The past three years have drastically changed the way global business and the entire world operates. Protocols established during the pandemic with the intention of keeping people safe have moved many of our face-to-face exchanges to virtual engagements. And while there are obvious benefits to a hybrid model of living and working, the decline of human interaction and in-person relationships—particularly between the United States and China—has increased isolationism, hampered innovation, and directly impacted our ability to understand each other, to negotiate, compromise, and collectively tackle the wide array of issues facing our world.
In the United States, China, and across the globe, we need to continue to return to normal life—to the office, and back to economic diplomacy. Virtual meetings on critical matters, or “Zoomplomacy,” is ineffective and unsustainable. We need business leaders, diplomats, and everyday people to engage with each other—face-to-face—to share ideas and build relationships. Our world faces challenges that stretch beyond each nation’s borders and will require us all to work together, in good faith, to overcome them. That will only happen if strong relationships are formed from a return to in-person interaction. The overdependence on acquiring the latest information, sentiment and trends through on-line resources as opposed to in-person meetings, factory visits, and company retreats only exacerbates the amount of misinformation or agenda-driven narratives.
Research and data make this clear. A study in 2017 showed that face-to-face requests are 34 times more likely to be fulfilled than ones sent via email. Research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab demonstrated the overwhelming value of in-person meetings, explaining that they “create space for tough, timely business decisions and foster more complex strategic thinking”. And an article published in Nature found virtual work produced significantly fewer ideas than in-person work and inhibited innovation, concluding that communicating virtually, “constrains thinking relative to-in person pairs.” The report cited the problems that videoconferencing creates—including a lack of eye-contact and participation in virtual discussions. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Because for all the benefits of technologies like Zoom, there’s no substitute for face-to-face engagement.”
Many of the strict measures enacted across the world at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were necessary to save lives and protect our most vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, they came with severe consequences—from economic struggles to mental health challenges to an increase in isolationist ideologies. The sad and disturbing rise in anti-Asian hate and sentiment can be directly linked to the problems that stem from the miscommunication these practices created. The lack of interpersonal exchanges has created a vacuum of practical knowledge and experience about China, the consequence of which is people relying on biased information sourced from traditional and social media channels. Misinformation about culture and cooperation continues to spread, negatively impacting perceptions and decision making—in the halls of governments, boardrooms, and in everyday interactions. Three years later we can, and must, reverse course.
In contrast to the obvious gaps created by virtual interaction, we’ve seen real benefits and successes resulting from in-person engagement and collaboration. Interpersonal relationships have, for centuries, served as the backbone of global peace treaties and business agreements. With China specifically, this has created tremendous wealth and alleviated local poverty, as well as spurred technological breakthroughs in infrastructure, transportation, communications, and healthcare. Businesses thrived, consumers saved and the world became increasingly connected that enhanced business efficiency and market share. More recently, the pre-pandemic 2020 United States-China Phase One Trade Agreement—which came from face-to-face meetings between leaders in the U.S. and China—expanded trade and removed barriers to market entry, while protecting intellectual property rights and establishing bilateral assessments and dispute-settlement solutions. While there certainly is more to accomplish, it shows that both countries can come together and grow their respective economies, creating prosperity and opportunity for hardworking individuals and families both in the United States and in China.
Recent visits to China by top executives of some of America’s largest companies—from Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase to Elon Musk of Tesla to Laxman Narasimhan of Starbucks—are a step in the right direction to improve economic diplomacy. We’ve also seen the Biden administration increase Chinese airline flights to the United States. As the world’s two largest economies, mutual cooperation between leaders in the United States and China is necessary to facilitate a successful global economy and recovery that benefits both sides. The longer we stay virtual, the more damage will be done to our relationship. Without consistent in-person interaction, it will become increasingly difficult to overcome our differences, find common ground, and generate solutions to the complex issues we face today and tomorrow.