Why the Chinese no longer look at America
My generation of Chinese admired the United States.
When I was a college student in northwest China in the late 1990s, my friends and I would listen to Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, brushing up on our English while soaking up the news. American and global. We flocked to packed lecture halls whenever a visiting American professor was on campus.
It was an exciting time. China was emerging from isolationism and poverty, and as we looked to the future, we studied democracy, the market economy, equality and other ideals that made China great. America. We couldn’t realistically adopt all of them due to China’s conditions, but our lives were transformed when we recalibrated our economy to an American model.
Decades earlier, a reformist scholar had declared that even the moon in the United States was rounder than in China. My classmates and I wanted to believe it.
But after years of watching America’s wars abroad, reckless economic policies and destructive partisanship – culminating in last year’s shameful assault on the US Capitol – many Chinese, including me, can barely distinguish that shining beacon.
Yet, as relations between our countries deteriorate, the United States resents us. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did so in May, saying China was “undermining” the rules-based global order and could not be counted on to “change its course”.
I have doubts about some of my country’s policies. And I recognize that some criticisms of my government’s policies are justified. But Americans must also recognize that the behavior of the United States hardly sets a good example.
The change of attitude of the Chinese was not acquired. But when US-led NATO forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo War, our idolization of America began to wane. Three people were killed in this attack and 20 were injured. Two years later, an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided in the South China Sea, killing a Chinese pilot. These incidents may have seemed relatively minor to Americans, but they shocked us. We had largely avoided foreign wars and were unused to our citizens dying in conflicts involving other countries. The shift in perception accelerated as the 2000s unfolded and more and more Chinese had television sets. We have seen the carnage of America’s disastrous involvement in Iraq, launched in 2003 under false pretences, reverberate in our homes.
In 2008, China had to defend itself against the consequences of American greed when the American subprime lending fiasco triggered the global financial crisis. China was forced to create a huge stimulus package, but our economy still suffered great damage. Millions of Chinese have lost their jobs.
Following his predecessors, President Barack Obama announced a series of arms sales to Taiwan and embarked on his so-called pivot to Asia, which we saw as an attempt to rally our Asian neighbors against us. President Donald Trump has declared a destructive trade war against us, and Chinese citizens were as shocked as anyone when a pro-Trump mob stormed the citadel of American democracy on January 6, 2021. The visit to Taiwan House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s last week only further disappointed many Chinese, who saw it as a violation of US commitments to Taiwan.
China critics in the US need to realize that US actions like these are causing results in China that even the US does not want.
It is no coincidence that China’s military spending – a source of concern in Washington for years – began to rise in the early 2000s after the Belgrade bombing and plane crash. It quickly took off after the war in Iraq showed how far ahead the US military was compared to ours. China’s past weakness had been catastrophic: Western powers attacked and forced China to cede territory in the 1800s, and Japan’s brutal invasion in the 20th century killed millions.
American officials undoubtedly want China to follow the American path of liberalism. But unlike my college years, the tone of Chinese scholarly research on the United States has changed markedly. Chinese government officials used to consult me on the benefits of US capital markets and other economic concepts. Now I am called upon to discuss American cautionary tales, such as the factors that led to the financial crisis. We once sought to learn from American successes; now we study its mistakes so that we can avoid them.
The feeling that America is a dangerous force in the world has also seeped into the attitudes of the Chinese public. In 2020, I pointed out on a Chinese TV show that we still have a lot to learn from the United States – and I was attacked on Chinese social media. I stick to my point of view, but I am now more cautious in speaking positively of the United States. When I do, I preface it with a review.
Chinese students still want to study at American universities, but greatly fear American gun violence, anti-Asian attacks or being branded as spies. They are fired with ominous advice: stay on campus, be careful what you say, stay away from conflict.
And despite Chinese fatigue with our country’s strict zero Covid policy, America’s dismal record on the pandemic has only strengthened the Chinese public’s support for our government.
To be clear: China must also change. It must be more open to dialogue with the United States, refrain from using American problems as an excuse to slow down reforms, and respond more calmly and constructively to American criticism on subjects such as trade policy and human rights.
But although we don’t enjoy the same rights as Americans, many in China appreciate our current situation.
In the late 1970s, China was exhausted and traumatized by the destruction and hardship caused by the Cultural Revolution, which nearly destroyed us. Deng Xiaoping launched reforms that brought stability and helped lift 800 million people out of poverty. We have achieved dramatic increases in income and life expectancy and have stayed out of foreign wars. Strict gun regulations allow us to walk down any street in the country at night without fear of injury. When we look at the huge toll of the pandemic in the United States, the gun violence, the political divisions and the attack on the US Capitol, it only reminds the Chinese people of our own chaotic past that we left behind.
None of this is meant to gloat about America’s problems; a strong, stable and responsible United States is good for the world. China still has a lot to learn from America, and we have a lot in common. We drive Chinese-made Fords and Teslas, wash our hair with Procter & Gamble shampoos, and sip coffee at Starbucks. Solving some of the biggest problems on the planet requires us to work together.
But that doesn’t mean following America over the cliff.
The New York Times