In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, numerous Chinese web users gloated in chat rooms over America’s national tragedy. Declaring that the attacks were payback for America’s imperialistic foreign policy, they rejoiced at the sight of the “world’s policeman” being dealt a colossal blow. To be sure, these Chinese were not the only ones who displayed little sympathy for America’s grief. Most notably, Palestinians in the West Bank celebrated by passing out candy to children and dancing in the streets.
Yet gloating from the Chinese remains deeply disturbing, as these are the very people on whose behalf U.S. policymakers have claimed to seek freedom and democracy in the past 12 years. That the gloating comes from the Chinese internet generation is even more unsettling, for this small but rapidly growing population has been widely hailed by the Chinese and U.S. governments as the bright future of a more modern, more open, and more liberal twenty-first century China. At this time of persistent national soul-searching about the nature and merits of U.S. foreign policy, a close examination of the grave disconnect between Washington and the people of China is sorely needed.
A more (and less) Americanized China
Ever since the government of China opened fire on peaceful demonstrators demanding democracy at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, American criticism of an authoritarian Chinese regime that has been reluctant to democratize has been a constant. Policymakers left and right have claimed that by fighting for liberty and democracy in China, not only are they upholding values and principles upon which this country was founded, but they are also fighting for the Chinese people who cannot and perhaps dare not speak up against their own government. As Rep. Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said, “We shall remain with [the Chinese people] until they are free, however long the struggle.”
As it turns out, the Chinese people, in no uncertain terms, have repeatedly said, “No, thank you.” In just the past couple of years, a number of spontaneous outbreaks of anti-Americanism in China have given voice to this sentiment. In May 1999, when nato bombed the Belgrade Chinese embassy in what Americans called an accident, massive anti-American riots erupted throughout China. The destruction of American property, physical and verbal intimidation of Americans, and protests led by the chant of “Down with the USA” paralyzed major Chinese cities for days. This past April, when an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter plane collided during what Americans referred to as routine intelligence gathering near the south China coast, Chinese on the street and in internet chat rooms threatened to “teach the United States a lesson” in “World War III.” The gloating on the internet post-September 11 emerged as the latest manifestation of pent-up Chinese frustration with the United States.
It is difficult for Americans to understand Chinese hostility toward them. After all, it was less than 13 years ago that students and workers piled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square demanding a free and liberal society modeled after the United States. Since then, economic liberalization has brought about an ever more American look and feel to China. In a country where everyone used to wear drab Mao suits colored in only gray, blue, and black, the Chinese now sport Nike shoes, nba T-shirts, and Levi’s jeans. McDonald’s, kfc, and Pizza Hut decorate corners of Chinese cities, and products manufactured by Kodak, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble are used in urban households throughout China. Many Chinese also have become increasingly “Americanized” themselves: working in American-based multinationals, seeking and receiving American venture capital funding for businesses, studying abroad in the United States, watching American movies, reading American news sources online, and admiring American popular culture icons from Madonna to Michael Jordan.
At the same time, Chinese increasingly view America today as a bully who habitually badgers their pride, belittles their accomplishments, transgresses their national sovereignty, and attempts to thwart the rise of their country’s international influence. Perceived American self-righteousness, arrogance, “obsession” with liberty and democracy, and most of all, missionary zeal to change China’s communist regime have served to fan sentiments that range from indignation to rage.
Many in Washington have accused the Chinese government of stirring up anti-American sentiment in China in an effort to deflect foreign criticism. Though Chinese perceptions of America no doubt are influenced by the Chinese state media, which regulate and manipulate every medium from television to radio, from print to internet, these perceptions are hardly an invention of the government. They also have roots in the real world, as the product of protracted Sino-American disputes, rising Chinese nationalism, and changing realities in Chinese society since 1989.
U.S. policy, Chinese discontents
Anti-american sentiments on the popular level in China since 1989 have been shaped by endless, contentious conflicts on the government-to-government level. Disputes in multiple policy areas, ranging from trade to human rights, from weapons proliferation to Taiwan, have convinced many Chinese that the United States is intent on coercing China’s internal developments or weakening its international influence. Resentment emerged most notably at the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s first term, when he conditioned the granting of China’s most-favored-nation (mfn, now known as normal trade relations) status in 1994 to demonstrable improvements in the country’s human rights situation. Having accused President George H.W. Bush of “coddling dictators from Baghdad to Beijing” in the 1992 election, President Clinton came to office determined to change China’s human rights practices by leveraging America’s tremendous trade and market influence.
Beijing flatly refused to yield to President Clinton’s pressure, responding that it would not tolerate “the United States openly intervening in China’s affairs and bossing it around.” In the end, the Clinton administration gave in: mfn was granted and its linkage to human rights eliminated. However, America’s willingness to dictate political reforms in China by holding its economic progress hostage was a source of resentment not only to the Chinese leadership, but also to the Chinese people, who felt their own prospects threatened. To them, this form of American arrogance and coercion would manifest itself many times over in the 1990s.
Though President Clinton changed his tone and policy on China from a confrontational to a conciliatory one in 1994, many in Washington continued to take a harder line. Vehement criticism of China (and of Clinton’s about-face) continued from the political left to right. Notable Sino-American conflicts in the past decade have included: the annual congressional struggle (until 2000) to deny China permanent normal trading status (pntr) on the basis of human rights objections; the 1994 U.S. inspection of the Chinese ship Yinhe over Chinese objections for hidden chemical weapons (none were found); the U.S. attempt to block China’s bid for hosting the 2000 Olympics; the granting of a visa by the Department of State to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States in 1995; U.S. accusations of Chinese attempts to make illicit campaign contributions during the 1996 elections; nato’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999; findings by the congressionally appointed Cox Committee of Chinese nuclear espionage in 2000; and the EP-3 incident in 2001.
Influenced by government propaganda, Chinese goodwill toward the United States took a beating with each new Sino-American conflict. “Criticisms [of China] got blown out of proportion by some on Capitol Hill,” said Professor Jia Qingguo, associate dean and professor of Beijing University’s School of International Studies. “To most Chinese, it is very hard to see good intentions in such exercises.”
Washington’s gestures toward Taiwan, in particular, have appeared to the Chinese as an effort to weaken their nation. Fundamental to the modern Chinese worldview and identity is the belief that Taiwan, which split from the mainland as a result of an unfinished civil war, should be returned to China rather than exist as a separate, independent entity, as many Taiwanese natives hope. Even exiled Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, who spent years in jail for criticizing the Chinese government, stated at a press conference upon his arrival in the United States, “Taiwan is a territory that belongs to China.” This nationalistic desire for territorial reunification, according to Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is simply “poorly understood” here in the United States. What Washington views as an important strategic and moral effort to defend democratic Taiwan from provocative military posturing by the communist regime has been interpreted by many Chinese as an effort to deny them the eventual unity of the motherland. As a result, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and the U.S. commitment (at some times more ambiguous than at others) to come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked by China have been characterized, as one retired professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences put it, as a “humiliation that [China] cannot swallow.”
If U.S. gestures toward Taiwan have been interpreted as ill-intentioned, the embassy bombing in 1999 and the EP-3 incident in 2001 have been viewed as deliberate attempts to humiliate China. Ordinary Chinese today still refuse to believe the American explanation that the bombing was purely an accident or that the reconnaissance plane was traveling in international space. Instead, they continue to call both incidents “stupid acts of American aggression.”
President George W. Bush’s October 2001 visit to China occasioned a hiatus in Sino-American squabbles. But even President Bush’s declaration in Shanghai that China was not an enemy of the United States and that the two countries were fighting terrorism “side by side” could not overturn negative impressions resulting from years of emotionally wrenching bilateral conflicts. As Chinese President Jiang Zemin beamed at the upswing in Sino-American relations, Chinese internet chat rooms were filled with skeptical comments about the intention of Bush’s friendly words and sarcasm about America’s willingness to say anything to pursue selfish interests — which in this case meant securing Chinese support for the war on terror.
Propaganda and its collaborators
Sino-american squabbles could not have created intensely negative Chinese perceptions of the United States without the aid of Chinese government propaganda. For the most part, Chinese society today is still dominated by state-controlled media. Print and broadcast media must adhere to government regulations that forbid certain commentary or reporting, such as anything supporting Taiwan’s independence, Tibetan autonomy, democratization, or overthrow of the Communist Party. For instance, the lively Southern Weekend, a newspaper published out of the city of Guangzhou, has been shut down by the authorities on numerous occasions for its relentless critique of government corruption and failed or abusive policies toward Chinese citizens.
Even the new and burgeoning internet media, widely expected to bring the free flow of information into China, adhere to government censorship guidelines on political topics. The most popular internet websites in China today, including the three Nasdaq-listed portals Sina, Sohu, and Netease, dutifully self-censor content that might be deemed offensive by the Chinese government.
Because of the influence of the state media, popular Chinese objections to the United States tend to sound oddly uninformed and jingoistic. For instance, to counter American criticisms of China’s human rights practices, the Chinese media regularly feature reports accusing the United States of abusing its own minorities, namely, African Americans. Almost every Chinese discussing human rights issues with Americans will in knee-jerk fashion challenge U.S. credibility by alleging that the U.S. government systematically puts blacks in ghettos and prisons. For that reason, a businessman in China’s southern Guangdong Province referred to the American government as “racist” and morally bankrupt.
To counter U.S. objections to China’s abject treatment of minorities in Tibet or regular threats of invasion toward Taiwan, the Chinese state media have portrayed America’s relations with other countries as inherently aggressive and bent on undermining other nations’ sovereignty. American criticisms of China’s human rights practices are described as a U.S. effort to interfere with China’s “internal affairs” and impose its own reality on the Chinese people. The U.S. role in the war in Bosnia was described as an example of unilateralist action that needlessly killed innocent civilians. No mention was made of Slobodan Milosevic’s campaigns of ethnic cleansing or military aggression. As a result, many Chinese people have come to believe that American rhetoric and actions abroad are indicative of U.S. arrogance in the post-Cold War world in its self-appointed role of “policeman of the world.”
The negative Chinese view of America’s global role was apparent in the reaction to the terrorist attack on the United States. As most Chinese grieved with Americans — the reputable Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao reported that 98 percent of the Chinese people sympathized with Americans — the same Chinese also believed that American foreign policy brought this event on its own people. According to the government-backed Wen Hui Po in Hong Kong, over 70 percent of Chinese in major cities agreed that American civilians became the sacrificial lamb of both foreign terrorism and the American government’s arrogance.
The power of the state media has led some foreign observers to believe that anti-American sentiment can be turned on and turned off by the Chinese government at will. As far back as when President Richard Nixon “opened” China in 1972, the Chinese media demonstrated their power by changing Chinese perceptions of the United States overnight, from viewing the United States as a decadent, imperialistic country to a potential new friend. When President Clinton visited China in 1998, the Chinese state media with no small amount of help from Clinton skillfully inspired overwhelming goodwill from its populace for a man who once was denounced for “bossing China around.” James R. Lilley, former ambassador to China and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, asserts that anti-Americanism in China has been and will be around for a long time, but “it can be bottled up” by the government.
While the Chinese government is largely responsible for fanning anti-American perceptions among its people, it has received much help from the Chinese people themselves, who willingly subscribe to the government line even when offered alternatives. Negative perceptions of the United States are widely held not just by Chinese who depend on the Chinese government for news, but even by the more “Americanized” Chinese who have been exposed to American corporate training, media sources, education, and other aspects of the American way of life. In spite of having seen American influences up close and personal, many of China’s English-speaking, ambitious, sophisticated, young urban professionals, entrepreneurs, and college students nevertheless find the U.S. government and U.S. rhetoric repulsive.
Chinese students in the United States mouth their government’s rhetoric even when they are not exposed to its media. China’s exiled dissidents in the United States are often confronted with hostility from such students, who question the dissidents’ patriotism and attack their character, all because they have challenged the authority of the Chinese communist regime. Xiao Qiang, the Executive Director of the New York-based Human Rights in China, reports that his efforts to hold China accountable for its repression have been branded at various times by overseas Chinese students as “harmful” to the Chinese people and “disloyal” to the Chinese nation.
Similarly, people in China exposed to alternative news sources critical of the Chinese government do not always welcome such alternatives. A broadcaster for Voice of America (voa), which transmits news and commentary into China from the United States, reports that voa in recent years has received numerous responses from audience members in China accusing the network of “anti-China” bias. cnn, which is familiar to an increasing number of Chinese business professionals, was labeled a “vehicle of American propaganda” by a public relations manager in southern China. Negative perceptions of the United States, it seems, are formed as much by the Chinese themselves as by the state media.
In addition, anti-American sentiments are not always inspired by Chinese state propaganda. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Chinese state media went out of their way to tone down the usual propaganda against American imperialism and arrogance. President Jiang publicly expressed condolences to the United States and pledged China’s solidarity in combating terrorism. Nevertheless, a significant number of Chinese citizens insisted that the United States deserved the terrorist attacks. As Richard Betts and Thomas Christensen argue in the National Interest, anti-Americanism is not always engineered by the state. In “China: Getting the Questions Right,” (Winter 2000/2001), they note that Chinese policy experts believe the protests outside the American embassy in Beijing during May of 1999 were actually “managed, controlled and ultimately suppressed by the Party.”
Intoxication with greatness
Chinese nationalism has helped to fan much of the hostility toward the United States. Since 1989, American rhetoric and actions have not only displeased the Chinese government but also clashed with the Chinese view of the world and their country, a view characterized by a nationalistic yearning for China’s past and future greatness. The Chinese are and have always been exceptionally proud of their rich culture, ancient heritage, colorful history, and countless contributions to civilization. Yet for much of China’s modern history, the Middle Kingdom was not so proud — invaded, carved up, and humiliated by foreign powers one after another from Asia and Europe. Even after the foreigners departed and Chairman Mao Zedong declared at the founding of the modern Chinese state in 1949 that “the Chinese people have stood up,” China remained mired in failed policies, backwardness, starvation, and poverty for decades.
The reforms pioneered by the late Deng Xiaoping began in 1978 and brought about an impressive economic miracle producing double-digit annual gdp growth for much of the 1980s and early 1990s and an average of 7 percent to 8 percent growth. As success promised to lift the Middle Kingdom out of its modern misery, Chinese nationalism soared along its side, characterized by an intense desire to show the world that China, this time, is truly going to stand up. As skyscrapers rose in Shanghai and Beijing, as multinationals rushed to enter the vast Chinese market, as bars, restaurants, and nightclubs sprang up, as giant shopping malls emerged, Chinese from the mainland to Hong Kong to the United States became intoxicated with the idea that China would march toward greatness again.
Such intoxication, however, is especially sensitive to potential slights from more powerful foreign powers, for they remind the Chinese of humiliations in the recent past and glory not fully achieved in the present. The United States, which seems to have leveled accusations against China regarding almost everything under the sun, has become precisely the foreign power that the Chinese find insufferable. “As a nation invaded, bullied, isolated and coerced by stronger countries during the past 100 or more years, China is finally trying to pick up its long lost dignity both in the economic and political realm,” a former translator and editor from Beijing told me. “But the U.S. government, knowing or caring little about the feelings of the Chinese people, regards China as a potential enemy and tries to coerce its development.”
To be sure, resentment of the United States is not an unshakable feeling of seething hatred. It is quite different from the combination of hatred, contempt, and mistrust most Chinese harbor toward the Japanese for massive atrocities committed during World War II. Rather, China’s wounded pride tends to manifest itself in what Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University’s East Asian Institute calls “an injured, you-don’t-understand-us” type of complaint. “Most Americans have no idea what the real situation is like in China,” a former Chinese ambassador once protested, “If you want to criticize us, why don’t you come and spend some time in China before you do so?” Younger and less political Chinese often agree. Tracy Li, formerly a sales executive at a popular Chinese internet company, pointed out to me, “It is true that there are still problems in China regarding democracy and human rights. However, given the size of the country and historic circumstances, great progress has been made and is being made. China deserves appreciation for this effort . . . but all we hear in the U.S. is criticism.”
When acknowledgement of China’s progress was little forthcoming from the United States, American criticisms of the Chinese government, even those that were supposedly made on behalf of the Chinese people, appeared to nationalistic Chinese as anti-China. On the one hand, the Chinese suffer from wounded feelings created by the failure of the United States to apply to itself the lofty human right standards it has set around the globe. In the aftermath of nato’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that killed three Chinese citizens, a senior at Beijing University angrily protested, “American values are for Americans only. Apparently, you have no regard for the lives of Chinese people.” In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, one web user wrote, “We grieve for the loss of life because every life is sacred. . . . But you Americans have always thought that your lives were worth more than the lives of anyone else. . . . Let this be a lesson.”
On the other hand, many Chinese have come to view U.S. criticism as a cynical ploy to thwart China’s impending greatness. The Chinese have not failed to point out that American criticisms of China’s far more deplorable human rights conditions in the 1970s and 1980s were almost nonexistent when the United States was playing the China card against the former Soviet Union. Chinese resentment was perhaps best expressed by the 1994 Chinese bestseller, China Can Say No. Written by two participants in the 1989 student democratic movement, what the book says “No” to is American hegemony, arrogance, and “bullying” tactics to change China. Co-author Song Qiang explained: “Don’t think the Chinese youth appreciate the sanctions by the United States against China. You cannot divide the individual from the state. When you hurt the Chinese government, you hurt the Chinese people.” Or as a Hong Kong representative to the National People’s Congress (the Chinese legislature) phrased it somewhat differently at the height of the EP-3 incident, “If you are Chinese, you should always side with China, not with the foreigners who try to bully China.”
Rising chinese nationalism and negative perceptions of the United States emerged along with a growing sense of legitimacy for the Chinese government. While this sense has been fanned by the government to boost legitimacy at a time when its official communist ideology is increasingly corroded by market capitalism, it is also a result of concrete reforms and improvements made in Chinese society during the past two decades. Unimaginable though it may be to Americans, many Chinese, particularly those who have benefited from the reforms of the past 20 years, say that they are happy with and even proud of the Chinese government. As Tracy Li said, “I feel the leaders in China try hard to solve those problems to help people live a better life. Many Chinese appreciate that, and we don’t care if America does not.”
Many in the United States have assumed that the Chinese government has managed to suppress political reforms while focusing only on economic reforms, but Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls this a “prevailing myth.” The political changes that were implemented were not democratizing, but they have been essential to the introduction of a modern economy and a more responsible government. They include, among other things, the development of a legal system, introduction of a civil service system, enhancement of the power of the National People’s Congress, implementation of a mandatory retirement system for government officials, and the adoption of limited village elections. On July 1, 2001, Jiang Zemin announced his intention to expand Communist Party membership to private businessmen and professionals (i.e., the capitalists), something that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
The changes since 1989 have created a society much different from the isolated and totalitarian one under Chairman Mao. Chinese citizens who do not openly challenge the state’s authority or legitimacy enjoy expanding personal freedoms to travel, to study or work abroad, to pursue a profession of their choice, and even to criticize the government in a non-organized manner. In this working society, ordinary, law-abiding citizens are not usually subject to the torture, detainment, and abuse regularly faced by political dissidents. Many patriotic and younger Chinese, in fact, have a very romanticized view of their country and their government, so much so that many feel an obligation to “do something” for China. A ceo and founder of a fledgling broadband communications firm in Beijing has worked 16-hour days for the past few years with the hope of making $10 million in the next 10 years. If he succeeds, he plans to contribute the bulk of his money to the government to further economic development and progress. A senior sales executive who works for a popular Chinese website sees his work as a contribution to China. He proudly declared, “I am helping to build the internet for my country.” The combination of pride, romanticism, and hope that this new generation of Chinese feel about their country has led them to come to the Chinese government’s defense when the United States calls attention to its repressive characteristics.
This is not to say that the Chinese are not critical of their own government. From doctors trying to alleviate the aids crisis to businessmen frustrated by the bureaucracy and corruption infused at every level of the government, from unemployed workers laid off by dismantled state-owned enterprises to intellectuals lamenting moral decadence in Chinese society, the Chinese themselves are intensely critical of their government’s inefficiency, bureaucracy, lack of responsiveness, and frequent policy failures. Yet many Chinese nevertheless find U.S. criticisms unhelpful.
“Much like people in other countries,” Professor Jia Qingguo explained, “Chinese in general do not like other people to criticize their own country.” It may be true that they are themselves critical of the government, Jia continued, “but they also look to it to protect their interests and hold it responsible for their well being.” The ceo of the broadband communications firm concurred, “We will be responsible for criticizing and reforming our own government. But we don’t want America to stick its nose in our business.” Li Xu, an overseas Chinese student at Columbia University who claims to be very unhappy with the Chinese government, is actually more frustrated with the United States. “America is conceited, self-centered, and ignorant,” she said, “It feels good about itself and doesn’t care about other countries’ understanding.”
Liberty v. food: Chinese priorities
If the chinese recoil at the manner in which the United States criticizes China’s problems, many also disagree with the solution that Americans offer, namely, quick democratization. During the past 12 years, the Chinese government has successfully pitted economic liberalization against political liberalization, arguing that a country as poor, as big, and as backward as China is simply not ready for democratization. Liberty has been pitted against food, and the continuation of the current regime’s repression has been justified in the name of social stability. The political struggles, class warfare, wanton persecutions, and economic paralysis of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) remain fresh in the collective Chinese memory, reinforcing a reluctance to risk reverting to political and social chaos. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2001, President Jiang Zemin said, “I can tell you with certainty: Should China apply the parliamentary democracy of the Western world, the only result will be that 1.2 billion Chinese people will not have enough food to eat. The result will be great chaos.”
Many Chinese, including those who have seen or experienced democracy in America firsthand, have adopted the government’s argument that extensive political liberalization cannot take place alongside economic liberalization. They believe that Americans simply fail to understand the magnitude of poverty and backwardness that plagues China today.
In addition, the economic success of the past two decades has convinced some Chinese that stability, even at the cost of political repression, is so far a necessary price to pay. Jason, an American-educated mba student, justified the abuses of members of the banned Falun Gong sect: “These people are creating trouble for society. . . . I would rather have the Communist Party than Falun Gong rule my country.” A former reporter in Hong Kong who said that she hated the government for firing upon democracy protesters at Tiananmen 12 years ago now feels differently: “What did you expect the government to do? Just hand over power to a bunch of kids and let the country descend into chaos?” Numerous others point to democratization in Russia, which has correlated with widespread poverty and hunger, and that in South Africa, which has correlated with lawlessness, to argue that the same might happen to China should it decide to democratize today.
Much like President Jiang, numerous Chinese argue that political liberalization is a secondary priority to economic liberalization. A Shanghai lawyer who used to practice law in New York City agreed that feeding 1.3 billion people is the priority for China. U.S. pressure to change China with different priorities has left him feeling “resentment, hatred, contempt and sadness.” Jason agrees that the Chinese leadership should adopt a model of reform much like that in Singapore and Malaysia, which grants economic freedom but limited political rights.
As China prioritizes and maintains stability, the crackdown on political and religious dissent continues. American concerns about human and political rights are finding an unreceptive audience in a new Chinese generation pursuing promising careers, sipping Starbucks coffee, and singing at Karaoke bars.
Implications for the United States
The use of propaganda in China should not surprise Americans. Yet the resentment of the Chinese people, especially those who appear to be most like Americans, provides reason for reexamination. Can the United States help further the process of political reform without alienating the Chinese people? Though Sino-American relations post-September 11 have been infused with an added sense of mutual cooperation, bilateral relationships between any two countries will inevitably have their ups and downs, and stable relations with the Chinese government cannot be relied upon entirely to change popular Chinese perceptions of the United States.
To win the hearts and minds of the people, some, such as Minxin Pei, have suggested that the United States should “use fewer threats” and engage in more constructive criticisms based on mutual respect. Many Chinese agree: They do not mind U.S. criticism but resent “actual steps to weaken China.” A manager working for a major international media conglomerate in China said, “I am okay with criticism on anything if it was meant well.” Tracy Li, the former internet sales executive, said, “Criticism is okay, but there should be a limit. We don’t point to the United States and say you should do this or do that, or that you should free this or that criminal.” Along the same lines, the former translator and editor suggested, “I think that some friendly and respectful gestures will help China change, such as granting entry to the wto or approving China’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. To welcome China into the world family and help it observe international practices will be more effective than harsh words or steel bombs.”
It is true that U.S. criticisms of China have been both less than accurate and overly inflammatory for domestic political purposes. Many in Washington have not changed the rhetoric they deploy to describe China — a communist dictatorship or a “tyrannical” state — to reflect the sweeping liberalization measures in Chinese society and the Chinese economy since 1989. As a result, American sincerity was questioned and credibility diminished even in the eyes of those who should have been our natural allies: the Chinese who are critical of their own government.
One should recognize, though, that trying to portray China in a more accurate light can only go so far to improve Chinese perceptions about the United States. America may agree with China today on the issue of fighting terrorism, but U.S. and Chinese national interests on various issues affecting fundamental interests in trade, security, and Taiwan no doubt will conflict at other times. The U.S. government cannot and should not abandon its international agenda simply for the sake of becoming more popular with the Chinese people. The mere articulation of U.S. policy positions by standard diplomatic means will inevitably give the Chinese government and inclined Chinese nationalists further excuses to brand U.S. positions as anti-China. Currently, the U.S. proposal to build a national missile defense (nmd) system faces strong resistance from China, which flatly rejects the American assertion that nmd is targeted at rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq. Instead, the Chinese view Americans as bent on curbing China’s rising military strength. Similarly, the United States cannot simply turn away every time Beijing threatens to invade democratic Taiwan. Yet any action that indicates American friendship for Taiwan will be seen by Chinese nationalists as an effort to “undermine Chinese sovereignty” and to thwart eventual reunification. In short, acknowledging the progress made in China today — though necessary — will not shield the United States from accusations from the Chinese government or the Chinese people.
Aside from hard-core strategic interests, the United States also has a fundamental difference with China over how citizens ought to be treated. Much like interests in trade, security, and Taiwan, U.S. principles on human and political rights cannot and should not be abandoned. That the United States has not always lived up to moral principles in its foreign policy does not take away from the need to try to affirm and uphold these principles. Without extensive political liberalization, China’s modern national greatness will remain a tool of the state media and a dream for Chinese nationalists. U.S. criticisms of China, though not always accurate or consistent, are not fabricated out of thin air but are the result of American disgust with the Chinese government’s brutality and authoritarianism. As one marketing professional in Beijing acknowledged, many U.S. criticisms of China are “basically true.”
The United States may need to acknowledge that it has precious little leverage in changing Chinese minds against the powerful forces of Chinese propaganda and Chinese nationalism. However, in the foreseeable future, U.S. influence will remain crucial to a China searching for options for political reform. As the clamor for visas to the United States continues across China, one can see that America continues to capture the imagination of Chinese people searching for a better life. Many Chinese may be angry with the U.S. government, but they remain open to American culture and values. Many who are less vocal, including those who believed that the United States intentionally bombed their embassy or knocked their pilot out of the sky, still admire America’s political values and institutions. As the Beijing marketing professional said, “One thing that sets the U.S. apart from most other countries is its willingness to take responsibility and stand up for the right principles. . . . I like Americans mainly because of their stance on freedom, reason, and respect to humanity.”
Similarly, a Chinese internet professional who travels frequently to the United States remarked, “The U.S. is different from China. In China, the people are merely grasshoppers that can be stepped on by the government. Over there, you sense that Americans really feel that they are the masters of their own country.” Surely, Americans would that one day, the Chinese people could become masters of their own country as well, and for that reason, the United States cannot abandon the Chinese in their struggle against repression.
China’s future ultimately depends on her people, and an examination of anti-Americanism in China provides a sobering reminder of the limits of U.S. influence on Chinese views. Nevertheless, Americans should continue to let the Chinese people know, whether they believe us or not, that we are on their side in the fight for freedom and dignity.