From late August to early September, Chinese media gave an extensive coverage to a story of Chinese president Xi Jinping replying to a letter from a nonprofit organization in Washington state. China’s largest state media outlets, such as the People Daily, Xinhua News, Global Times, China Daily, all carried it. It is safe to say that not many Washingtonians knew about it, except perhaps a few in Pierce County.
The nonprofit in question turned out to be the Lakewood, Washington-based U.S.-China Youth and Students Exchange Association. It has been promoting exchanges since 2015, the year Xi Jinping visited Seattle and Tacoma on his first official visit to the U.S. as the president of China. While here, Xi visited Boeing, Microsoft, and Lincoln High School in Tacoma. It was Xi’s visit that inspired the founders to form the Association.
Earlier this summer, this Association wrote a letter to Xi Jinping, expressing their wishes for China’s success in hosting the World University Games and the Asian Games, as well as the Association’s dedication to youth exchanges between the U.S. and China. In his reply, Xi recalled his fond memories visiting Lincoln High, and said the future of China-U.S. relations lay in the youth, and hoped more Chinese and American youth could become a new generation of ambassadors of the two countries.
In addition to the letter, the Association also sent a group of high school students and a teacher from Steilacoom, Washington to the 17th Shanghai International Youth Interactive Friendship Camp. Two of the students as well as Mayor Dick Muri of Steilacoom shared their appreciation of Xi’s reply and their experience in China in this Aug. 29th video by Xinhua News.
You must wonder why Xi Jinping, as head of China, replies to a letter from an obscure nonprofit in Washington. Well, in fact, Xi Jinping has been a kind of pen pal, as KING-5 News once described, with mayors of Tacoma, Steilacoom, and the principal of Lincoln High since his visit to Tacoma, especially after about 100 Lincoln High students visited China in 2016 at Xi’s invitation. But why such interest in Tacoma or the Tacoma area? The reason is the Tacoma-Fuzhou sister city relationship. While working as a lower-level official of Fuzhou, Xi had visited Tacoma in 1993.
Still, you wonder how Xi Jinping, as the “chairman of everything” finds time writing letters to everyday Washingtonians. In fact, Xi exchanges a lot of letters with various groups, Chinese or international, old, and young. One search on Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, brought up stories of groups he wrote to or replied to, that included an international youth forum, a society of veteran Chinese soldiers, a mainland-Taiwan exchange program, and a foreign professor in China.
Xi Jinping has replied to two more letters recently from Americans. On Aug. 31, Xi replied to a letter from John Easterbrook, grandson of former U.S. General Joseph Stilwell, who served as commander of all U.S. forces in China, Burma, and India during World War II. Xi thanked the family for their friendly exchanges with China.
On Sept. 22, Xi replied to another letter, this time from two Flying Tigers veterans and the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation. Xi wrote that he was heartened by their great enthusiasm in letting more Chinese and Americans know about the stories of the Flying Tigers. Flying Tigers were American volunteer aviators who helped the Chinese Air Force to defeat the Japanese Forces also in World War II.
So how should we see Xi Jinping’s letter writing, or letter diplomacy, especially with Americans?
On the one hand, Xi wants to show that he is a people person, an accessible leader, a friend to many around the world, not a dictator as President Biden has called him. On the other hand, Xi’s letter is never simply a letter. It is part of what Xi Jinping calls the people-to-people diplomacy, which the Communist Party deems an important part of China’s state diplomacy.
There are many policy papers and speeches on this topic among Chinese government agencies dealing with foreign relations. According to Wang Chao, president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, who wrote in China Daily, there were four goals of the people-to-people diplomacy: enhancing other countries’ support for China’s efforts to build a new type of international relations; defending and promoting China’s national interests; promoting China’s national image; and promoting China’s proposals to address regional and global issues. And all these policy points are, of course, part of what Wang called “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.”
People-to-people, however, is not just a Chinese diplomatic term. American diplomats use similar phrases regarding China.
Following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China earlier this summer, the State Department posted this: “Noting the importance of ties between the people of the United States and the PRC, both sides welcomed strengthening people-to-people exchanges between students, scholars, and business.” Blinken himself then posted on Twitter, now X, about how he enjoyed meeting alumni from such exchanges: “China and the United States share a rich history of people-to-people exchanges, and these programs continue to play a vital role.” His agency in fact runs Exchange Programs with 160 countries under the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary, played her own kind of people diplomacy, or rather “mushroom diplomacy,” while visiting Beijing. By having lunch at a Yunnan-style restaurant featuring mushrooms, Yellen set off a culinary craze in China, as CNN claimed.
Gina Raimondo, U.S. Commerce Secretary, also went to China this summer and visited the Disney park in Shanghai. She told PBS, “…frankly, there’s benefit to Chinese kids being exposed to U.S. brands and U.S. culture,” and, “There’s a certain soft-power benefit of that, a certain exchange of culture and people-to-people exchange.”
These exchanges, of course, only play a role in serving U.S. national interests. In the Administration’s approach to the People’s Republic of China, Blinken stated that “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” The U.S., he continued, would “compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.”
It is clear both the U.S. and China promote and defend their own national interests while also engage in people-to-people diplomacy or exchanges. The difference is China’s president writes letters, with a purpose. We should pay more attention when Xi Jinping exchanges letters with Washingtonians and Americans.