Opinion | International politics require more empathy


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The Chinese and United States of America flags are draped over each other. Columnist Yuzhu Liu argues that international politics should require more cooperation between both parties.

By Yuzhu Liu, Columnist

The first high-level talk between China and the U.S. in the Biden administration happened in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 19. It did not take long for this diplomatic meeting to run counter to its initial intention as a reset of the tense China-U.S. relations in the past few years and ultimately deteriorate into a blistering clash between the two nations.

Both sides of officials vehemently accused the opposite party of conducting attacks and internal affairs concerning human rights. However, it is hard to call the Alaska meeting a conversation or exchange as both sides were simply talking but not listening. It was a debate stagnating at the phase of reciting prepared political statements.

“A lot of it was probably theater for domestic audiences, there’s definitely some of that for the U.S. and some of that for China.” Cailin Birch, a global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said to CNN.

The speakers of both sides successfully took what they needed to satisfy their people and praise themselves. The U.S audience sees the hard line they want, and so do the Chinese. 

During the Alaska meeting, the top trend in Chinese media was “Chinese representatives take a tough stand,” with a video showing the foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi denunciating the American discourtesy and questioning the American strength. At the same time, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken told journalists, “When we raised those issues clearly and directly, we got a defensive response.”

Two super information cocoons were built.

This is not the first time the disruption of the world has been witnessed. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak last year, some optimists expected that humans could realize how vulnerable their stubborn ideologies were in front of this destroying disaster. 

Instead, the future of unity did not appear. More ideological antagonism shot up during the pandemic. Racism and sexism cases have experienced significant growth. Globalization, a human community of a shared future, and the time when different regimes and cultures were willing to sit down and communicate peacefully seem to have already passed.

The conspiracy theories of COVID-19’s origin are the civil version of the Alaska clash. In February, several videos on Youtube with more than one-million-view accounts pointed out that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan labs, while posts spread in the Chinese internet implied the virus had its origin in Fort Detrick.

Though scientists from both sides claimed that the possibility that the virus was artificial was considered low, public opinions in China and the U.S. still both assert their perceived enemy was the pandemic’s provenance – achieving a weird, subtle political balance.

The ideological partition and hostility are not only happening at an international scale but also in a domestic sphere. After all the exhausting disputes and battles between Democrats and Republicans during the 2020 election, President Biden called for unity in America last November. “There’ll be no red states or blue states, but only United States.”

However, the domestic antagonism keeps raging on.

The partition of the world is desperate. Some lessons can be learned from a book published five years ago named “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” written by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

It contains intein-depth research of the American conservative rights’ increasingly polarized politics. Hochschild spent five years immersed into the Tea Party stronghold of Louisiana, exploring their stories and concerns, and seeking the possibility to climb the “empathy wall” between the conservatives and liberals.

Everyone lives in an information cocoon, whether built by the government’s propaganda, big data or even self-enclosure. It is hard to achieve sympathy, but at least there is a scholar willing to do so – to approach people with different values, get close to the so-called rednecks as labeled by the elites, respect the meanings of others’ lives and attempt to understand their worlds.

Burning out of the endless disputes happening among families and friends, the only thing I learned from the past few years is not to flatten any person around me into a single stance.

In my journalism class this week, I watched a speech given by Suki Kim, a Korean American journalist, about her undercover life as a university teacher in North Korea. How could an outsider get to know about the youths in a wholly isolated, contained country and feel what they feel? 

Kim spent all six months with her students, ate meals and played basketball with them, and witnessed how they opened their hearts in the personal letter assignments written to their friends, lovers and mothers.

Kim said, one of her “lovely, young gentlemen” once said to her, “Professor, we never think of you as being different from us. Our circumstances are different, but you’re the same as us.”

This is how it is. The obstacles to deep understanding and interlinking people always exist, yet, the question is how willing are we to climb the “empathy wall”, get out of indifference and hostility and ultimately reach the common ground.

Yuzhu is a freshman in Media.

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