research shows that Americans and Chinese who have even minimal contact with each other tend to see the other’s country in a more positive light. More frequent and deeper engagement produces greater understanding of and empathy towards the other, preconditions for greater trust. Surveys also indicate that Americans and Chinese under age 30 are significantly more positive toward each other’s country and more optimistic about the future of U.S.-China relations. This may be due, in part, because young people are more likely to be or know an exchange student, have some fluency in the other’s language, and get their news about the other country from a wider array of sources.

As a result, investing energy and funds into facilitating exchanges and collaborations involving young people is likely to yield both short term and long term benefits. Younger people are the heaviest users of social media, so those focused on U.S.-China matters need to have a strong presence there. Because of the target audience’s comfort with new communication platforms and the platforms ability to reduce barriers of cost, time, and distance, new programs should utilize incorporate them not merely to facilitate collaboration but to expand awareness of the programs and their benefits.

Making U.S.-China exchanges more inclusive, however, should not be limited to reaching out to young people. All Americans and Chinese are affected by the health of the U.S.-China relationship. It is important to establish and support programs which engage people in both countries across income, geographic, and ethnic divides.

  • Collect and make readily accessible information about the range of U.S.-China exchanges and collaborations. Identify the most effective programs and highlight reasons for their success.

Apart from an awareness of the great trade between our two countries and that our governments do not see eye to eye on several issues, most Americans and Chinese know relatively little about each other. They know even less about the ways Americans and Chinese learn about each other and work together to solve problems. An open web database providing information about past and current exchange and collaboration efforts will be a valuable resource for policymakers, researchers, journalists, and others interested in the range of activities and their impact. Moreover, the database will be an essential tool for those seeking to join or support existing efforts and those anxious to draw on the best practices of others in developing new programs.

Not content to merely report on what its investigation shows and eager to build on its research into such activities, the BNC is already engaged in building such a bi-lingual and open database.  It will be the go to resource for information about U.S.-China exchanges and collaboration, documenting what has been and is being done to deepen understanding and nourish trust.

A Second Annenberg Sunnylands Summit

By most accounts, the informal extended discussions between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping were warm, candid, and productive. The BNC will build on this example by bringing influential business, foundation, education, media, and community leaders to Annenberg Sunnylands in 2015 to draw on this report and plan programs that utilize Next Generation Public Diplomacy to engage Americans and Chinese in trust-building collaborations.


This BNC report builds on the work of many researchers and organizations involved in efforts to improve U.S.-China relations.  We are grateful to all of them and to the many institutions and individuals who have supported us and shared their experiences and ideas with us. They may not, however, endorse each of our findings and recommendations, but we welcome their continued feedback and yours.

Time is of the essence. Our current approaches are not working. Trust, essential to moving forward on pressing issues, is declining. Frictions can fester and yield wider and more harmful conflict.

Such conflict is not inevitable. Not long ago no one could reasonably imagine that the U.S. and China would be as intertwined as we now are. We are confident that involving more people in substantive exchanges and publicizing both the process and the outcomes of such collaborations will greatly enhance understanding and increase trust. This will not happen immediately, but the long term dividends of such work are clear. We need to make the good work already underway more widely known and we need to embrace new technologies in reaching out to young people and others. We need to start today.

Click here to download the full report (1 mb pdf)


Commission Report

Polls show Americans and Chinese are becoming less trustful of each other’s country. The Commission assesses the problem and offers recommendations to foster greater U.S.-China collaboration and understanding.

The Database

Hundreds of past and current U.S.-China exchanges are included in our open database. Search it to learn more about these exchanges and their impact.

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