On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a major Chinese television network broadcast a documentary that investigated how Chinese people viewed not only those pivotal events but America itself. One man, referring to the slaughter of thousands of Americans, declared, “What a beautiful job!” Another said, “They should give America more of the same.” And a student standing in Tiananmen Square said he approved of the attacks because the United States was a bully and a hegemon.
Later in the film, the young man in Tiananmen Square went on to describe his plans for the future. He said that he loved America and that he was about to go there to study. “If I don’t have to come back, then I won’t,” he said.
The Chinese view of America hasn’t changed since this aired four years ago.
On Sept. 3, President Xi Jinping orchestrated an extravagant military parade in Beijing. An acquaintance from my schooldays was so excited by the spectacle — the disciplined troop formations, the advanced equipment — that he wrote in a post on WeChat that he could hardly sleep that night. He added that his friends should “guard against America” because “American imperialism still wants to destroy us.”
Only a few months earlier, this same man had taken his daughter on a trip to Boston, where he reported enthusiastically on social media about visiting Harvard University and eating a huge lobster. He also pledged to send his daughter to America. “We should help our next generation live in a place without pollution, without recycled cooking oil and poisoned milk powder,” he wrote.
The young man in Tiananmen Square and my former schoolmate are hardly alone in holding contrasting, schizophrenic views of America. For many Chinese people, the depth of their admiration for the American system and way of life is matched only by their animosity toward the country.
According to a Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year, only 44 percent of Chinese people have a favorable view of America — the 33rd lowest approval rating out of 40 countries surveyed, and far lower than the 84 percent reported for South Korea and the 68 percent for Japan.
The Chinese hostility to America is first and foremost the result of government propaganda. Because of censorship, many people lack a basic understanding of life outside China. And although in the past few decades the Chinese government has been careful to avoid a real clash with America, Beijing’s domestic propaganda has never ceased presenting it as the enemy. Stir in 60 years of uninterrupted anti-American schooling, and it is hardly surprising that one result is an irrational hostility toward the United States.
Another Chinese documentary, “Silent Contest,” from 2013, highlighted one of the major reasons for castigating America as the eternal enemy. In the film, it was said that America’s key strategic objective is to “dominate” and “break up” China. You hear a lot of this kind of talk from Chinese officials. Like most despotic governments, the Chinese leadership likes to play the part of defender of the people — a role that necessitates the existence of a powerful external enemy. A “strong and hostile” America is an important source of the legitimacy for Communist Party rule.
But in our globalized age, where there are myriad, multilayered interactions between countries, it is impossible for our government to fully stop people from seeking to research, study and understand the United States.
American films, TV shows and products, and many other aspects of American culture remain influential in everyday Chinese life. On the Internet, Chinese netizens loudly praise America’s system of government and spontaneously rally to America’s defense in global affairs. Some people like to compare America and Russia — in recent years Beijing has been cozying up to Moscow — and analyze the behavior of the two countries toward China, wondering aloud if we have chosen the right friend.
Many of the same people who are suspicious of America’s intentions are the ones who harbor the most fervent hopes of going to live there. In everyday conversation these people might be ashamed of China’s human rights record and our political situation, or they may talk about how they want to buy an apartment in New York to find a secure place for their money, but when a foreign government or organization (from no matter what country) criticizes the Chinese system, they become defensive. In the case of the United States, they will often fire off a list of America’s failings, such as racism and gun violence.
A mixed view of extremes about America is not uncommon around the world, but what makes it so striking here is that many Chinese government officials and elites seem to hold these contrasting views.
Like the young man in the documentary in Tiananmen Square, the children of many high officials go to America to study, to settle down, to invest in property. For years, the children and grandchildren of the Communist Party elite have been attending America’s top universities. Perhaps most famously, President Xi Jinping’s daughter enrolled at Harvard in 2010.
Many Chinese people can’t help but notice that the elites have no problem taking advantage of what America has to offer, but when they’re preaching to the public, they seem to have another view.
Government leaders can’t be relied on to deliver better bilateral relationships, especially not the Chinese government. But it’s encouraging that, in the shadow of censorship, some ordinary Chinese people are opening their eyes and looking more realistically at our country and its place in the world. American leaders should realize that the best hope for improved Chinese-American relations resides with these Chinese people.
Nevertheless, as long as the Chinese government pretends to be the defender of the people against the United States and persists in its negative propaganda, Chinese-American relations will have a long way to go.
Murong Xuecun is a writer whose latest novel to be published in English is “Dancing Through Red Dust.” This article was translated by The New York Times from the Chinese.
By MURONG XUECUN, October 13, 2015 in the New York Times