Monday, May 4, 2009

Perceptions and Misperceptions in Sino-American Relations

There’s no end to theories predicting the demise of the U.S., rise of the Middle Kingdom, World War 3 between 2 nuclear powers, or even possibly a new power duo partnership closer than the U.S. and Britain had at one time.  The Sino-American relationship is clearly going to define international politics in the future. The balance of power between China and the United States has already been dominating the headlines, especially since the recent election of the United States President, Barack Obama.  Every move each government makes is carefully watched and the wording of each press release analyzed and decoded as a democratic union and communist party attempt to work side by side.   

In past Sino-American relations, the U.S. has been the more dominant and aggressive country while China has not been as forceful or vocal in international politics. Now, China is making more demands and has higher expectations of cooperation from other countries while the U.S. is more willing to compromise with and listen to other nations.  It can also be observed that the relations between China and the U.S. have focused on overcoming the differences between the two, the contrast between an Easter and Western part of civilization, and thus the complex cultural dynamics between two countries, one still developing and the other highly modernized.  

Looking toward the future, however, I predict the relationship will be the most successful if the leaders of each nation can emphasize the similarities their people and countries share. If the Sino-American relationship grows to be a strong partnership that could unite the world and work together to tackle many of the biggest global problems, the most immediate being the international financial crisis.   To make this possible, the U.S. must work very hard to correctly perceive the Chinese and eradicate any gross misperceptions Americans may have. Obviously, China must also do the same towards the U.S. This bond will be possible if the Chinese misperceptions of American motives and intent can be eliminated and if American misperceptions of Chinese culture and mindset are corrected. These misperceptions fall generally into three somewhat distinct, yet heavily interrelated sets of concerns: those having to do with issues which are 1) economic, 2) political, and 3) social. 


1) Economic Dimensions

                While the Chinese (mostly only the upper class and emerging middle class) have enjoyed the material wealth brought by capitalism, the emerging “new left” intellectual and political population in China is critical of the American economic system. Voices among the latter dub it "crony capitalism" and think that it allows for the rich to get richer while neglecting the poor and rural people, leaving them behind (Cha, par. 12).  Criticisms of the American finance industry have been plentiful during the current economic crisis, and many Chinese publications and articles blame the West for the catastrophe; they commonly diagnose American greed and lack of regulation as the problem (Jacques, par. 4).  In fact, the Chinese government does not believe that the U.S. dollar will continue to be the strongest currency in the future (Jacques, par. 11). In this regard the Chinese have even called for an international currency and more regulation from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, with less participation and decision-making from the United States (“Chinese premier delivers keynote speech at Boao conference,” par. 31).  

                At the same time, American leaders have accused the Chinese of manipulating their currency value to keep their goods artificially cheap so that the demand for their exports remains high (Lander, par. 1).  But, in the current atmosphere and deep sense of uncertainty of what the future holds for the financial world, many Americans, such as influential investor Jim Rogers, are investing heavily in China and think “it’s the single strongest market in the world since last fall” (Kimelman, par. 10).

            This strong market not only holds the investment of Americans, but the massive workforce and speedy rate at which expansive projects are able to be completed holds captive the American awe and imagination.  This perception of China could not be more correct, and was recently demonstrated with the way Beijing prepared for the 2008 Olympics, constructing stadiums, hotels, and infrastructure what seemed to be almost overnight (Balfour par. 2).  But what Americans do wonder is how long China’s economy can sustain these speed-of-light growth rates and GDP expansion?  While American companies may be envious of the seemingly endless workforce and low cost of labor, they do perceive the challenge that China faces keeping these millions of people employed and occupied, with 6.1 million of them being recently graduated students (“Where will all the students go?” par. 3). 

            China knows that it has a valuable asset with its immense population and healthy workforce, but they perceive its benefit to be its quick money making ability while Americans would perceive the workforce to be less dependable and not innovative enough.  I noticed this as well during my internship in Hong Kong last summer when I was confused and frustrated by the lack of creativity in my coworkers, but I quickly realized it was how they had been trained and what was expected of them. 


2) Political Issues

            The political climate between China and the United States has been most deeply affected by the West’s push for China to democratize.  China has interpreted this as the West’s attempt to keep China subordinate (Shirk, p. 262).  What China misperceives about the U.S. is the mindset of the “white-man’s burden” or “American exceptionalism.” That is a sentiment held by the American people who hold that it is their duty to bring democracy to the rest of the world because they believe it protects human rights and is the best government for the people.  However, Americans don’t understand the Chinese desire for stability, and their need to control a vast population of one and a half billion people.  The American population of a little over 300 million people is much smaller and more spread out, generally living less densely, while over 90% of the Chinese population lives on less than 40% of the land (Ebray). The Chinese fear that absolute chaos will break out due to criticisms of the government or serious political activity. Jackie Chan, for example, expressed a belief that a free society leads to a chaotic society.  He clearly prefers stability and harmony to the right to choose (“Jackie Chan's China comments prompt backlash”).  In response to Chan’s views, many Chinese citizens have criticized him and come out in support of democratization. Yet Chan’s statements are clearly parallel to those of the authoritarian government in power in China.  Americans have long misperceived that as China grows richer, it will slowly democratize, but in fact the Chinese Communist Party has retained a firm grip on the power (Fukuyama, par. 2).   What the U.S. doesn’t always think about though is “were China to democratize today, the political consequences would likely threaten middle-class prosperity, if not political stability in general” (Fukuyama, par. 9).

As briefly alluded to earlier, ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China sixty years ago, the government has been relatively quiet and building its strength before becoming a vocal presence on the international scene. This adheres to a Chinese saying “taoguang yanghui - hide one's capabilities and bide one's time” (Jacques par. 4).  Now Hu Jintao and other top leaders of China are speaking out, expressing strong opinions, and taking a more pro-active role in world affairs.  Other countries are starting to call on China to act even more politically. For example, the U.S. is putting pressure on China to work with North Korea and encourage Kim Jong Ill to stop his involvement with nuclear weapons (Dingli).  Americans perceive China as attempting to consolidate its influential presence in Southeast Asia and gather allies among the regional countries.  

It seems evident that a major road-block in future Sino-American relations is going to be China's demands for respect as a world power but also the expectations from the Chinese to be offered special treatment and exceptions as a still-developing country.  While the U.S. may be patient with that argument, it will not tolerate the perceived corruption that it believes has infiltrated even the highest levels of Chinese leadership.  The U.S. wants to work with China but American leaders and business people cannot take part in the culture of gift-giving or favor-receiving that often permeates Chinese politics and business.    

 As China develops and matures, Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower prudently warns that Americans must not overreact to China’s economic rise. Otherwise the U.S. risks sending the message that it aims to keep China subordinate no matter what, taking away any incentive China might have to act as a responsible world power (p. 267-8). 


3) Social Aspects

Americans tend to view China as having a very formal and traditional culture.  While elderly Americans might envy the respect they feel Chinese elderly receive and American parents hope to instill the Confucian value of filial piety in their children, some aspects of traditional Chinese culture are perceived to be outdated and unfitting in modern times.  For example, promotions are often reserved for those with seniority or connections, discouraging young workers from hopes their hard work and energy will pay off in the near future.

In the past the U.S. has also been very critical of the human rights violations in China, especially the lack of free speech or any form of government opposition.  China has not reacted well to these criticisms in the past, and has responded with equally scathing reports on the status of human rights in America.  Under the current Obama administration Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken a much less vocal approach to the issue and refrained from publicly rebuking or questioning China's human rights practices, which Shirk believes have been counterproductive in the past (Shirk, p. 262).  This has already proven to be good for Sino-American relations because the Chinese feel that the U.S. is finally treating them with more respect and not infringing on internal matters.  

            The Chinese and Americans also misunderstand each country’s journalistic culture.  The media in China is closely monitored by the state while the American news sources fiercely protect their right for free speech.  The Chinese misperceive American motives to be anti-Chinese when negative news regarding Sino-American relations is released.  Chinese news sources would prefer to report that meetings and talks between the U.S. and China were successful in order to keep the national opinion in favor of the U.S. and avoid inciting a huge anti-West flare up.  In order for China to help the U.S. deconstruct misperceptions about its media it should lessen the state control over the media so that Americans believe they are being fed more than just what the Communist Party wants them to hear.  China recently launched a new newspaper, “The Global Times,” aimed at helping the international world “Discover China” and trying to improve the Communist Party’s image throughout the world. “The effectiveness of such efforts has yet to be proven, however. In media, Beijing hasn't yet hit on a formula to connect broadly with Western audiences” (Bodeen, par. 7). 

            The misunderstanding of the social differences in China and U.S. can largely be attributed to the lack of education in the West concerning Chinese culture, history, and language as well as a widespread, basic unawareness about current events, geography, and society in other hemispheres.  In the standard American education curriculum Eastern topics are studied only briefly, and due respect is not given to Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius (Ash).  An awareness of this could lead the Chinese to feel insulted and slighted, believing that Americans do not value or respect their ancient culture and the great thinkers in their traditions.  However, the Chinese don’t realize that this is a flaw of the American mindset and not a result of any intentional action.  If the U.S. worked to incorporate more Eastern philosophy and history in the curriculum the general American population would have a stronger foundation to understand and be in support of a strong Sino-American relationship.

In a recent article in “The Guardian,” a London newspaper, Timothy Ash  explains how an understanding of Confucianism could help explain Chinese contemporary society, politics, and even foreign policy (par. 5).  For example, the Chinese government’s desire for stability, as commented upon above, directly stems from the Confucian value of harmony. This is underscored in this quote from President Hu Jintao in February 2005, promoting the Communist party's proclaimed goals of a harmonious society and world: “Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished'” (Ash, par. 3).  As I observed on a trip to multiple mainland universities in 2007, more recently Chinese university students have been able to pursue the academic study of Christianity, the dominant religion and philosophy in the West in order to understand the way Americans think. If many more Westerners than currently do so would correspondingly take Ash’s advice and study Chinese philosophers and religions more fervently it would create the opportunity for a greater understanding and interpretation of China by outsiders. Because English is the lingua franca of the world, especially in business, the Chinese population has made a much more concerted effort to learn English than Americans have made with Mandarin.  Although Mandarin is used in only a few countries as the core language, it has the greatest number of primary speakers worldwide, and it would be prudent of Americans to acknowledge this and respect China’s language by placing a greater academic emphasis on it (“The World’s Most Widely Spoken Languages”).  In Jim Rogers’ book, soon to be released, A Gift to My Children: A Father’s Lessons for Life and Investing, he recommends that children learn Mandarin so that they too can share the benefits from China’s massive economic growth  (Kimelman par. 7). 

            Although China is emerging as a strong global power with strong leadership, the country still has to undergo quite a bit of improvement and does not feel caught up to the consistent level of modernization that the United States has achieved.  Because the two countries are at different places developmentally, the main priorities of each can come into conflict and resulting misperceptions about this can weaken the partnership between the two countries.  The United States is often critical of China’s environmental standards and practices, or what it perceives to be a gross lack of such, while China does not feel that it should be held to such stringent green policies until it has had the chance to fully develop and catch up.

However, China does have the unique opportunity to bypass many of the environmental mistakes that the United States and other developed countries made by instituting green technologies and lifestyles now, instead of having to backtrack and change old habits or undo what has already been done.  Yet, since the economic crisis, China has abandoned its environmental priorities even more in favor of speeding up the recovery of the hyper economic growth rate China has been accustomed to for the past decade (Ansfield). While China has numbers and statistics that make it sound like they are truly clamping down any environmental problems, the truth is that the de-centralized Environment Protection Agents are often more favorable to local business people than to the drinking water or natural flora and fauna. 



What the U.S. and China must realize is that they have more in common than not in common, and both countries belong to the same world and are a part of human civilization.  They cannot focus primarily on their differences and must realize what the benefits are which close cooperation between the two countries can bring for both their own national interests and to the international community.  With two very different governing philosophies there will be no end of lively discussion and unique proposals set forth to address world issues.  However, each country must treat the ideas and opinions of the other country with respect and an open mind.  In a way, China and the U.S. almost have the relationship of a younger sibling and an older sibling.  China must be coddled by the United States a little bit while the U.S. must be supportive and accepting of the invigorating energy China can bring and ideas for change. The U.S. and China can be compared to the yin and the yang: each country excels in an area that the other country may struggle in.  A cliché saying often quoted says that opposites attract and these two countries may not always be the best of friends, but they are bound to be close partners.  When working together, they must keep in mind each other’s weaknesses and tap each other’s strengths. 

None of this will be possible with misperceptions clouding the vision of either side, however, and now is an opportune time to work toward a shared responsibility between of the great nations of the world.


List of Works Cited


Ansfield, Jonathan. “Slump Tilts Priorities of Industry In China.” The New York Times 19 Apr. 2009


Ash, Timothy Garton. “Comment & Debate: Confucius can speak to us still - and not just about China: There is a simplistic way to read this renaissance of an ancient tradition. The truth is very much more interesting.” The Guardian (London) 9 Apr. 2009. 19 Apr. 2009


Balfour, Frederik; Engardio, Pete; Roberts, Dexter; and Einhorn, Bruce. “Broken China.Business Week. 23 Jul. 2007.


Bodeen, Christopher. “China Launches new English-language Newspaper.” Yahoo News. 20 Apr. 2009.


Cha, Ariana Eunjung. “For China's New Left, Old Values;Emerging Movement Views State Power as a Remedy for Free-Market Inequalities.” The Washington Post 19 Apr. 2009.


“Chinese premier delivers keynote speech at Boao conference” BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific – Political 18 Apr. 2009.


Dingli, Shen. “China Tires of Pyongyang’s Antics.” Asia Times Online. 27 Apr. 2009.


Ebray, Patricia Buckley. People. A Visual Source Book of Chinese Civilization. 27 Apr. 2009.


Fukuyama, Francis.  “For China, stability comes before democracy.” The Daily Yomiuri- Tokyo. 13 Jan. 2008.


 “Jackie Chan's China comments prompt backlash” Associated Press 19 Apr. 2009.


Jacques, Martin. “The Great Shift in Global Power Just Hit High Gear, Sparked By a Financial Crash.” The Guardian (London) . 20 Apr. 2009.


Kimelman, John. “Q&A: Jim Rogers Isn’t Buying a U.S. Stock Recovery.” Barrons. 20 Apr. 2009.


Lander, Mark. “China Jittery About Obama Amid Signs of Harder Line.” The New York Times. 24 Jan. 2009.


 “The World’s Most Widely Spoken Languages.” Saint Ignatius High School. 27 Apr. 2009.


Shirk, Susan L. China Fragile Superpower. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


“Where will all the students go?; Chinese unemployment.” The Economist- U.S. Edition. 11 Apr. 2009.