What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
In contrast to the recently tainted image of the United States in many parts of the world, Chinese perceptions of America have become somewhat more positive since September 11, 2001, and even since the outset of the Iraq war in March 2003. A poll conducted in February by the Global Times, a leading Chinese newspaper covering world affairs, shows that 66 percent of the respondents “like” or “generally like” Americans; 75 percent are “satisfied” or “generally satisfied” with the current state of U.S.-China relations; and while 51 percent do not see much change in the bilateral relationship in recent years, 27 percent find the relationship improved. Nearly 60 percent would want to study in America or send their children to do so should they be able.
These polling results are considerably more positive than similar polls from previous years—and suprisingly enough, the Chinese Communist Party is largely responsible for the shift. The Chinese official media has not devoted much coverage to the appalling pictures and descriptions from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Nor has there been notably negative media comments on the Bush Administration’s handling of domestic events like Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, too, China’s media has taken a largely neutral and low-key stand on Washington’s disputes with North Korea and Iran over nuclear nonproliferation issues, and on U.S. setbacks in Iraq.
To the other side of the ledger, and more important, Chinese citizens have been better informed of U.S. positions on the Taiwan issue. While Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian and his political party have pursued the island’s formal secession from China, President Bush made crystal clear his opposition to a declaration of Taiwanese independence. Chinese see Washington as playing a role in restraining Taipei’s separatist movement, even though U.S. military ties to the island and its praise for Taiwan’s democracy remain discordant cadences in U.S.-China relations. The February poll did show some Chinese ambivalence over the likelihood of a confrontation between China and Taiwan (41 percent said it is possible the two will collide; 25 percent answered “not likely”), but fear of a clash is much reduced from the far more frightening late 1990s. Perhaps Chinese give U.S. policy some credit for the improved atmosphere.
The Taiwan issue is at the core of a more general truth, which is that the most decisive variable that shapes the U.S. image in China is the tenor of the Sino-American bilateral relationship rather than American policies not directly related to China. And here the key fact is that China has become less of a strategic problem to the United States since 9/11 as Americans have been increasingly worried about Islamic radicalism and its terrorist manifestations. With Washington’s shift of strategic focus to the “greater” Middle East, the anxieties among many Chinese that the United States may regard China as a major security threat have been reduced.
That said, 57 percent think U.S. policy toward China is characterized by “containment.” Apart from selling advanced American weaponry to Taiwan, a territory all mainland Chinese claim to be theirs, U.S. censure of China’s human rights violations is a major cause of negative perceptions. This is because nearly 60 percent see the American purpose in such censure as destabilizing or demonizing the Chinese state; only 15 percent think the American motive is actually to promote democracy in China. The majority also clearly take a “mind your own business” attitude toward America’s criticism of China’s human rights record, especially when Americans’ own civil liberties and those of subject others have been compromised, they believe, in the name of counterterrorism.
Chinese perceptions of U.S. policy toward China are generally consistent with their views of America’s role in global affairs, and these views, of course, cannot be separated from a series of strong historical images. In Chinese textbooks, even before the Communists took power in 1949, the United States was lumped together with other imperialist powers—Britain, France, Germany, Russia and later Japan—in impinging upon China’s sovereign and territorial integrity. America was depicted as a latecomer to the game: The Open Door policy was characterized not as an American attempt to protect China from imperialism, but as an equally sinister means of competing with other great powers in opening the Chinese market and influencing Chinese politics. Chinese textbooks even today give only a marginal account of America’s role in the Pacific War against Japan, and claim instead that 60 percent of the Japanese army was bogged down in China.
America’s opposition to the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War, against the larger background of the beginning of the Cold War, convinced Mao Zedong that the United States was the archenemy of his Communist Party. His famous analogy of “U.S. imperialism” as a “paper tiger” to be countered with determination and contempt has influenced generations of Chinese. The “paper tiger” image was ingrained into the Chinese mind when the Communists won the Civil War, when they claimed victory over the American army in the Korean War, and when the Americans had to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975 after a protracted war against the Vietnamese Communists, an ally of Beijing. Relentless propaganda barrages characterized U.S. foreign policy goals as “seeking hegemony”, “dominating the world”, and “preventing any other nation from rising up to challenge its primacy.”
These are still the most common Chinese descriptions of U.S. foreign policy goals today, but this image began to weaken after U.S.-China political normalization in the late 1970s, and especially after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1979. As China’s reform era commenced, some Chinese were inspired by America’s liberal democratic model in promulgating their own proposals for a modernizing China. In the 1980s, the proliferation of American cultural products and commercial goods in China, and U.S.-China strategic cooperation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, further strengthened the American image. However, when the Tiananmen turmoil in 1989 ended with a resolute Party crackdown, and with a vigorous authorized effort to reintroduce traditional political education about U.S. “conspiratorial schemes”, the U.S. image once again dimmed.
The 1990s then witnessed some interesting flip-flops in Chinese perceptions of the United States. The zeal for expanding commercial ties with America, and for sending Chinese students to American universities, continued to grow. Meanwhile, the annual debate in the U.S. Congress over whether to grant China most-favored-nation trade status, the Clinton Administration’s decision to issue a visa to Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui in 1995, continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and Washington’s human rights pressures on Beijing were taken as indications of U.S. hostility. The May 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which the majority of Chinese took to be a deliberate act, sent the American image careening downward. Two years later, in April 2001, the air collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane over the island of Hainan triggered another political crisis. During these two periods of crisis, the image of the United States as an enemy resurfaced with a vengeance.
In recent years, the U.S. image in China has become increasingly diffuse. To be sure, the official line still characterizes the United States as the linchpin of “hostile forces” trying to destabilize China. However, it is increasingly up to individual observers to shape their own views of the U.S. economy and its society, culture, politics and foreign policy. A new generation of educators, researchers and analysts—many of whom studied in the United States or other countries, and have thus been exposed to a diverse range of views about America—is emerging. Official media can no longer effectively manage impressions of the United States.
This explains why today’s public opinion polls are both possible and revealing. Several images of the United States now coexist in China: a paper tiger that was defeated by China and is weakening itself through hubris and overextension; the only hegemonic power that threatens world peace and stability; an opponent that violates China’s territorial integrity and denies it national reunification; an economic engine that drives the world economy and, to an increasing extent, the Chinese economy; an admirable society boasting the world’s most advanced scientific, technological and educational institutions; a model of modernization from which China can learn; and an ideologically driven power that wants to shape China’s political destiny. Different sectors and layers of Chinese society may look at the United States through any or all of these images, and see different dimensions of America as they do.
Aside from history, it has become clear in recent years that China’s image of the United States is to a great extent a mirror image, reflecting its own national aspirations, identity, traits and culture. Indeed, China’s perceptions of the United States are more the result of change in China than of change in America. This should surprise no one, for in its modern history, the United States has always served as China’s reference for modernity, nation-building and great-power status.
Since Chinese perceptions of the United States, especially the expressed views of its political ideas, institutions and international strategy are often essentially inverted value judgments about China itself, a kind of code has evolved, where talking about the United States amounts for all intents and purposes to talking about China. For example, campaign finance scandals and exercises in criticisms of the U.S. elections can translate into “China should not introduce such democratic mechanisms.” Similarly, criticisms of NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo, as well as U.S. support for the “color revolutions” in former Soviet states—rose in Georgia, orange in Ukraine—may really be about possible U.S. intervention in Xinjiang or Tibet under vaguely similar circumstances.
Chinese understanding of the United States is also affected by cultural filters. For example, the rejection of the U.S. claim to leadership in global affairs is based partly on Chinese definitions of leadership itself. To Chinese, “leadership” presupposes strict hierarchical order and a series of superior-inferior relationships. It follows, therefore, that since the most important principle in world affairs is sovereign equality among states, and because China is a great civilization and the world’s most populous country, China cannot be “led” by the United States or be subordinated to it.
It is also self-evident in Chinese culture that a good ruler or leader must be a moral example, showing benevolence rather than putting parochial interests before those of others. In Chinese eyes, however, external U.S. behavior is driven by its own interests, not the interests of other countries it putatively leads. Even more shocking to many Chinese, some Americans go so far as to admit that America has interests, and that American foreign policy is designed to protect and advance them!
To most Chinese observers, Americans are characteristically pragmatic and driven by personal interest, as portrayed in Hollywood movies and as experienced in countless personal encounters over the years. That is why American idealism tends generally to perplex Chinese. Also a very pragmatic people, Chinese often find it difficult to comprehend Americans’ adherence to their basic values in general and to their religious faith in particular.
Chinese perplexity has grown in recent years and, again, not because of changes in America, but because of changes in China. Chinese have recently had a bad experience with moral abstractions. The Chinese people in their hundreds of millions used to adore Mao Zedong almost as a living god and regarded “Mao Zedong’s Thought” as a faith. But Chinese society today is mostly atheist, and Mao’s personality cult is viewed as a most unfortunate aberration. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people have viscerally feared ideological fervor of all kinds, and many Chinese now generalize their own disillusionment to the world at large. For the majority, young and old, ideology and religion are nothing but disguises to cover up material interests, instruments to achieve particular economic or political goals. As a result, they tend to think that U.S. concerns about human rights in other countries are simply policy ploys whose real aims are more materialist. In the Chinese imagination, Americans are social Darwinists who believe in the law of the jungle. As such, most Chinese think that the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, galvanized by the American interest in “dominating the world”, and guided by “hard” or “offensive” realism, reveals the true objectives of the United States.
The American image in China therefore depends on history, experience, cultural prisms and, above all, the psychodrama of contemporary China itself. This means that there is little that the U.S. government can do to affect Chinese images of the United States besides continued improvement of bilateral relations. That is just as well, for ultimately it is up to Chinese to see the world, and America, for what they are. In due course, most likely, they will.