How they see us

The current U.S. administration has made much of the notion that China has “cheated” in the international economic sphere.  In the view of advisors like Peter Navarro, admitting China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 was a catastrophically naive decision.  It could be characterized as a “rookie mistake,” except that the 15-year process began under President George H.W. Bush, who had served as unofficial U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic in the 1970s. The deception was deep enough to fool an ‘expert’ on the scene: the Chinese leaders regard him as an “old friend”–less sympathetic observers might say “useful idiot.”  His son’s administration pressed Congress to grant China Permanent Normal Trading Relations status, and the result was a boom in bilateral trade, which was still steadily increasing in 2018.  Meanwhile, in the view of critics, China has continued to manipulate its currency, steal American industrial secrets, and dump subsidized goods on the U.S. market.

The dream that economic liberalization in the PRC would lead to democratic reform has evaporated.  The Chinese leadership–or significantly, as Sec. of State Pompeo has begun to repeat, the “Communist Party”–has cracked down on dissent.  Not only has the Uighur Muslim population felt the heavy hand of displacement and re-education, ‘ordinary’ citizens are now subject to hi-tech surveillance to compile an index of their “social credit,” while access to the real worldwide internet is strictly controlled.  In addition, Huawei and TikTok have trouble shaking the perception that they are merely tools for government intelligence gathering on Westerners.

The U.S. government’s policy has been to respond to Chinese ‘encroachment’ at every turn.  Civil rights protesters in the streets of Hong Kong call on Pres. Trump to “liberate” the city, but instead the U.S. suspends its special economic relationship with this outpost of capitalism.  Closing embassies and ramping up naval exercises have become serious games in which neither side wants the other to have the last move.  To the extent that Chinese youth attending U.S. universities helped to promote mutual understanding, that window has already narrowed as enrollments drop, to the consternation of many a college dean.  And then came the pandemic, which curtailed in-person instruction and was used to justify, however briefly, the exclusion of most foreign students.


In this atmosphere, one might expect the tenor of Chinese nationalism to revert to denouncing “foreign devils” in their midst.  To be sure, there are some startling products of government-backed hip-hop, in which the president of independent Taiwan and gay activists figure as ‘enemies.‘  But some quaint reminders of the bygone days of cultural exchange remain.  Even the phrase “Make America Great Again,” which could have become the focus of Chinese fear and loathing, has been respectfully repurposed or translated indulgently.  According to one popular online language tutorial, the Mandarin expression that corresponds to Trump’s favorite red cap slogan is surprisingly flattering to our nation.  In fact, it doesn’t sound quite as aggressive as some supporters of the President might desire.


‘Rang Meiguo zaici weida!’  In its most literal sense, the motto means “Let the Beautiful State once again be worthy of the greatest admiration.”  The image of America is almost as diverse in the minds of the Chinese as it is at home.  What exactly do they want of us?  As in all previous encounters of the West with China, though, the real significance lies as much in the hearer’s interpretation as in the speaker’s intention.  I choose to take this as a challenge to be our best.  Can we still live up to others’ idealistic hopes for the “beautiful country”?


PS  For example, I’m hoping that the U.S. delegation being sent to Taiwan under the leadership of HHS Sec. Azar is on a mission to learn how to combat coronavirus and not just to annoy Beijing.  Too naive?





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