Dangerous Love: How China Sees America

Flags of the People's Republic of China and the United States flutter jontly at lamp post of Tiananmen Square, State visit by
Flags of the People's Republic of China and the United States flutter jontly at lamp post of Tiananmen Square, State visit by President Bush, November 2005, Beijing China

An international tribunal in The Hague dealt a body blow to China's ambitions of hegemonic dominance in its own backyard. It rebuked the country's behavior in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis.

The Communist party's reactions was typically apoplectic, suggesting that China and America, both 21st century superpowers, are doomed to endless conflict. But back channel communications have probably already begun with the intent of finding a way for China to climb down from its untenable "nine dash" proclamation without losing too much face.

The upcoming diplomatic minuet, scored with ambivalence, begs two important questions. First, how do the Chinese feel about America, on both individual and governmental levels? And, second, what are the cultural forces that can be harnessed to avoid rupture in the future?

Most Americans, only marginally less ethnocentric today than twenty years ago, have a simplistic, nuance-free view of China and the Chinese people. Although apprehensive about the rise of an economic juggernaut and its impact on the American way of life, the images China casts up are rooted in the past: dusty, robotic, gray and ultra-conformist.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are fascinated by America, although often perplexed by its inherent contradictions. The US is free and unfair, creative and fashion-challenged (some describe blue button-down shirts and khaki pants as our "uniform"), sporty and grossly overweight, individualistic and self-deluded (they love to laugh at narcissistic, talent-free American Idol contestants). They are amazed a nation of 300 million self-starters does not come apart at the seams.

The Forbidden Fruit

Deep ambivalence. On a personal level, the Chinese admire - are even intoxicated by - US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.

In 1999, when America bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the nation erupted with rage, but it was the fury of betrayal, disorientation and stunned rejection. No one chanted, "America is evil." Instead, there were tears of disillusionment. The US, then widely perceived as a land of endless opportunity and noble ideals, was exposed as "just another country" in which the powerful protect their interests at any cost. I had been in China for a year, always greeted with openness, curiosity and warm facial expressions. When the news of my country's misdeed swept the airwaves, the lights went out. No one's eyes met mine. They wondered whether I, too, was a fraud, a commercial hack intent on profiting from China at the expense of China. After a week, tempers cooled but a scar of regretful suspicion has since marred the cultural landscape.

Deep affection. Evidence of deep affection for the American way of life is everywhere. Illegal DVDs of US movies and television shows sell like hotcakes, especially the likes of Friends, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and The Big Bang Theory, which celebrate a quintessentially American fusion of community and individual idiosyncrasy. The election President Barack Obama, a black man with no dynastic credentials, is regarded with awe, a tribute to genuine egalitarianism. Every conglomerate wants to become the "GE of China," while Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are role models of the highest order, respected for personal vision and achieving master-of-the-universe status. Amongst denizens of rural China, less worldly than their coastal counterparts, America is not only esteemed for its freedom; it is also described transcendentally as "a land of dreams."

American individualism. China's admiration of the American can-do spirit springs, ironically, from its Confucian heritage. Their value system is a quixotic combination of regimentation and ambition. The clan, not the individual is considered the basic building block of productivity, and human "rights" are either a theoretical abstraction or, even in good times, luxuries to be sacrificed to pragmatism. But Confucianism has always espoused social mobility. By mastering convention, Chinese have been able to, at least hypothetically, climb the hierarchy, the shape and structure of which is socially mandated.

Confucian egos are huge so American-style self-expression is all the rage. Brands that celebrate "me" - from Nike's "Just Do It" spirit to Apple's "Think Different" rallying cry - are embraced, particularly by the young urban elite. American universities have lost none of their appeal. T-shirts sporting the latest hip hop slang are all the rage and pop cultural divas who bow to no one - Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Madonna and, in perpetuity, Michael Jackson - are revered. Sporting figures such as NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are idolized infinitely more than their Chinese brethren. Indeed, Yao Ming, once recognized for his on-court exploits, is now referred to as "Boss Yao," a respectful but emotionally disengaged acknowledgment that the star-cum-businessman been folded back into the system.

American icons, while adored, are rarely emulated. Few Chinese end up challenging the system. Tattoos are always discreetly placed on the ankle or shoulder. Dye jobs are never over the top, with colors ranging from red to blond and sometimes Japan-cool gray. Women flaunting sexuality, in dress or attitude, are never taken home to mom and dad. Even the most opinionated employees rarely muster enough courage to overtly challenge the boss. American individualism is, in short, forbidden fruit, dangerously tempting. The Chinese remain intoxicated by the allure of genuine American self-expression but frustrated by its ultimate impossibility. As a result, attitudes towards the country, and its character, are mixed.

Seeds of uncertainty

Chinese ambivalence towards the US will only grow as the former emerges as a modern superpower, Herculean in ambition but still brittle, politically and economically. As China confronts the challenges of sustainable growth, more people grasp the link - intellectually, at least - between American freedoms and its innovative spirit, between the right to challenge convention and high industrial productivity. Specifically, American freedom is underpinned by impartial institutions that protect individual interests. From an independent judiciary and wide availability of credit to self-correcting representative elections and a robust constitution framework structured around checks and balances, the US is a society balanced by rule of law. The Chinese, meanwhile, nervously abide by an intricate code of mutual obligations that keeps society from unraveling.

Chinese cycles vs. American reinvention. Instinctively and intellectually, China knows limits on self-expression manifest themselves at the national level. It knows double-digit growth will not be sustainable if some sort of political reform - institutional responsiveness to society's fault lines - is not implemented within the next ten years. It knows its stock markets are closer to Macanese gambling parlors than temples of efficient capital allocation. It knows its courts are subordinate to the interests of the Party, not the people. It knows the roadmap needs to be redrawn and that institutions require modernization.

But how? No leader has articulated a clear path forward. America, and the political and economic systems that underpin it, is a mirage, not a destination. Vast cultural chasms exist between the US and China. The American model, rooted in civil liberties, provides no blueprint for the future.

Even after ham-handed stock and currency market interventions and Xi Jinping's no-holds-barred anti-corruption campaign that exposed the Communist Party's seedy side for all to see, the Chinese still have faith in the wisdom of their central government leaders. Although more tentative than, say, five years ago, the people have not lost confidence in the government's ability to outline a series of incremental reforms that transform the PRC into a modern state. Unfortunately, this faith is beginning to wear thin; uncertainty expresses itself as anxiety on the most personal level. Real estate prices are sky-rocketing -- Shanghai's 2016 real estate bubble is ready to pop by the fall -- the supply of well-paying entry-level jobs remains vastly smaller than the number of new college graduates, and the Balkanized industrial chain is unable to ensure the safety of dairy and toy products. And provincial level corruption of officialdom is now endemic, self-evident. Ever more people wonder how they will make ends meet for their families. The Chinese are optimistic in the adaptive strength of the people and nation. But their optimism is not absolute.

In this context, American resilience is a source of fear. Despite the tidal wave of Schadenfreude released by recent economic setbacks and political immobilization, the Chinese in their hearts, believe the US system, built to last, is superior to theirs. As one client, an employee of a large state-owned enterprise, said to me, "America was born to be reborn. We exist in a cycle, one destined to repeat itself every few hundred years. "

National insecurities. Given an acute aware of their system's limitations, the Chinese are hypersensitive to any perceived assault on their country's sovereignty. Nationalistic prickliness abounds. When economic mandarins allowed the renminbi to rise against the dollar, cyberspace released a chorus of disgust. When a Chinese pilot was accidentally killed during the 2001 Hainan spy plane incident, most saw an American hegemonic plot to contain China. When the world protested the government's heavy-handed suppression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, the nation was unified in protest, piqued by outside interference in "internal" affairs. US perennial weapons sales to Taiwan distresses ordinary Chinese at the deepest level; they represent a direct assault on national cohesion, the ultimate safeguard against chaos.

More subtly, attacks on national potential also threaten self-confidence. Chinese ego repression ensures that individual identities are linked to national pride, exacerbating the impact of American condescension, real or imagined. All strands of Chinese culture - Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism - deemphasize the individual. Yet both Confucianism and Deng Xiaoping's "to get rich is glorious" mandate put a premium on (state-endorsed) achievement. The vast majority of Chinese, particularly younger and wealthier ones, are caught between two mutually-exclusive goals: standing out and fitting in. Chinese ambition is restrained by convention. Individual identities are smothered, burdened by layers of suppressed expression. Brand China - nationalism reimagined as the "China Dream" - is seized en masse as the ultimate identity surrogate. Twenty-first century harmony?

Is all lost? Will China's love-hate relationship with America result in perpetual conflict, an ingrained win-lose approach to 21st century affairs? Despite escalating tensions as China tests the limits of its clout, particularly in its old imperial neighborhood, I don't think so.

First, the Chinese, despite their insecurities, are eminently pragmatic. They realize that their economy is inextricably intertwined with that of the US. They know they are - and will remain - dependent on the American market. If we succeed, they succeed. If we teeter, they totter. They applaud American-Sino partnership. Furthermore, China, fiercely self-protective, paradoxically relies on Uncle Sam's military might to maintain order in today's multi-polar world.

Second, the vast majority of Americans are not "anti-China." There remains a reservoir of admiration for the scale of Chinese ambition, not to mention respect for citizens' individual drive. A fascination with all things Han, emerging only now, is reflected by 100,000 young Americans who will study on the Mainland over the next few years.

China, a country that has been both intoxicated and repelled by America for over one hundred years, knows we have no choice but to build win-win platforms. For the sake of its children, and assuming implementation of a crash-resistant growth paradigm, China will continue to nervously embrace the US as parallel universe of double-edged desire.