I recently watched the documentary Better Angels, co-produced by American and Chinese producers, and the innovative producer Bill Mundell. Better Angels prompts viewers to consider the critical importance of bi-national relations, particular to U.S.-China relations, and offers a perspective shifting opportunity to gain a better understanding of Chinese-American relations and the implications, and potential, of that relationship.
After the screening, I couldn’t help but think of other important relationships for the US. In particular – the one with Israel. And the similarities with the complicated relationship we have with China. It is at times the most controversial relationships in the world. But the two countries share a close and mostly unwavering alliance, and it is a relationship that is mutually dependent and mutually beneficial. The United States’ unilateral support for Israel is in many ways an innovative relationship, considering the challenges faced by Israel on the global platform, yet the friendship is worth pursuing and enriching because the benefits are real and the alternative disastrous, all around.
When it comes to China, the United States needs to step it up. Yes, China is “different”, politically and culturally, and as the film captures in expert testimony, Americans overwhelmingly view China and the Chinese through a veil of mystery, as globally threatening, and certainly bad for our economy. Better Angels helps to break down the mystery, and at the same time, calls out the United States for a skewed perspective and for underutilizing one of the most critical opportunities on the global playing field.
Throughout the film, experts take a head on approach in describing the sharp divide between American fears and general negativity toward China and what China is really like, and shows viewers where and how China has tremendously advanced over the past decade, and in ways leaving the U.S. behind. Although the film is about broad issues like globalization and international relations, much of it captured individual stories, such as an abacus virtuoso who has transformed math learning, not only in his native China but in many countries around the world. During this particular component of the film, I felt a gnawing anxiety and jealousy- wondering if that kind of math program would ever be available to my children, as we live in the United States, with abysmal math scores across the nation. Another storyline in the film followed a leading Chinese scientist as he discusses the need for American chutzpah, when it comes to Chinese scientists and their willingness, or rather unwillingness, to take risks and to think outside of the box. I saw from both of these storylines a powerful reason to share with the other- for the U.S. to become math savvy and for China to become more open-minded.
Math scores and open-mindedness might sound like small potatoes, but the implications of how the U.S. and China relate are in fact enormous. China technically won the first round of globalization, and they are advancing and producing at an unparalleled rate, in an economical race the U.S. can simply not afford to lose again. But imagine, as Better Angels prompts us to do, if we were not in competition with China but instead intimately engaged, sharing expertise, technology, and money, to the benefit of everyone. That scenario sounds more like the U.S.-Israel relationship.
A Conversation with the Producer Brought a Unique Perspective
After the viewing, I was able to sit down with Producer Bill Mundell and asked about what inspired him to produce Better Angels and what he hopes will come of it. Bill, like his film, has a wide lens on the issue, and more than anything, he wants people to start thinking about the relationship in an entirely different way. “The narrative needs to change, and there is substantial evidence supporting a new direction of thinking and talking about China and how we can positively relate to China.” And Bill emphasized that need as critical, because the U.S. simply cannot afford to remain in the dark with China, especially as the rest of the world is getting closer to China at rapid speed. But how can we bridge the gap and cross over the lines of fear and prejudice to relate to China in a new way? Bill responded that “it’s a nuanced approach, rather than an all-or-nothing shift. I agree with President Trump that something must be done about China’s dominance in the first round of globalization, but I don’t agree that the answer is tariffs and a trade war. How about instead of a trade war, we should be talking about how the Chinese can intimately invest in the U.S. economy. For example, what if China were to give the U.S. a hundred-billion dollar interest free loan to rebuild our withering infrastructure? That would be a way to level the playing field, and even the score, without giving up our economic security or national pride”.
I go back to thinking about Israel again, and can’t imagine what the world would look like if Israel and the U.S. didn’t work together. Even if we remained friends but kept a greater distance, so much would be lost from the closeness of our alliance. Better Angels makes me wonder what it would be like if the U.S. were to become that kind of close with China. Even beyond pursuing and respecting each other as we pursue our own national interests, what would it look like if the U.S. and China were to develop a mutually beneficial friendship that blended our interests and economies, with a closeness similar to that which the U.S. shares with Israel. If the leading two global superpowers were to truly come together, it seems absolutely anything would be possible. Better Angels asks us to consider this question, and to imagine a better world.