November 30, 2016
After a prominent career in the Chinese media, Mr. Hong Lei arrived in Chicago in late July to fulfill a new role as Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Chicago. Since then, he has traveled throughout the Midwest with the aim of strengthening China-US relations and promoting people-to-people exchanges between China and the region. On Wednesday, November 30, Global Voices Editor Hanna Pfeiffer spoke with Consul General Hong Lei about his predictions for the future of China-US relations and his response to widespread concerns regarding China's policies and attitude toward the United States.
Global Voices: As the Chinese Consul General in Chicago, you have made many public appearances. In your time here, which of your appearances do you think has had the greatest impact on US-China relations?
Hong Lei: My job here is to make as many friends as possible in the US, make the opportunity of cooperation known, and make these friends a part of our efforts to have a better relationship. My work here impresses me often because I sense a strong aspiration and enthusiasm for strengthening ties between the Midwest and China. I remember very clearly, soon after I arrived, I met the business officials in the region I cover. This region includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado. Everyone wishes to strengthen the relationship, and we have a common business language. I remember very clearly my meeting with the directors of the 19 Confucius Institutes here in the Midwest. These institutes do very well in promoting education and Chinese culture, and they bring us much closer. They diversify their efforts to make their work effective. I keenly felt a sense of strong commitment by the Confucius Institutes in this region. I also remember very clearly when I joined a famous Chinese pianist for a solo performance in Carmel, Indiana. When I saw the audience stand to applaud at the end of the concert, I sensed that our people have common aspirations and a common love of beautiful art. We should have more of this kind of friendly alliance.
Global Voices: You stated in a previous presentation that China does not have expansionist tendencies. Therefore, it should not be viewed as a threat. However, one thing that is straining US-China relations is that China’s actions in the South China Sea, such as China’s construction of artificial islands, are signs of expansionism. How do you respond to this claim?
Lei: I don't think it is expansionism of China. Our construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea is on our own soil. This is not a new claim. We discovered, named, and explored these islands 2,000 years ago. One thousand years ago, we began to administrate jurisdiction over these islands and the reefs peacefully, continuously, and effectively. That established China's sovereignty over the natural islands. Our construction on the islands first improves the living conditions of the people living on those islands. Secondly, it provides public service for the regions. We built hospitals, like towers, to allow the people to have China’s service in the event of an emergency. We can guide the voyage of ships in those areas. Our construction will do good for the region, and we respect and uphold the freedom of navigation and flight. There is no impact for this kind of freedom even though we may have related disputes with relevant countries in the South China Sea region. Our aim is to solve these disputes through direct dialogues and negotiations with the parties concerned. Before we find a solution, we will keep the peace in the South China Sea with the relevant countries. That is our solemn commitment.
Global Voices: Some Americans view China's growing economy as another threat to US prosperity. What can China's diplomats do to assuage these fears?
Lei: Essentially, the economic and trade cooperation between China and the United States is win-win. Here are some examples: 22% of the cotton, 26% of the Boeing planes, 56% of the soybeans produced here are exported to China creating one million jobs in the United States. In recent years, we have seen a growing momentum of Chinese companies investing in the United States. In the Midwest, we have about 13 billion dollars of investment by Chinese companies creating about 30,000 new jobs. Nationwide, the total investment created around 100,000 new jobs. This kind of exchange between the two countries helps the US economically. It creates new employment and new tax revenues. It showcases that our exchanges and commercial relationship have a significant impact. According to a recent survey conducted by the US-China Business Council, 75% of the US companies in China are optimistic about China's economic growth. Ninety percent of them profit from their Chinese business, and 50% would like to make a new investment in China. That means the development of China's economy brings more opportunities for US companies in China.
Global Voices: How do you see US and China relations changing in the wake of Donald Trump's recent election?
Lei: Since we established diplomatic relations in 1979, we have created a history of bilateral ties. We enjoy a two-way trade volume of $560 billion US dollars. We are the largest developed country and the largest developing country. We are the number one and number two economies on this globe. This is a common interest and a big responsibility to shoulder. For China and the United States, no matter what changes are happening domestically and internationally, the fundamental pillars that our valuable relationship remain unchanged. First, the basic common interest has not changed. Secondly, the opportunities created by development of both countries are still ostensible and obvious. Thirdly, the aspiration and enthusiasm for our two peoples to have a sound and steady bilateral relationship is unchanged. Fourthly, the expectation of the world community for our two nations to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining world peace, stability, and prosperity remains unchanged. The only choice for our two nations is to have more mutual trust and more cooperation to benefit our people and the world. We are very glad to learn that President Xi Jinping had a very good phone conversation with president-elect Donald Trump. Both think it is very important to continue the momentum of continued relations.
Global Voices: In what area do you see the greatest potential for future US and China cooperation? How do you expect the work of China's diplomats to change in the future?
Lei: There is potential economic trade, tourism, education, and more. We estimate that in the next five years, the import from the US by China will be around $8 trillion US dollars. The total outbound investment will be $700 billion US dollars. This means there will be very good opportunities for the United States to expand the trade investment and tourism. I believe more and more Chinese students are coming to the United States. These days we have around 330,000 Chinese students studying in the United States, accounting for one third of the international students. I think they will stay here for a longer period and more students will come. That means we have many reasons to cooperate in the education field. I know many universities, such as the University of Chicago, have more intensive academic cooperation and exchanges with China. This trend will continue in the upcoming years. As for Chinese diplomats, we will be much busier in the future because we have so many things to facilitate, so many things to throw our weight behind. I will be very glad to enter a much busier season for US and China relations.