By Kathy Kemper – 05/14/09 07:11 AM ET
On May 5, the Institute for Education hosted an opinion leaders dinner forum at the new Chinese embassy — it’s a marvel to behold, yet another one of I.M. Pei’s exquisite creations. The theme of the event was “China and the United States: Our Vital Partnership.” IFE gave its highest honor, the Civility Award, to Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong in recognition of China’s extraordinary performance in the 29th Olympiad and its rapid emergence (re-emergence, some would say) as a great power on the world stage.
The esteem of the guests who attended is a sign of how far the Sino-American relationship has come in the past three decades and how important it is going forward. On hand to present Ambassador Zhou with the award was none other than Larry Eagleburger, one of America’s most distinguished statesmen. Secretary Eagleburger was on crutches when I invited him to do the honors, having just gotten done with knee surgery. Even so, he hopped in his car and drove all the way from Charlottesville, Va. — a three-hour trek — to join us for this historic evening. Just to give you a sense of how significant his appearance was, he was one of two people whom President George H.W. Bush secretly sent to Beijing in 1989 to reassure the Chinese that the United States would maintain ties with them after Tiananmen Square.
The event was also special because so many high-profile journalists attended — Gerry Seib from The Wall Street Journal, John Pomfret from The Washington Post, Mort Kondracke from Fox News, Juan Williams from NPR, Gloria Borger from CNN and John Harwood from CNBC, just to name a few. Each of these opinion leaders joined with a senior diplomat from the Chinese embassy to moderate a table discussion on three pressing questions:
(1) Hillary Clinton observed in late 2007 that America’s “relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.” Furthermore, upon becoming secretary of State, she made her first overseas trip to Asia; the only other U.S. Secretary of State to have done so was Secretary Dean Rusk in 1961. What do you make of her thinking?
(2) There are and will continue to be many topics on which China and the United States do not agree — what steps can both countries take to overcome those areas, find common ground and exercise enduring leadership together?
(3) How has the global financial crisis affected the relationship between China and the United States?
Minister Xie Feng, the embassy’s DCM, warmly welcomed the opinion leaders, saying that their role in engaging Chinese leaders in dialogue is crucial. That statement struck everyone in the audience. Sure, China has a long way to go in terms of press freedom, and its leaders are the first to say so. But the China of today is far freer than it was when our two countries established official relations. China allowed foreign journalists in the lead-up to and during the Olympics. The Internet has given critics of the government unprecedented opportunities — in fact, satires and criticisms of Hu Jintao and his colleagues have gone mainstream. The aftermaths of the SARS epidemic, the Sichuan earthquake, and the tainted-milk scandal have also given tremendous momentum to the movement for a freer press in China.
The fact that IFE was able to host an event in which several of America’s leading journalists had a chance to ask Chinese diplomats tough questions about China is yet another sign that China has come a long way. And the diplomats asked the journalists tough questions too. As Eleanor Clift from Newsweek put it, “From the stunning architecture to the array of people gathered in the spirit of friendship between two great nations, the new Chinese embassy provided the perfect common ground that IFE seeks to achieve in its work.” Continuing to engage our Chinese friends in a dignified way will ensure that it continues down the path to peace and prosperity.
To view other videos from the opinion leaders dinner forum, go here.
To view photos from the event, go here.
To view the IFE webpage for the event, go here.