This week, I was invited by the American embassy to do a presentation about China’s view of United States at their annual Public Affairs Officers’ Conference. I decided to combine my personal experience with my observation.
As we were growing up, we had to sing revolutionary songs such as “Socialism is Great!”.
Socialism is great, socialism is great!
In socialist countries, the people enjoy high social standing.
Counter-revolutionaries were overthrown.
And the imperialists run away with their tails between their legs.
The number one imperialists, we were told, was the American imperialist. That was my first and overwhelming impression of the country. If anything, we learnt mostly negative aspects of American life, how it was a cold capitalist country with the big divide between the rich and the poor; the workers were exploited while the small number of the rich enjoyed luxury; there was high crime rate and there was racism.
In the 80’s, after China gingerly opened its door, the Chinese suddenly realized that the Americans enjoyed freedom and democracy and rights we didn’t know existed as well as dramatically higher living standard. To satisfy our craving for the knowledge about the outside world we knew so little about, we keenly searched for information. Like many people, I loved the Voice of America. There was a lot of interference in those days. But we clued our ears to our radio, listening to the cracked sound of VOA, which introduced us to American culture and broadcast real news instead of our propaganda.
American tourists ventured to Nanjing. They carried a confident and care-free air and they wore colourful clothes, even grannies! Back then, China was a country with one billion of blue ants.
American companies slowly set up shops in China. I began earnestly to teach myself English in the hopes of getting a job as an interpreter at one of those companies.
American products trickled in and fascinated the Chinese. Some American films made their way to the cinema, opening our eyes with break dance and love stories. And of course music. I fell in love with the Carpenters, one of the first western albums that went for sale in China. My sophisticated friends don’t think much of the band. But for many of us, it represented the high culture from the west! I was told that singing English songs was a good way to learn the language. So I would ride my bike along the dark streets of Nanjing and singing loudly the Carpenters songs to myself.
We just loved America. We had a saying then that even the moon in America is rounder. The 80’s was the honey mood period in terms of China-US relationship.
Then like most marriages, the relationship became complicated. China protested strongly over American’s arm sales to Taiwan; and China voiced anger when being told off by America over Tibet and human rights issues and China was not happy with the way the Americans behaving like the world police, being the ‘hegemony’ as the government loved to say. Some Chinese felt that America wanted to contain China and had bad intention towards China. The bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 was often cited as an example.
What’s happening now? Although China and US are more intertwined than ever before and depend on each other, most of the Chinese actually care much less about America. China’s fast growing economy and its rising position in the world have made its citizens assertive and the nationalistic sentiments are rising. 1996’s best-selling non-fiction China Can Say No reflected such sentiments. We still love American culture and American products and millions still try to go to US every year.
There have been various surveys about the most disliked country. For example, in Feb. this year, another one came out that suggested American was the second most unfavorable country, (after Japan) for its arrogance, unilateralism and the war on Iraq.
How do the Americans feel about China? Threatened. I felt this strongly after I’ve visited the country. I’ve been there quite a few times, to visit friends, to attend conferences and for my book tour. Also in 2009, I lived in Iowa for three months after I was awarded a fellowship on the International Writer’s Program at University of Iowa.
I remember at my book launching party in New York, the first question fired by an American gentleman was: “Do we Americans stand a chance?” as if China was about to take over the whole world.
There’s been growing fear, or at least uneasiness about China and its rapid rise. I can understand where such fear comes from. Politically, there’s no democracy; there’s a lack of transparency; China’s human rights records are poor and China isn’t good at building a positive image. But I also believe some of the fear comes from ignorance.
What I am trying to do is to be a bridge between China and the west and help people to understand where China was coming from. Once westerns have a good understand of that, there’ll be more empathy and less fear.
China and US need each other. So we might as well try to understand each other better and communicate better so that we can get along better. We need more bridges.