China-US visa deal more than just jobs and trade

IBM employee Yang Bo shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) after being the first Chinese citizen to be issued a ten-year visa, and receiving it from Kerry during a ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, November 12, 2014.

For some media outlets in the United States, President Barack Obama's trip to China this week was defined by his chewing gum while stepping out of a limousine and the subsequent comments by Chinese bloggers, or his awkward interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The substance of the trip has largely been ignored.

But it is fair to say that with the relatively low expectations after the somewhat downward spiral of the bilateral relationship over the past year, Obama's trip has produced many surprising and important agreements, ranging from climate change to a military-to-military confidence building mechanism.

While all the agreements will have a significant global impact, perhaps the visa agreement first announced by Obama on Monday will prove to be most important deliverable of this visit.

People who travel often between the two countries have to renew their visa every year. This entails filling in a lot of annoying paperwork and a long wait. This is especially true for businesspeople, students and the growing number of tourists.

The two countries won't solve the many thorny issues between them in one week, but the visa agreement is a big step in promoting more people-to-people exchanges and thus more mutual understanding, making solving problems easier in the future.

Misunderstanding and miscalculation have been attributed as major causes of the problems between the rising country and the incumbent power.

Many Chinese still get their knowledge of the US from Hollywood movies, a dramatized version of reality, which explains why some Chinese see the US as a place where you can pick up gold on the streets or a society rampant with crimes and gun violence. These, plus the often sensational news headlines, have played a major role in shaping public opinion.

The same is true on the US side. To many in the US, the image they have of China still looks like the country was 30 years ago, the unprecedented transformation of Chinese society over those years seemingly never happened.

I am not talking about my experiences of being asked such things as whether China is part of Hong Kong, the ignorance displayed about China among US lawmakers at hearings on China is often staggering.

Polls show that favourable sentiments toward each other are declining among Chinese and Americans. Clearly, more people-to-people exchanges are urgently needed if the two nations want to expand cooperation and effectively manage their differences.

In this sense, the visa agreement is a timely and long-term lubricant to facilitate better ties. No one can guarantee that people will have a favourable view after visiting a nation, yet that view is likely to be more relevant, balanced or nuanced, and is less likely to sound "foreign" to people in the other nation.

When Edmund Downie, a graduate from Yale University, became the first American to receive a 10-year tourist visa at the Chinese embassy consular section in Washington on Wednesday, journalists, including myself, were amazed to hear him speak fluent Chinese during the interview.

The 23-year-old is making his fifth trip to China next Monday and plans to go again next July.

Seeing Downie reminded me of Obama's first trip to China in November 2009 when he announced he was sending 100,000 American students to China over a period of four years. Having met many students going to China under that initiative, I have no doubt that the next generation of American leaders will understand China much better.

That is equally true on the Chinese side, with some 230,000 Chinese students pursuing various degree programs in US universities and colleges.

Due to the different cultures, history, traditions and political systems, differences between China and the US will continue to exist for a long time to come. But better understanding of one another will increase the ability to manage and narrow these differences.

In this sense, the significance of the visa agreement goes far beyond the extra revenues and jobs created for the tourism industry and other sectors.