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United States

As China grows stronger, can a divided America find the leader it badly needs?

Chi Wang says amid the challenges of the rise of social media, the US now more than ever needs a leader who is humble and respected by all, and can breathe new life into the American dream – the way Xi Jinping has united a people behind the Chinese dream

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 6:58pm

When I first came to America in 1949, I had the opportunity to build a life here. From an emigrant Chinese student to head of the Chinese and Korean section of the Library of Congress, a consultant to White House and National Security Council officials, I have been witness to the changing American political landscape.

I have spent most of my life in America, but these days I feel as though I am a foreigner in my own home. As a Chinese American, I am saddened by the divided social and political landscape in America. Although the rest of the world trusted America after the second world war, it has slowly been losing faith in the US as American citizens lose faith in themselves and their own leaders. Social and political divisions have become polarising, and nasty rhetoric and criticism is evident in media across the country, including social media. If America doesn’t trust itself, how can anyone else? Perhaps if we understand why America is so divided, we can reunite and become stronger on the world stage once again.

It is no secret that race relations has been a major talking point in American politics. People of any race, colour and ethnicity should talk about this. The civil rights movement alone has not solved problems of division, which means that laws are not enough to make substantive change. It must come from individuals. I feel that Asian Americans, in particular, are often treated as being less “American” than others.

The truth is, younger generations in America today are more racially diverse than any other. This is due in part to the influx of immigrants, like myself, finding homes and opportunity in the US. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of foreign-born citizens in the US rose from 7.9 per cent to 13.9 per cent.

According to Pew Research, the last time it was this high was in the 1920s. As a result, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed into the country per year.

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Similarly, debates on immigration have returned to the forefront of political discussion today, drawing accusations of xenophobia and racism. This is a vastly different cultural sphere than in China, where one ethnic group makes up more than 90 per cent of the population. Differences can make a country unique and strong, but America is letting these differences divide it.

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America is a country of opportunity. Today’s young generations, more successful and more educated than many before them, are proof of that. As we begin to see more people of colour moving into official and elected positions, issues pertaining to minorities become more personal – raising their prominence in the sphere of political discourse. Personal issues, of course, garner stronger emotional responses. And strong emotions lead to less willingness to listen to other sides.

This is not to say that social issues have never been a concern for Americans. What has changed is not necessarily the issues themselves, but instead the platforms available to discuss them. The sounding board for political discussions has moved from among friends in family, in person in the workplace or in town halls, to online platforms. The emergence of the internet and social media has drastically changed the landscape of debate and conversation.

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This is not unique to America. Even in China, despite internet censorship and its so-called “Great Firewall”, the internet provides a space for disclosure of users’ deep-seated values. Social media primarily finds its audience among younger generations. It may not be so much that Americans have suddenly decided that bad things are happening; instead, they may simply feel safer to talk about their opinions and experiences among others who share them. This is due in part to the anonymity and lack of censorship online. Not unexpectedly, political discussion has become less nuanced and more argumentative. This is unlikely to be a phenomenon unique to America.

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In addition, it gives a platform to those less knowledgeable about the issues being discussed, which spreads misinformation. Relying only on one or a few sources – with no need for fact-checking – adults cannot possibly consider multiple sides to an issue.

This is not to say that the media is simply a hotbed for dissent and misinformation. It can also be a place to encourage interest and curiosity. We can take advantage of online platforms and social media to spread awareness and connection worldwide. Young Chinese should study American history, and they can reach out to befriend young Americans who will be the leaders of their country in a few years. Similarly, Americans should study world history and understand that unified countries are stronger.

There is no question America is a divided country. In comparison, China – a country with such a profoundly different history and population profile – is growing stronger. President Xi Jinping’s widely supported Chinese dream has driven an increase in patriotism and unity, all with the goal of national strength in mind.

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This does not mean China is without its faults, either. Despite the rapid growth in gross domestic product, economic differences between rural and urban areas have only widened. As in the United States, the top 1 per cent – even in a socialist economic system – remain the top 1 per cent. China may only have a one-party system of government, but it must still work to avoid the pitfalls of a divided country.

For now, Chinese people are mostly united in support of Xi. They may not live in a country with American-style democracy, but they have accepted it. Protests and disagreements are not the Chinese style; they weathered the Mao Zedong years, and they are uniting under Xi’s vision and strong leadership. We can see the good results of this. China’s influence in Asia, including its economic expansion through projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, grows as long as the leadership and its population are united behind the same goals.

It will be difficult for America to regain its superpower status worldwide if it remains so divided. However, it is a country with strong resilience. We even found our way out of the Great Depression under the leadership of president Franklin Roosevelt. We need another strong leader like him, one who embraces American uniqueness and equality in diversity, and who is capable of bringing us together.

I met president Barack Obama once in 2007, at a dinner near Capitol Hill with two African American members of Congress. Although I offered (and gave) my help during the 2008 election, he never engaged with me again. Obama tended to engage with those with whom he already had personal relationships. He did not reach out to ordinary people. American leaders should be more interested in what is going on in different communities; engaging with them is essential for reuniting the country.

We don’t yet know if someone like this president exists: a humble, dynamic parental figure respected by all people of the US, with a vision for the American dream. I hope we can have a president who will also work alongside China, creating a friendship between two of the world’s most influential nations. But younger generations are observing and learning, and they still have a chance to turn this country back in the right direction.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation