A Difference of Opinions

Jan 19, 2023

With the benefit of hindsight, some key lessons from my trip to Hong Kong last week are slowly coming into focus.

First, it was great to be back in Asia.  A three-year Covid-induced travel embargo was starting to become intolerable. Zoom is great for makeshift connectivity, but it doesn’t do justice to the real thing. I felt that that I was able to teach and manage the classroom exchange very effectively on the virtual platform. But the give and take of the macro debate is another matter altogether. There is no substitute for the real-time body language of personal engagement.

Second, the travel experience bordered on the surreal. Fifteen hours behind a mask was not particularly pleasant for me. Eating breaks became the highlight of flight time – not because of the food (where the quality had slipped over the three years) but because of the freedom from seemingly interminable pressure on your mouth and nose. The Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) was empty on arrival but chaotic on departure, reflecting the confluence of China’s reopening, early holiday travel for the upcoming Chinese New Year’s, and US Covid testing requirements. Because of the latter, I had to be especially creative in executing my departure. Like Tom Hanks stuck at JFK in the move Terminal, I had the very real fear of getting trapped at HKIA.

Third, and most important, was the reception to my message. I went to Hong Kong to preach the gospel of my new book, Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives. I met with corporate executives, investors, academics, government officials, think tank representatives, and old friends. They were polite in hearing me out on my diagnosis of the US-China conflict.  But they were enthusiastic when I laid out my three-point plan for conflict resolution – the trust building agenda, a market-opening, pro-growth bilateral investment treaty, and a new architecture of engagement provided by my proposal for a US-China Secretariat. There was plenty of quibbling over details of the plan but there was deep appreciation for the solution-focused conclusion of my book.

This stands in sharp contrast with the cynical response I get from the home crowd.  A typical retort from US audiences to my proposals for conflict resolution is, “You’ve got to be kidding!”  There is little or no interest in finding the middle ground that any compromise might entail. The view in the US is that America has a China problem.  Yes, the view in China, as expressed openly in Hong Kong, is that China has an America problem.  My view is one of shared culpability — that we both have a relationship problem that demands a relationship solution.  The Hong Kong audience quickly conceded the point.  Not so in America. Like US politicians, where there is not a single senator or member of the House in favor of re-engagement with China, the American public has never been so united in its strident anti-China view.  The same is true of the business community, where the silence is deafening.

I am not discouraged by this striking difference of opinions between Asians and Americans. I take it as a personal challenge to force debate on conflict resolution between the world’s two superpowers. The stakes are too high, the risks far too worrisome, to have a closed mind to the collective resolution required of a relationship conflict. The Hong Kong community understands the imperatives of compromise.  I wish I could say the same about the US.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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