People-to-people exchange can help warm up bilateral ties
By Ma Miaomiao  ·  2023-09-11  ·   Source: NO.37 SEPTEMBER 14, 2023
  Members of the late U.S. General Joseph Stilwell's family view an exhibition on his life and work in China at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing Municipality on August 8 (XINHUA)

"I have a faith in the Chinese people, fundamentally great, honest, frugal, industrious, cheerful, independent, tolerant, friendly and courteous, and the soldiers, too." That's the Chinese people in the eyes of former United States General Joseph Stilwell, who served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II, some 80 years ago.

"And I might add we still see that in the Chinese people today," John Easterbrook, grandson of Stilwell, recently told Xinhua News Agency.

Stilwell was an old friend of the Chinese people, who gave active support to China's cause of liberation and progress and made positive contributions to the friendship between the two peoples, which the Chinese people will never forget, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote in a reply letter to Easterbrook, on August 29.

In tough times

Throughout his 42-year military service, Stilwell made five visits to China between 1911 and 1944, and lived in the country for 12 years.

In southwest China, there was a 1,726-km-long road linking the northeastern Indian town of Ledo and Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. It was named the Stilwell Road after the American general. More than 50,000 tons of supplies were transported through it to battlefields in China during World War II.

Talking about his grandfather and his time spent in China, Easterbrook, an 82-year-old retired army colonel, said, "He had great respect and admiration for the Chinese people, and in return, the Chinese people have a very high regard for him locked in their hearts."

Stilwell's wartime residence in Chongqing was converted into a museum and opened to the public in 1994. The general is the only high-ranking U.S. military figure who has a museum dedicated to his memory in China.

Stilwell's admiration for the Chinese was not just for "the top-echelon people" but for the laobaixing, Easterbrook added, using the Chinese expression for "ordinary people."

For example, "in 1921, he was the chief engineer responsible for constructing a famine relief road in Shaanxi Province [in northwest China], and he rubbed elbows on a daily basis with the workers and the supervisors. He lived as they did, stayed in Chinese inns, [and] traveled the way they did," Easterbrook said.

Stilwell also advocated an objective evaluation of the role of the Communist Party of China in the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War (1931-45). His courage still offers enlightenment for today's China-U.S. relations, Zhang Jiming, Vice President of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, said during a commemorative event marking the 140th anniversary of Stilwell's birth in early August.

In 1994, Chas W. Freeman Jr, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, accompanied then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry to inaugurate Stilwell's museum in Chongqing. "To me, Vinegar Joe (Stilwell's nickname) personifies all the Americans who did their best to help China when it most needed help," he said.

"He and the museum dedicated to him symbolize a shared Sino-American history of cooperation under difficult circumstances, and inspire hope for renewed cooperation in the face of challenges," Freeman added.

For the descendants of Stilwell, Chongqing also serves as a unique bond connecting their family with the Chinese people for over 80 years. Frequent visits have been paid by the family, with its fifth generation coming to China for the first time this August and learning the legacy of Stilwell in Chongqing.

The family has been working to promote people-to-people exchange between the two countries. In 1982, Stilwell's daughters established a scholarship fund to support Chinese students at U.S. universities. Over the past four decades, the scholarship has benefited more than 50 recipients.

Amity between people

Looking back, Xi said in his letter, China and the U.S. fought side by side against Japanese fascists and for world peace; looking into the future, the two countries have every reason to help each other achieve success and common prosperity.

Taking stock of the history of China-U.S. relations, people-to-people exchange has always been integral. This exchange in different fields has played a crucial role in deepening and stabilizing bilateral ties at key junctures, Diao Daming, a professor at the School of International Studies at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, told China Daily.

On April 10, 1971, a U.S. table tennis delegation came to China at the invitation of the Chinese Government, lifting the curtain for the normalization of bilateral relations. In January 1973, the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe performed in the U.S. It was the first performing arts exchange between the People's Republic of China and the U.S. The entire cast had a face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Richard Nixon. In 1978, 52 Chinese students went to study in the U.S. and eight American students came to study in China, forming a prelude to the era of mutual learning and friendly exchange between the two peoples.

Before the emergence of COVID-19, Chinese and U.S. people made more than 5 million mutual visits every year, and more than 90 percent of U.S. states and cities have sister provinces (states) and cities in China.

The people of the two countries need to carry on the friendship fostered by Stilwell, according to Qiu Wenxing, Deputy Director of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in August.

"Both history and reality have proved that China and the U.S. have more common interests than differences," Qiu said. "History shows that when we properly handle each other's core and major interests, bilateral relations will grow smoothly. Otherwise, they will be in trouble."

Since 2017, the U.S. has positioned China as its "strategic competitor." While initiating trade frictions with China, it has also obstructed bilateral cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and suspended traditional cooperation projects such as the Fulbright Program with China, seriously damaging bilateral relations, Gao Fei, Vice President of the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University, said.

"The more difficulties China-U.S. relations are facing, the more necessary it is to strengthen exchange between people from all walks of life and build channels for exchange and mechanisms for communication," Wang Dong, a tenured professor at the School of International studies and Executive Director of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding at Peking University, told People's Daily.

Recently, Xi also replied to a letter from the U.S.-China Youth and Student Exchange Association and friendly people from all segments of society in the U.S. state of Washington, saying "the hope and foundation of the China-U.S. relationship lie in the people, and its future lies in the youth."

"Through the exchanges, the friendship between the young people of China and the United States has grown, and the understanding and respect for each other deepened," David Chong, founder and president of the association, said.

"Young people, growing up in the digital era, are more open and inclusive toward each other, and have a common interest in global issues," Wang said, adding friendship among youth can help enhance communication and understanding between the two countries.

(Print Edition Title: The Legacy of Friendship)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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