Current U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns was the featured speaker for CHINA Town Hall 2023, a national conversation on how the U.S.-China relationship affects our communities. The nationwide virtual conversation, including live Q&A, took place on Wednesday, October 11, at 7:00 p.m. ET.

About the speaker


STEPHEN A. ORLINS: I’m Steve Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, coming to you live from the Beijing-American Center at U.S. Embassy Beijing, and I’m pleased to welcome audiences from over six dozen venues throughout the United States, Canada, and China to our 17th Annual CHINA Town Hall. We convene CHINA Town Hall in the belief that understanding U.S.-China relations is important for every American and Chinese. Educated populations lead to better policies. 

Over the last six months, we’ve seen increasing diplomatic activities between our two countries. Will it continue? Will there be substantive outcomes that benefit the peoples of America and China and give us a more prosperous and peaceful world? We are thrilled to have the U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, with us to discuss the current state of U.S.-China relations and answer your questions. 

Ambassador Burns has had a storied career in American diplomacy, serving six U.S. presidents and nine secretaries of state. He was ambassador to NATO and ambassador to Greece and on the National Security Council working on Russia and Ukraine. He was confirmed by the Senate in December 2021. His experience and time here in Beijing make him the perfect person to talk with us. 

I’d like to thank our speakers and partners across the United States and China for hosting this event. Thank you also to the Starr Foundation for its continued generosity in funding CHINA Town Hall. Finally, thank you to our National Committee staff for working so hard to coordinate this nationwide event. 

To participate in the conversation on Twitter, now called X, use the hashtag #CTH2023. You can also scan the QR code on the bottom of the screen to ask a question to Ambassador Burns. We will address your questions at the end. Please note that today’s discussion is live from Beijing, so if we briefly lose connectivity, sit tight. We’ll come back live as quickly as possible. 

Let me begin with a question to Ambassador Burns, which is on everybody’s mind, which is the effect of the massacre by Hamas of Israeli, Americans and other civilians in Israel, and what the effect of that is on U.S.-China relations. 

AMBASSADOR NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, Steve, thank you and good morning and good evening to all of you in the United States and Canada and elsewhere. It’s a real pleasure for me to be with Steve Orlins, someone I respect very much and to be with the National Committee. Your organization is so important. I think of the lifeblood of this relationship, Steve, for half a century, your organization stands out, so I’m happy to be here. Obviously the brutal, I would say, evil Hamas attacks on Israel, the state of Israel and all Israelis this past week has been the topic of the day here in China. 

I just hosted Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Mike Crapo, and four other U.S. senators here at the first congressional delegation we’ve had here in four plus years, and that was really a dominant issue in the meetings that they had with President Xi Jinping, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhao Lijian, and others, and it had to be. 

And Senator Schumer and I raised this with the Chinese leadership. Senator Schumer said, in fact, from this room, when we gave our press conference the other night, he had been disappointed by the initial reaction of the government here in China, which was very neutral and very flat and did not at all express any sensitivity to the loss of life. And he raised that directly, Senator Schumer did, with President Xi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Chinese subsequently issued a new statement where they did say that they were very sympathetic to the loss of life in Israel and, of course, did not support terrorism. And I think it is a larger question, too, Steve. 

China has taken on, I think by its own admission, a bigger role in the Middle East. They have tried to broker some kind of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They say they want a two-state solution. You have to be effective. You have to stand for something. And Senator Schumer did point out, Majority Leader Schumer, several times publicly during the trip: Hamas does not accept the two-state solution. Hamas does not accept the state of Israel. Hamas, by its very creed, wants to destroy the state of Israel and kill Israelis. 

What’s been different about this war over the last five or six days has been the brutality by Hamas killing children, babies, killing girls, killing civilians. It’s horrifying. And so the other night when I had a reception at our ambassador’s house, my wife and I’s house here in Beijing, I invited Irit Ben-Abba, the Israeli ambassador to China. And in a very public way, we were in a public platform with all the senators and myself standing behind her. She bore witness to what had happened in Israel. Every Israeli knows someone who’s been killed or affected or wounded. It was extremely powerful. Each of the six senators spoke, and then I spoke on behalf of President Biden and we all said unequivocally we’re standing with Israel. And I think this makes the United States’ role in the Middle East so important. I served there as a young officer in both Egypt and Israel and understand that we have an irreplaceable role in trying both to defend Israel, oppose terrorism but support peace eventually at some point in the future. 

ORLINS: As you said, China is taking a bigger role in the Mideast. They’ve brokered the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Saudis and Iran. Are we supportive of that effort? How does the U.S. government view those activities? 

BURNS: When, here in Beijing several months ago, Director Wang Yi was able to bring together the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers, we congratulated the Chinese. I did. Jake Sullivan, our national security advisor, Secretary Tony Blinken, all subsequently said, “Well, if China can play this kind of role, if it’s positive, then we congratulate them.” It remains to be seen if China has the ability to be a true mediator where you have to speak the truth to both sides. You have to look for differences. You have to be actively engaged every day. It’s the kind of role we’ve played for the last half century in the Middle East. I don’t see really indications of that. 

I should also say that was a deal that brokered the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Obviously, the United States has tremendous differences with Iran, and this week, obviously, we (our government) have been warning Iran not to become more involved than it has been in the events in the Middle East. Of course, Iran is a historic supporter of both Hamas and Hezbollah, creator of Hezbollah. 

So, this kind of real-world practical diplomacy that the United States has practiced for a long time, you don’t really see the Chinese doing that. So, I think they’re a little bit more distant from these problems than we are. 

ORLINS: During your time as ambassador, we’ve actually seen quite a significant change in U.S.-China relations in terms of communication. So, in your first 12 months, very little communication. Then after National Security Advisor Blinken met with Wang Yi in Vienna, we have seen a series of cabinet-level meetings. We’ve seen Han Zheng come to the United States. We’ll see Wang Yi in the United States next week. What changed? Why did it change? 

BURNS: You know, you and I are both veteran observers of this relationship. I first came to China 35 years ago. There’s been a start and stop quality of contacts between our two countries, and that has not been our choice. But if you ask all my predecessors as ambassador over the last 15 or 20 years, there were periods of time when the Chinese, because perhaps they were opposed to something we had done, or it was a low moment in the relationship, stopped all communications. That happened here under my watch after Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan 14 months ago, and we supported her right to visit Taiwan. 

The Chinese shut down, for a couple of months, all communication with our government. I actually had seven or eight meetings with then Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng during this time where we argued about Taiwan, but there was really no cabinet-level discussion. 

After the balloon crisis in early February, the same thing happened. You know, I think we certainly realize—I can only speak for our government, Steve—that it’s unstable and it can even be dangerous when two great powers like China and the United States are not communicating at a high level. So, we determined, back in April and May, that we had to try to stimulate many more channels of communication and much deeper cabinet-level communication. 

So, what’s happened since then? Secretary Tony Blinken was here in June. Secretary Janet Yellen was here in July. John Kerry, our climate negotiator, in mid-July. Henry Kissinger didn’t come as an emissary of the United States, but when a hundred-year-old historic figure in the U.S.-China relationship comes to China and spends five hours with President Xi Jinping, came to our embassy and was honored for three hours by 700 of us, that was a big moment in the relationship. Secretary Gina Raimondo was here at the end of August. Jake Sullivan, and I was with him. We spent 13 hours… 

ORLINS: In Malta. 

BURNS: In Malta. On the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, a month ago for very good, practical conversations. In this past week, we had our first congressional delegation in four plus years. And to have the majority leader of the Senate lead a delegation with three Democrats and three Republicans, and Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho was the lead Republican, they spoke with one voice, they were engaged with the Chinese leadership, they saw Xi Jinping, [Deputy Director of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Zhao Lijian, Wang Yi, [Chinese Minister of Commerce] Wang Wentao, we are back communicating. And I think that is essential. 

We have, as you know, Steve, better than anybody, a thousand differences between our governments, and we have areas where we can work together. But we’ve got to live in peace. We’ve got to find a way to communicate. And I think we’ve done that over the last five months. Let’s see if we can continue it. I think we can. You asked that question in your opening remarks. I think for the next several months and into 2024, we hope to continue this level of contact. 

ORLINS: Will we see substantive outcomes? Have we seen substantive outcomes? 

BURNS: We’ll see. You know, most of the major differences in the relationship have not been bridged. But the only way you can bridge them or manage the differences, because sometimes differences cannot be bridged. Our differences with China over Taiwan are not going to be easily bridged, but can we manage the differences in such a way that we are frank with each other? We in the United States defend our position as we have to do, but we don’t descend into conflict. That I think is the key test of diplomacy, and that’s what animates the men and women of our U.S. mission here in China. 

ORLINS: Has your access to both the official and unofficial China—so, universities, think tanks, as well as official China, the government—changed during this period of increased contact? Do you have better access than you did in the days when you first arrived? 

BURNS: It’s changed dramatically along with this new phase in the relationship. Obviously, I’ve been in many meetings with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang, of course, Foreign Minister Wang Yi. There were times just to provide the point of comparison, say, after the Speaker Pelosi’s visit following the balloon incident, I was not and my colleagues in the U.S. mission were not welcome on university campuses. We were not welcome to visit provincial cities and meet with local officials. That has all changed. Now, we don’t have meetings with… I met the party secretary in Changsha a couple of weeks ago. We had a very good meeting. We didn’t agree on everything. And I think the government here has made a decision that we need to be engaged. 

Here’s the way we look at it, Steve. China and the United States are the two strongest military powers in the world. We’re the two strongest economic powers in the world. We’re really the only two countries that have true global reach around the world. We are in a historic competition and rivalry with each other. There’s no other way to describe that relationship. And that rivalry or competition is likely to extend well into the next decade. So, the test for us is, can we compete and yet also find ways to work together when it’s possible climate change, global public health, food security, agriculture, fentanyl? We should come back to it because that was a major issue this week with the congressional delegation. And can we find a way to do that and make sure that we have enough connectivity with each other that we don’t end up in a situation of conflict? 

I would say that encapsulates those three points—competition, engagement, and making sure that we’re living without conflict. That encapsulates, I think, what both countries have to do in this very complicated relationship. 

ORLINS: We’ve sanctioned… I saw in the press conference that you and the senators had after the visit, that there was a lot of talk about fentanyl, which obviously is killing enormous numbers of Americans. The Chinese say that one of the problems is we have sanctioned those in the Ministry of Public Security that need to deal with these issues. Is there some conversation about how this can go forward? 

BURNS: We’re trying to work our way through this problem. The diplomatic problem is that the Chinese refuse, as of now, to have a sustained conversation with us for how we can work to prevent Chinese companies from exporting precursor chemicals to the drug cartels in Mexico. And 90 percent of the precursor chemicals that the drug cartels use come from China, Chinese companies. How can we prevent that from happening? 

The government here has a lot of authority. It can exercise that authority. They do complain that we’ve sanctioned, the United States sanctioned the Institute of Forensic Science, which is one of the labs in the Ministry of Public Security, but that was for reasons having to do with human rights violations in Xinjiang, nothing to do with narcotics. And here’s how we’ve communicated this problem and how the senators did as well. 

We understand that fentanyl is the largest cause of death of Americans [ages] 18 to 49. It is a true social and public health crisis in the United States. We understand that we have a responsibility as Americans to deal with that problem of demand at home. China has a responsibility to stop the flow of precursor chemicals to the drug cartels. We’ve got to work on this together. 

As you know, Sen. Schumer spoke about this publicly, as did I this week, and we said that we had raised this with President Xi Jinping at some length and in some degree of detail, as well as the other leaders. We’re going to keep doing that. I do think the government here understands we have to talk, but here’s the diplomatic conundrum. How do we do that, under what conditions? And I can tell you we’re working, I’m working, my staff and I, and my colleagues, very hard on that. 

ORLINS: Great. We’re going to go to questions from the audience, but let me just ask the question that’s on a lot of people’s mind is, will President Biden meet with President Xi on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in mid-November? 

BURNS: Well, President Biden has spoken several times publicly over the last several months saying he hopes that there will, at some point, be a meeting with President Xi Jinping, but no such meeting has yet been worked out. So, you know, I think we talked before about the continuum of here. We’ve seen a lot of American cabinet secretaries come here. We’ve had Wang Wentao, the very able commerce minister, in Washington in the spring. I do think there will be other Chinese ministerial visits to Washington. We’ll see about a head of state meeting. That’s for the White House to announce when that’s set up. 

ORLINS: Your plea in Washington to have senators and congressmen come, they actually came, and the Chinese government could hear directly from the Congress, was really remarkably successful. I don’t know if people appreciate what a hard hill that was to climb. 

BURNS: You know, Steve, this might be… You know, for your audience because your audience is so well informed, you and I’ve talked about this personally. We had not had a secretary of state, and a secretary of treasury, and a secretary of commerce come to this city, Beijing, in five years. We hadn’t had a single member of Congress here in four years. This has been just a strange situation where we’ve actually…our people to people contacts have been decoupled at the official level and the unofficial level. So, we are determined to keep this level of contact going. And I hope that more members of Congress will come. 

I started working with Senator Schumer on this visit that happened this week in June back in D.C. My one piece of advice, which I think the members have accepted, is please, bipartisan delegations, show the Chinese people in government that we are united back home, the two parties, and I think they are on the larger policy that we’re trying to pursue. 

ORLINS: Yes, it’s a great accomplishment. But the purpose of CHINA Town Hall is to allow audiences to ask you directly some questions. So, our first question comes from Zoe Zhang, who’s at the University of Rochester. So, Zoe, ask your question. 

ZOE ZHANG: Thank you for an amazing address, Ambassador Burns. My question is, as we look ahead, how do you perceive as the pivotal domains of cooperation contentions in the U.S.-China relations and how academics and researchers play a role in fostering a deeper comprehensions of these dynamics? Thank you. 

BURNS: Thank you very much. You’re at a great university in New York State, one of our greatest. So, thank you for your question. You know, I do think that citizens, who are not part of the government either in China or the United States, can play a big role. Steve and I were just talking about a decoupling, if you will, not of our economies. We’re not in favor of that. But of our official contacts, that is definitely true of the citizen contacts. 

I’ll give you some data points. Tourism. Chinese tourism to the United States, American tourism to China has plummeted one data point. In 2019, there were 1.2 million Chinese tourists in Los Angeles alone. And I think last year, 160,000. Second data point, we have now roughly 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. Our embassy and consulates here have just granted over 90,000 student visas to Chinese students. So, that number is going to go up. But as recently as 2015, we had about 15,000 American students here in China. We now have, we think, about 350. 

So, one of our major priorities is to try to reconnect the citizens of China and the United States students, NGO, academic leaders, members of Congress, because that’s the ballast in the relationship for the short-term and getting young Americans over here to do what Steve Orlins did as a young man, come over here, learn Mandarin, understand the Chinese people, and culture, and history, become a lifelong expert so that 20 or 30 years from now, our university professors, our university presidents, and our secretaries of state and ambassadors have had some experience in this country. That’s critical. 

And I do think the Chinese are meeting us more than halfway. In fact, it’s interesting. President Xi mentioned the other day to us that he had written for American citizens, and he has. I’ve followed this in the People’s Daily over the last couple of months. And there’s some resonance here. I mean, the Chinese remember the Flying Tigers. And two of the senators here, Senator John Kennedy and Senator Bill Cassidy, are both from Louisiana. And we stood in my office with a statue of General Claire Chennault, the leader of the Flying Tigers. 

And that gets a big reception, Steve, on Chinese social media when you do that. So, I think we, as Americans, whatever we think of the U.S.-China relationship, wherever we are on the spectrum and what party Americans are in, we’ve got to commit to a long-term relationship with China on a people-to-people level. So, thank you, Zoe, for a good question. 

ORLINS: Well, you know, on the people to people, we need more flights. 

BURNS: We do. 

ORLINS: It only took me 24 hours to reach Beijing this time. 

BURNS: That’s all. 

ORLINS: That’s all. Right. I mean, I got to experience Istanbul because I flew back through Turkey, but we’re supposed to go to 48 [direct flights per week] by December 31, and I hope… When I was at the Chinese embassy for the National Day Reception, Ambassador Xie Feng said, “We hope we see a doubling of that early in 2024.” Is that on the horizon? 

BURNS: We’re working hard on it. And for those who may not be aware of it, because you haven’t tried to get here, Steve and I have had to fly back and forth. Pre-pandemic, there were about 340 direct flights per week between the United States and China. Right now, there are 24 direct flights per week. That is doubling this month, so it’ll be 48 flights by the end of this month, and we do hope to make further progress. This is a very complex set of issues. This is a bilateral set of issues, so our U.S. Department of Transportation works with the civil air authorities here in China. They have to agree on the air routes because, of course, reciprocity is important. We don’t want air routes that would be a disadvantage to United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta, the three American carriers, versus the Chinese competition. We’re working hard in it. We understand the people relations’ back unless people can fly back and forth. 

ORLINS: I was pleased last night, the first time in many years, where there was a lost American tourist in front of my hotel, and I had to help them get a taxi, which I was very happy to be… 

BURNS: We see very few American tourists. 

ORLINS: That’s right. It is changing. It’s quite striking. It’s been eight weeks between my visits, and there is a difference. We are seeing… 

BURNS: Can I add one more thing? Secretary Gina Raimondo is here. She’s responsible for tourism in our government, and she agreed with the Chinese Minister of Culture, that’s his responsibility, Minister Hu, that there will be a U.S.-China tourism summit in Xi’an in the spring of 2024 and then another summit in the United States in 2025. And we’re working hard on this. the Chinese government did a good thing. Before Sec. Raimondo’s visit, they have enabled group tourism from China to U.S. That’s how most Chinese get to the U.S. So, I think we’ll see an increase in tourism, maybe slowly, but surely. 

ORLINS: Business ties have kind of been the ballast of U.S.-China relations for decades and decades. In the most recent Shanghai Chamber survey, the U.S. Chamber in Shanghai, American Chamber in Shanghai, the tension in U.S.-China relations was the biggest issue for them. You talked about that with the Chinese government over the last few weeks. What are the major challenges that you’re facing. And are these working groups that have now been set up, are they going to help deal with some of these issues? 

BURNS: I think so. What Steve is referring to is that during the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump administrations, at least the beginning of the Trump administration, we had these very elaborate joint commissions on all sorts of subjects. So, you had hundreds of officials meeting every year. That was all ended by President Trump. Our administration came in and said, “We agree with that.” Those commissions probably outlived their useful life, but we’ve gone back to the idea that you do need practical working groups. So, just this past summer, we’ve created four commercial working groups, that was Secretary Raimondo, to Treasury-led groups, that was Secretary Yellen, and to agriculture groups. And that’s a big part of our relationship, and that was Secretary [of Agriculure] Vilsack. 

So, we’re reconnecting. And, you know, it is important that we have regular meetings of our government officials. And in the commerce ones, we’re bringing the private sector into the room with us to see if we can resolve practical problems. So, I’m hopeful about that. We’ve just begun it. So, I can’t tell you it’s been a roaring success yet. But the idea that we’d sit down together and we had not been doing this for several years I think is a very good one. 

ORLINS: China’s economy is obviously slowing. Then, we argue about how much it’s slowing. What will be the impact on U.S.-China relations? 

BURNS: Well, that, as you said, our economic relationship in many ways has been the center of gravity for the last 50 years. We have a $690 billion two-way trade relationship. China is our third largest trade partner after Mexico and Canada. We were with the Party Secretary Chen Jining, the senators and I last Saturday evening in Shanghai, very dramatic right on The Bund looking at Pudong, and he said there are 5,640, I think, American businesses in Shanghai alone. And so we have an enormous presence here, and China does in the United States. 

That is important for the global economy. We’re the two largest economies. It’s important for both of our countries. I know that the Chinese say and the U.S. China Business Council says about a million American jobs depend on trade with China. So, we’ve kind of planted our flags deep on this issue. We are not in favor, our administration, the United States, of decoupling the two economies. We think that would be, in the words of our Secretary of the Treasury, disastrous. And I’m working very hard on this, trying to help American companies succeed here. 

What we have done is gone through a term called de-risking, which the European Union is done as well. And that is, in the lessons that COVID have taught us, you don’t want to be unusually dependent on any other countries, certainly not in a rival country like China, for critical materials and critical supplies. And we’re not willing to sell certain advanced technology like advanced semiconductors to the Chinese that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army to compete with us. And so we have shut down that trade, and we take that very seriously, and that is non-negotiable. The Chinese are unhappy about it, but ironically they’re doing the same thing. They have been de-risking for at least seven or eight years without saying it, and they’re certainly not willing to sell into the United States their most advanced technology. 

So, I think we’re seeing a shutdown on some of these technologies, and the President’s executive order of August, which is going to put limits or even stop American investment into China in advanced semiconductors, in AI, for instance, some quantum information technologies. With that exception, companies can trade here, and so the de-risking versus decoupling these two terms of art had become very prominent in this relationship. 

ORLINS: In terms of the restrictions on capital flowing, you know, the executive order, I think the question that those in my former life on Wall Street ask is, are similar restrictions going to apply to Japanese, Korean, EU and British companies? Otherwise we, the Americans, are simply ceding the market to others. 

BURNS: Well, that’s a complicated subject, and I’m not able to go into all aspects of that, but suffice it to say, I mean, just to call a spade a spade here, China’s our greatest rival. And as Jake Sullivan, our National Security Advisor, said publicly, when we announced these sanctions a year ago, these sanctions on the sale of advanced semiconductors, we’re not doing this for commercial reasons to give an advantage to an American company. We’re doing it for national security reasons. No government would ever sell its most advanced technology that can be used for military purposes to your strongest rival. And so we’ve done something that is unassailably in the national interest in shutting down this trade. 

ORLINS: I agree on technology. On capital, I’m not so sure. Let’s go to the next question, which is from Sarah Cantet, joining us from the University of Toronto. First time we’ve ever had a question from Canada. 

TOGETHER: Hi, Amb. Burns. 

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO STUDENT: We’re students from the University of Toronto, and we want to thank you for choosing our question. 

SARAH CANTET: My name is Sarah Cantet, and with my fellow classmates, we wanted to ask you how the United States should respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially towards its relationship with the European Union. 

BURNS: Thank you very much. I’ve been to your university. A friend of mine, Ambassador David Wright, is now teaching at University of Toronto. So, thanks very much for the question. And I know there are a lot of Canadians involved in this relationship, and you’ve got a great ambassador here as well in Jennifer May. Thanks for asking about the BRI, the Belt and Road Initiative. As you probably know, just next week, the Chinese are hosting a major summit to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi Jinping is going to welcome a lot of world leaders here who are part of that program. 

Look, our view is that China has a right to put forward a program that it believes is in its interest. We think that program obviously has produced in some of its recipient countries a high degree of debt. And so, we’re not out campaigning against the Belt and Road Initiative, it’s China’s decision to go forward with it in its next phase, but countries have to beware of becoming unusually dependent on Chinese aid and on mounting debt. And we’ve seen examples of that in Sri Lanka, and Zambia and elsewhere. 

But what’s more important is not to say what we’re against. It’s to say what we’re for. And you probably know that at the last G20 meeting, the United States, and Canada, and Britain and the European Union agreed that we should have our own program that would try to give badly needed infrastructure support to countries of the global south without leading to indebtedness, and to do it in a way that worker rights, and human rights, and sustainability are built into the program, which we believe are not always built into the Chinese programs. 

So, I would say this is an area of healthy competition. We refer to this word competition before it takes on many dimensions. We’re competing for military influence and power in the Indo-Pacific. We’ve talked about the technology competition. There’s obviously a competition of ideas. We Americans and Canadians believe in human rights, the freedom of speech and religion, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly. The Chinese government does not. And we have a different idea of how development aid should take place in the world and building in respect for worker rights, human rights, against slave labor. Those are important principles that Canada, the U.S, and other countries can undertake. So, I think it’s part of the competition on the global stage between China and many of the democratic countries in the world. 

ORLINS: Let’s talk about people to people and young people especially. You know, there’s a letter circulating from young Americans and Chinese expressing their worry about U.S.-China relations and where it’s heading. What’s your message really to young people? I mean, these are graduate student level folks. 

BURNS: My message to young people all over the world, and in the U.S., and Canada and China is engage with each other. If this is going to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and it is, if we are the two strongest powers, we’ve got to find a way to live together in peace. it would be insanity to think that we would allow this relationship to descend into conflict or war. We’re not going to do that. And so our people have to work together, study together, do business together. Learn Mandarin if you’re Canadian or Brit or German or American. If you’re Chinese, you study in the United States. Our door is open to Chinese students. We want Chinese students to walk through the door of our universities. I was a university professor, taught many, well over a hundred Chinese students in 12 years, and they’re great students. 

I don’t see how we think of the future of the world, if you’re a young person, and not think of China and other countries working together on climate change for instance or working together on global health as we try to foresee what the next global health challenge will be when mercifully the COVID crisis is finally over. So, we have to think that we live in the same world and therefore share the same responsibilities. And, you know, doing what students do, which is to learn languages, understand the culture, that’s critical. That’s my advice. 

ORLINS: Let me ask a very specific question on this. So, the embassy and the consulates work very hard in issuing visas. So, I saw the line when I came down… 

BURNS: Right next door. 

ORLINS: That’s right. It’s in this building. When I arrived at 6:30 this morning, there was already a long line outside. This is true of the Chinese embassy in the United States and the consulates. There has been an unusual increase in people being granted visas, arriving in the other country, and being denied entry and sent back. So, I’m aware of Chinese who’ve arrived in the United States have been sent back, and I’m aware of Americans who’ve arrived in China and being sent back. It’s not a huge number, but it’s terribly discouraging. What can we do to fix that? 

BURNS: Well, in either country, an American being given a Chinese visa, a Chinese being given an American visa, that’s the first step in traveling. The second step is to enter the port of entry, whether it’s New York or LA or Shanghai or Beijing. And there at the border, of course, you have to go through both immigration and customs in both countries. The numbers are not big. The vast majority of Chinese and American travelers get through immigration and customs and into the taxi cab or the DiDi or the Uber and onto their visit, it does happen from time to time. We know it happens to Americans coming into China, and we also know it happens to Chinese citizens coming into our country. 

The last thing I will do is question the responsibilities… I will not question the responsibilities of the very brave civil servants in our border patrol. Their responsibility is to defend the United States, to keep out of the United States people who should not be in the country. So, I don’t want to question them. All I do want to say is these are practical problems. There are some cases where the Chinese government or our government might say, “Well, that shouldn’t have happened. It won’t happen again.” But I think it’s a problem we’re going to have to deal with given the lack of trust in the relationship, given the level of competition. 

The one thing that President Biden has been clear about just in the last couple of days is, you know, we firmly reject anti-Asian violence or sentiment in the United States. And he and Secretary Blinken have spoken out against this multiple times. We just had a terrible incident happen in San Francisco at the Chinese consulate where an individual, who I don’t know if he has been identified yet because he was killed in the process, crashed his car right into the consulate window. We take very seriously our responsibilities to protect the Chinese diplomatic establishments in the United States. And I can tell you I believe the Chinese also take seriously their responsibility to protect our embassy here, the building that we’re in, our consulates in Shenyang, Wuhan, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. 

ORLINS: While the numbers are very small, it has an outsized effect on kind of the perception of Chinese going to the United States, and Americans coming to China. Even if it’s only five people a year, it gets blown way out of proportion and really has a very negative effect. 

BURNS: Excuse me. May I please proceed? 

ORLINS: Yes, go ahead. 

BURNS: I just wanted to say we also live in world full of rumors. I hear from countless Chinese. I’ve been traveling all around the country here the last 10 months, and I hear from all sorts of people in South China, in East China, in Central China, you’re not giving out visas. And I’ll say, “We just gave out 90,000 visas.” That’s the rumor mill. Or, “You’re mistreating people in New York or LA at the point of entry.” And I say but, you know, 99 percent of the Chinese travelers go through. So, I think, you know, you have to kind of hit back at rumors when when they distort the reality that exists in the relationship. 

ORLINS: I think you should… Would you, kind of, address the Chinese people on these issues? So, if one of the state-owned medias wants to interview you and give you the opportunity to kind of talk about that, because I think you’re right. I’m constantly saying that’s not true. That’s not true. It’s better if it comes from Nick Burns than Steve Orlins. 

BURNS: Well, I wish we lived in a world where I could sit down in front of Chinese CCTV and say what I wanted to and not have that edited or distorted by the state-controlled press. I mean, the reality is when you deal with the state-controlled press here, they often will completely fail to report any kind of constructive criticism, and they’ll only report when you say something positive. That’s not true of Chinese diplomats in the United States. They can write op-eds in the Washington post, which nobody edits. And that’s part of the problem we face here. 

But we have millions of followers on Chinese social media of our embassy accounts, and we try to get our point of view across. We do have censors. We are subjected to censorship here, Steve, and it’s part and parcel of the relationship. I think I would be so happy to be able to sit on a CCTV set like this and not be edited or distorted. 

ORLINS: We should move in that direction. I think it’s actually… 

BURNS: The Chinese should move in that direction. 

ORLINS: Yes, of course, and we should engage with the Chinese in terms of talking about that. Next question from Shaylin Martinez from Long Island University, where my father taught. 

BURNS: Wow. 

SHAYLIN MARTINEZ: Hello. My name is Shaylin Martinez. I’m a junior at LIU. I’m majoring in criminal justice. I am honored to have been selected to represent LIU’s Roosevelt School today. Ambassador Burns, what advice would you give to current undergraduate students who are not international relations majors but have strong global interests in how to best learn about China and then contribute to positive U.S. and China relations as future global leaders? Thank you. 

BURNS: Thank you, Shaylin, and all the best to everybody at LIU. It’s a really good question. You know, you don’t have to be an international relations major to prepare yourself for professional success and frankly our responsibility as citizens for the extraordinarily complicated world that we live in. 

And I guess my advice would be this. If you’re a criminal justice major, and that’s such an important major for our world today, you know, take the time, if you can, to learn a foreign language. If it’s possible, to take a summer or a semester from LIU and come over and study at NYU Shanghai, or Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, or at Schwarzman College in Tsinghua, or at Duke in Kunshan just north of Shanghai. I think it’ll pay off because it’s very important for Americans to see China, this enormous country, this extraordinary 5,000-year-old culture, to appreciate the dynamics here. And I’d say that I give the same advice to students at Nanjing University or Fudan University. 

I’m going to be at a university in Dalian, northeast of here next week, and I’ll give that advice. Americans and Chinese need to meet each other at a young age to understand there’s a human connection there and that I think the issue of climate change is probably the one that connects young Americans and young Chinese best. We’re the two largest carbon emitters. China’s 31 percent of all global emissions. We’re about 11 percent. We have to take responsibility together. So, that would be my advice to you, Shaylin. 

ORLINS: Next question is from my old friend, Dr. Denis Simon, who is in Durham, North Carolina. 

DR. DENIS SIMON: Thanks, Steve. And Mr. Ambassador, thank you and your staff very much for all your hard work trying to stabilize and revitalize the bilateral relationship. 

As you know, science and technology cooperation have played a very important role and a very constructive role in the bilateral relationship. The S&T Agreement was originally signed in 1979. In fact, it was the first agreement that was signed between the two countries after normalization, and it was up for renewal, as you probably know, in August. But it wasn’t renewed, and instead, it was extended for a six-month period. 

Do you think that the agreement is eventually going to get renewed, or perhaps maybe we even need a new agreement, a STA 2.0? I think that the failure to come up with some kind of new, workable agreement could prove detrimental to the long-term interests of both China and the United States as well as the rest of the world. So, where do you think we’re headed here? 

BURNS: Dr. Simon, thank you very much. This is an active issue. As you say, the agreement expired in late August. We extended it. Both countries extended it for six months. I went over and talked to the science and technology minister of China during that week, and we agreed, “Let’s extend it for six months.” We’re now in negotiations. 

You know, I don’t know if this can be concluded quickly. Obviously, technology has become one of the key competitive points in our relationship. And you know this very well. If you think about artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum information systems, biotechnology, there’s a commercial competition there, but some of these technologies are being militarized. Our most profound responsibility is to keep our most advanced technology out of the hands of the People’s Liberation Army here. That’s the kind of thing we’re shutting down. 

So, that’s one of the issues. Just one but an important one in these negotiations, and I think this agreement certainly needs to be modernized and brought up to date given the rapid pace of technological transformation between our two societies. It remains to be seen whether we can reach an agreement here, and I just wanted to be frank about that. 

The only other point I’d make is we deal with a thousand issues out here in this relationship. It’s very broad. We have 47 U.S. government agencies here working on every aspect. I would say that technology has become the heart of the competition between our two countries, because not only does it have a commercial impact, which economy is going to be dominant, but a military impact. We have, I would say, a sacred obligation to make sure that the United States military remains the number one military in the Indo-Pacific. It is in no way possible for us to allow the Chinese to overtake us in military power, and the science and technology issues are at the heart of that competition. 

So, we take this very seriously. When Secretary Raimondo was here, she said she would not negotiate or compromise on our national security imperatives. I have taken, of course, the same stance, and we’re led by our president who has given us that instruction. 

ORLINS: Next question from Chris Higginbotham, who’s joining us from Kansas City, Missouri. 

CHRIS HIGGINBOTHAM: Thank you. Ambassador Burns, I’ve seen you riding the high-speed rails across China on social media, and it’s clear to me and others that you share President Biden’s passion for train travel. Do you engage with your local passengers on these journeys? And can you share any memorable interactions or insights you have with the Chinese citizens? 

BURNS: Chris, thank you very much. All the best for the Kansas City Chiefs this year and the NFL. Great team. I really love train travel. And, you know, if you’ve been to China, you’ve seen the extraordinary high-speed trains here. So, for instance, when I go to Shanghai, most often it’s about 4.5 hours between Beijing and Shanghai. It’s faster by plane. I prefer the train because, you know, when you take that trip, you cross the Yellow River, which is…it’s like the Missouri River of China. Then you cross the Yangtze, and that’s like the Mississippi of China. You see the great cities. You roll through Nanjing before you get to Shanghai. It’s extraordinary. 

I’ve been to Xi’an by train. I’ve been to Wuhan by train. And it’s just the best way to travel. And, you know, I don’t travel first class. I travel second class because the U.S. government, I think, quite rightly wants us to economize. And so, you know, you sit next to a Chinese person. You talk. You walk up and down the aisle, and you say hello to people. And I’ve told Steve I’m desperately trying to learn Mandarin. 

ORLINS: How’s it going? 

BURNS: I’m a struggling student in Mandarin. The tones are difficult, but, yes, you try out your Mandarin on people. It’s a way to engage. Diplomacy can be very isolated. You can live in a bubble. And I don’t want to live in a bubble. So, I prefer the trains, and I’m going to keep traveling by the trains. I usually will do some social media. It’s interesting how that has a resonance. Chinese people respect when you are with them. Maybe you say something positive. I think it’s very important despite the competition that we say to them, “You have a great train system. We admire you for that.” And so thanks for the question, Chris. 

ORLINS: Yes, I love train travel too. And one of my dreams, which I guess is not going to be realized, having been a regular commuter between Boston and Washington on a very slow train… 

BURNS: Amtrak’s getting better. We’re making the largest investment in the history of Amtrak, and that’s because of President Biden and the infrastructure bill. 

ORLINS: Yes, he of course is the Amtrak president, but we’re not… Any chance we can use Chinese high-speed technology in the United States on that rail line, which would improve my life markedly? 

BURNS: I’m not aware that we’re going to use Chinese technology. I think this is going to be an all-American process, but, you know, Mitch Landrieu, who runs this infrastructure program… The person who knows more about Amtrak than anybody else is President Biden. We are going to see, I think, a dramatic over-time improvement, because I’m a Bostonian, in that travel Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington. 

ORLINS: But it’s never going to be like New York. 

BURNS: And Wilmington. 

ORLINS: It won’t be like New York to Shanghai. I mean, Beijing to Shanghai. 

BURNS: Well, you never know. 

ORLINS: Yes, you were ambassador to NATO. You worked on Russia when you were in the National Security Council. What does that relationship look like from the U.S. Embassy Beijing? 

BURNS: The relationship? 

ORLINS: Between China and Russia and how are we viewing that? 

BURNS: Well, China and Russia declared February 4th, 2022 a no-limits partnership. China’s paid a heavy price for that in its support for Russia and the brutal invasion of Ukraine. Europe has rejected that. NATO and the EU have called China a systemic rival in part because of that. In our view, it was a poor choice. Putin and Russia are a pariah. They’ve broken all the red lines through the red lines of the UN charter. They’ve invaded another country illegally. 

And so I think that the American position here has been strengthened in both our relationship with Europe vis-a-vis China. And certainly, if you look at the vast strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the U.S.-Filipino alliance, the quad with India, the United States, Japan, and Australia, the development of AUKUS, Australia, U.S., and U. K., I think as a consequence of that, Steve, countries are flocking to the United States because there’s a fear that an axis of Russia and China, perhaps with Iran and North Korea, those three of them are nuclear weapons powers. None of them are democracies. Several of them are major human rights violators. This has not been a good choice in our judgment. 

You heard that from our congressional delegation this week to be very forthright in those views. And we hope that China will use its influence on the Russian government to end the war in Ukraine. And we have also said that we are watching to make sure that China does not provide lethal military assistance to Russia for that war. We don’t believe it has, lethal military assistance, but we’re watching. So, it’s really been a seminal event In the U.S.-China relationship but also in the way that other countries are reacting to China because of this choice. 

ORLINS: Is China trying to mediate an end? They’ve obviously sent an envoy. It’s not clear what the results have been. 

BURNS: They sent Amb. Li Hui. I met with him and had a long talk with him about this. They don’t appear to be mediating. They have established a 12-point position paper, but they do not appear to be really trying to actively mediate between Ukraine and Russia. 

ORLINS: We’re reaching our closing hour. So, you’re talking right now to tens of thousands of Americans in all walks of life. That’s the point of CHINA Town Hall. What is the most important message that you want to give them? 

BURNS: About the U.S.-China relationship, this is an enormously complicated relationship, but I think we have to face the fact it’s going to be highly competitive in the areas that I talked about: security, technology, economics and trade, and human rights. And we have to defend our interests, and we have to be tough-minded. 

At the same time, we’ve got to work with China where our interests align on climate and on… They have to do so much more on fentanyl. We can work together on global health. And third, and here I’m going to really represent the words of President Biden, we have to keep the peace between our countries. And so we need greater military-to-military contacts to do that, Steve, and we have to think of the future as the United States and China sharing the planet and living with each other despite these enormous differences while we compete. 

That is a very difficult equilibrium, but it is our fate. And I can tell you I couldn’t be more proud of the women and men of the American mission here in our embassy building. We have a top-notch group of people. We are dedicated to representing our country. And, you know, sometimes we get up and think we’ve got a lot of headaches here and roadblocks, but most other days we get up and say, as public servants, would we be anywhere else at this time in the U.S.-China relationship to represent our great country? So, we’re going to keep at it, and I would hope that the National Committee would, all of you out there would visit China, learn the language, and try to build more bridges between our societies. 

Let me pay tribute to Steve… the National Committee. You’re the big organization that tries to connect us. We need you. I know you’ll keep doing it, and I want to praise you for that. 

ORLINS: Well, this hour certainly has confirmed why you have had such a storied diplomatic career. It was just an incredibly informative hour. I thank you all for joining us in China, in Canada, and in the United States. And I thank Amb. Burns and his staff for making this such a successful hour. Thank you so much. 

BURNS: Thank you, Steve. Pleasure. Thanks, everybody.