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China Daily Website

Bridging the cultural divide

Updated: 2012-05-10 16:46
By Stuart W. Holliday ( chinadaily.com.cn)

The differences between the United States and China and how the two countries are increasingly competing around the world for economic standing, influence, and power are well chronicled on both sides of the Pacific.

The relationship is often seen as binary - for one to win, the other must lose. High profile conflicts can heighten this sense of intractable differences. While such issues are an important expression of national interests and should not be ignored, they can overshadow the fact that the US and China are building a long term relationship as important nations and have mutual interests in a number of areas while competing in others.

The two countries have to represent their core values and do not have to sacrifice those to gain from cooperation in the economic, cultural and educational arenas. As Americans, we value our contributions to political participation and universal human rights. We recognize that China is an ancient culture with much to offer in history and innovation.

Of course, diplomatic relations can be rife with challenges in approach and opinion that are, at times, hard to overcome and must be addressed. That is why this week's visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to China for the high level Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the 2012 Consultations on People-to-People-Exchanges (CPE) is so significant.

The CPE is an initiative to broaden and deepen US-China relations in areas of great mutual interest and potential new cooperation, like educational and cultural exchange. From ancient prints to cutting-edge art, music, film, and literature, our two countries have a great deal to share with one another that can provide a window on each culture.

The State Department is involving private sector partners and organizations, like Meridian International Center, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Asia Society, to stimulate exchange with our counterparts in China as part of the CPE's cultural pillar.

For more than a decade, Meridian has been creating exhibitions of American art that travel abroad and organizing presentations of foreign art in the US with the goal of promoting international understanding. Through the forum of art and exchange, thousands of visitors around the world have experienced a new culture for the first time, and thousands more have gained perspective on cultures they thought they knew.

Our experience is that artistic exchange offers a unique lens through which people can gain insights about another culture, society, and its values. On the heels of the CPE in China next week, the US Embassy and Meridian will be opening an exhibit of photos that depict one of America's quintessential music genres at China's most prestigious venue–the National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg).

The exhibit is called Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World and the story behind it demonstrates the power of cultural diplomacy. In the 1950's, Dizzy Gillespie and legendary music producer Quincy Jones led an effort to use jazz as a tool of foreign diplomacy.

They realized that if other countries experienced this iconic American art form and understood its ability to break racial barriers in the midst of America's civil rights movement; it could change perceptions, and inspire others. Millions of people around the world saw the US in a different light, while meeting and being entertained by some of the greatest musicians of the last century.

These two cultural ambassadors took a very simple idea and used it to build a bridge, in ways government-to-government relations could not do alone. More than 60 years after this great tour concluded, we documented one of the most successful public diplomacy initiatives of our time through a photo exhibition, which is now touring worldwide through the US Department of State. And like the tour itself, the exhibit has traveled to more than 35 countries and been viewed by millions of people.

The US Department of State, through Meridian and the US Embassy in Beijing,is bringing this photo exhibit to Beijing for a three-week engagement because it encapsulates the spirit of forging intercultural understanding through the arts. It's not only about jazz– it's about the connections we can make with the world, and the tangible and intangible effects those connections have.

Jam Session will travel throughout China and will be a continuation of an initiative called the American-Chinese Cultural Initiative (ACCI) that resulted from a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Meridian International Center and the China International Culture Association last year.

ACCI promotes high-level connections between American and Chinese businesses, non-profit organizations, and government entities in support of shared cultural projects. Art and culture and business will be at the fulcrum for cooperation across a number of sectors.

The goal is to generate exchanges and training that will continue to bring a wider perspective about the US to China and about China to the US.

This type of exchange cannot of course bridge all the differences between our two countries, but it does contribute to the dialogue between nations, helping us see one another in a more personal sustained way.

When that happens, we all can win.

The author is a former US Ambassador for Special Political Affairs to the United Nations (2003-2005) and currently the President and CEO of Meridian International Center in Washington, DC.