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China-US relations

Chinese fine arts luminaries to hit the spotlight at China Institute’s Blue Cloud Gala in New York

  • Renowned Chinese artist Liu Dan, Peking University art museum founder Jillian Sackler among the honorees
  • The China Institute is the oldest US-based organisation dedicated to promoting US-China cultural ties
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2018, 1:04am

Chinese fine arts will take pride of place at this year’s Blue Cloud Gala, an annual New York City event organised by the China Institute, the oldest US-based organisation dedicated to promoting US-China cultural ties.

Liu Dan, among the most world-renowned living artists in China, is among four individuals to be honoured at the event on November 28. Known for an oeuvre that combines classical techniques of Chinese and Western painting, Liu is featured in collections of the British Museum in London, Musée Guimet in Paris, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, among other prominent galleries.

Jillian Sackler, who founded the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University, where some of Liu’s works are displayed, will also be honoured for the international “cultural bridges” she has built. For example, a 1993 conference held at the museum was billed as “the first meeting of Eastern and Western archaeologists in decades”.

China Institute’s annual award “represents the traditional Chinese symbol of high virtue and status”, according to the organisation, which was founded in 1926.

Trustees of the organisation include bestselling author Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of former US president Richard Nixon, who paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Past Blue Cloud honorees include former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, renowned pianist Lang Lang and legendary Chinese architect I.M. Pei.

While the China Institute has mixed diplomacy, business ties and culture, the fine arts have been a feature of its programming for decades, having started when Washington and Beijing were as distant ideologically as they ever had been.

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As China’s Cultural Revolution was gathering momentum in 1966, the China Institute marked its 40th anniversary with the establishment of its first in-house art gallery, launched with an exhibition of Chinese art from private New York collections.

Connections in the realms of art and culture are more important than ever. Recent friction in the US-China relationship makes the lofty ideals of high art and culture easier to celebrate because they’re not as easily buffeted as other areas of engagement with more direct impact on the people of both countries, such as trade and investment.

The bilateral economic relationship has come under a broad attack from Washington. Against the backdrop of a tit-for-tat trade war started by US President Donald Trump in July, recriminations about China from his administration and lawmakers of both main parties are now an everyday occurrence.

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For the first time since Nixon got US-China relations on track, Washington is demanding fundamental changes to Beijing’s major industrial policies.

Trump’s advisers and key lawmakers are pressuring Beijing to end rules that limit market access in China and force foreign companies operating there to transfer intellectual property to local partners. Meanwhile, new rules on foreign investment in the US have been passed to increase scrutiny on Chinese investors.

Beijing has so far offered greater access to certain industries such as financial services. It also has signalled no intention to alter central government policies, both fiscal and regulatory, meant to create indigenous tech industry giants capable of competing with existing global giants such as Apple and Qualcomm.

The result, as former policymakers including former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson have been warning, may result in a complete undoing of the bilateral relationship, with dire consequences for people on both sides.

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“I believe something of deeper significance is happening,” Paulson said last week in a speech delivered at the Asia Society, another member-based, non-profit think tank devoted to cross-cultural understanding.

“We may be moving beyond cyclical ups and downs,” said Paulson, who was a Blue Cloud honoree in 2005. “That is because we are now having to navigate our distinctions and differences at a moment of change, challenge and potentially even of crisis.

“Today, and against this backdrop, we must look warily at the prospect that what, until now, has been a healthy strategic competition, will tip into a full-blown cold war.”

Paulson’s comments reflect a common refrain among organisations working to improve Washington’s relationship with Beijing. An upcoming meeting between Trump and Xi on the sidelines of next week’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has not lifted the pessimism. Analysts expect, at most, a reprieve in the bilateral tensions during the meeting.

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“The policies and actions of both of our governments are pulling us apart,” Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, said in a keynote address at the organisation’s annual ball in New York last week. Orlins cited China’s market access rules and the inability of US media to operate in the country as examples.

“We must acknowledge that the atmosphere is dark and there are people on both sides of the Pacific that do not like what we do, distort our work, and disagree with our mission to educate people on both sides of the Pacific,” Orlins said.

Like the Asia Society and the National Committee, China Institute works to foster understanding between the two countries, but has been doing this work for much longer.

The organisation played a tangential role in the eventual resolution of the tensions that flared between Washington and the Qing dynasty court more than a century ago. China had demanded the return of money it had overpaid in a settlement with Washington over the loss of American lives and property during the Boxer Rebellion, a violent two-year uprising against foreigners in China that ended in 1901.

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Instead of continuing to insist on the return of around US$17 million, China agreed with a US proposal to use the money to begin the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship programme to aid Chinese students coming to the US.

The China Institute was founded with some of the indemnity scholarship funds and in turn financed the American education of some of the more than 1,300 Chinese students who received grants during the programme’s lifetime.

“This is a challenging time for US-China relations,” said China Institute president James Heimowitz. “For the sake of global prosperity and stability, the two most important countries in the world are going to have to identify ways to move forward together.

“The Blue Cloud Gala, which honours visionaries who have contributed to cross-cultural understanding in arts, culture, business, and the humanities, celebrates China Institute’s vital bridge-building work.”

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In addition to Liu and Sackler, John Long, founder and CEO of Highridge Partners, and Howard Milstein, president and CEO of New York Private Bank & Trust, will also receive Blue Cloud honours at China Institute’s ceremony.

Long and his family foundation established the University of California Irvine Long Institute, which focuses on “bridging common understanding between US and China in the areas of business, law and society”.