Remarks by President Barack Obama at Town Hall Meeting with Future Chinese Leaders
Museum of Science and Technology, Shanghai, China

 

1:18 P.M. CST

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Good afternoon.  It is a great honor for me to be here in Shanghai, and to have this opportunity to speak with all of you.  I'd like to thank Fudan University's President Yang for his hospitality and his gracious welcome.  I'd also like to thank our outstanding Ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who exemplifies the deep ties and respect between our nations.  I don't know what he said, but I hope it was good.  (Laughter.)

What I'd like to do is to make some opening comments, and then what I'm really looking forward to doing is taking questions, not only from students who are in the audience, but also we've received questions online, which will be asked by some of the students who are here in the audience, as well as by Ambassador Huntsman.  And I am very sorry that my Chinese is not as good as your English, but I am looking forward to this chance to have a dialogue.

This is my first time traveling to China, and I'm excited to see this majestic country.  Here, in Shanghai, we see the growth that has caught the attention of the world -- the soaring skyscrapers, the bustling streets and entrepreneurial activity.  And just as I'm impressed by these signs of China's journey to the 21st century, I'm eager to see those ancient places that speak to us from China's distant past.  Tomorrow and the next day I hope to have a chance when I'm in Beijing to see the majesty of the Forbidden City and the wonder of the Great Wall.  Truly, this is a nation that encompasses both a rich history and a belief in the promise of the future.

The same can be said of the relationship between our two countries.  Shanghai, of course, is a city that has great meaning in the history of the relationship between the United States and China.  It was here, 37 years ago, that the Shanghai Communique opened the door to a new chapter of engagement between our governments and among our people.  However, America's ties to this city -- and to this country -- stretch back further, to the earliest days of America's independence.

In 1784, our founding father, George Washington, commissioned the Empress of China, a ship that set sail for these shores so that it could pursue trade with the Qing Dynasty. Washington wanted to see the ship carry the flag around the globe, and to forge new ties with nations like China.  This is a common American impulse -- the desire to reach for new horizons, and to forge new partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

Over the two centuries that have followed, the currents of history have steered the relationship between our countries in many directions.  And even in the midst of tumultuous winds, our people had opportunities to forge deep and even dramatic ties. For instance, Americans will never forget the hospitality shown to our pilots who were shot down over your soil during World War II, and cared for by Chinese civilians who risked all that they had by doing so.  And Chinese veterans of that war still warmly greet those American veterans who return to the sites where they fought to help liberate China from occupation.

A different kind of connection was made nearly 40 years ago when the frost between our countries began to thaw through the simple game of table tennis.  The very unlikely nature of this engagement contributed to its success -- because for all our differences, both our common humanity and our shared curiosity were revealed.  As one American player described his visit to China -- "[The]people are just like us…The country is very similar to America, but still very different."

Of course this small opening was followed by the achievement of the Shanghai Communique, and the eventual establishment of formal relations between the United States and China in 1979.  And in three decades, just look at how far we have come.

In 1979, trade between the United States and China stood at roughly $5 billion -- today it tops over $400 billion each year. The commerce affects our people's lives in so many ways.  America imports from China many of the computer parts we use, the clothes we wear; and we export to China machinery that helps power your industry.  This trade could create even more jobs on both sides of the Pacific, while allowing our people to enjoy a better quality of life.  And as demand becomes more balanced, it can lead to even broader prosperity.

In 1979, the political cooperation between the United States and China was rooted largely in our shared rivalry with the Soviet Union.  Today, we have a positive, constructive and comprehensive relationship that opens the door to partnership on the key global issues of our time -- economic recovery and the development of clean energy; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and the scourge of climate change; the promotion of peace and security in Asia and around the globe.  All of these issues will be on the agenda tomorrow when I meet with President Hu.

And in 1979, the connections among our people were limited. Today, we see the curiosity of those ping-pong players manifested in the ties that are being forged across many sectors.  The second highest number of foreign students in the United States come from China, and we've seen a 50 percent increase in the study of Chinese among our own students.  There are nearly 200 "friendship cities" drawing our communities together.  American and Chinese scientists cooperate on new research and discovery.  And of course, Yao Ming is just one signal of our shared love of basketball -- I'm only sorry that I won't be able to see a Shanghai Sharks game while I'm visiting.

It is no coincidence that the relationship between our countries has accompanied a period of positive change.  China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty -- an accomplishment unparalleled in human history -- while playing a larger role in global events.  And the United States has seen our economy grow along with the standard of living enjoyed by our people, while bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

There is a Chinese proverb:  "Consider the past, and you shall know the future."  Surely, we have known setbacks and challenges over the last 30 years.  Our relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty.  But the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined -- not when we consider the past.  Indeed, because of our cooperation, both the United States and China are more prosperous and more secure.  We have seen what is possible when we build upon our mutual interests, and engage on the basis of mutual respect.

And yet the success of that engagement depends upon understanding -- on sustaining an open dialogue, and learning about one another and from one another.  For just as that American table tennis player pointed out -- we share much in common as human beings, but our countries are different in certain ways.

I believe that each country must chart its own course.  China is an ancient nation, with a deeply rooted culture.  The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles -- that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice.