This article originally appeared in the April 24th issue of TIME Asia
If there's any Chinese who feels a warm glow inside when he sees an American flag fluttering in the breeze, it's Zhan Bingkui. As foreign-trade manager of the Shanghai Flag and Tent Factory, the chain-smoking 50-year-old sells tens of thousands of flags to America each year. With his livelihood at stake, Zhan is keenly aware of the state of relations between the two countries. In the past few years, he says, Chinese attitudes toward America have improved significantly: "China is more open now and is more friendly to the U.S." Still, the relationship remains complicated, he adds, noting that many Chinese resent America's "bullying" of other countries: "What happened to the U.S. on 9/11 is terrible, but we feel like it was a lesson America had to learn about how they need to respect others."
Zhan's views are a sharp reminder of the complexity with which many Chinese view the U.S. The modern history of China is a still-unfolding tale of a proud, millennia-old civilization coming to terms with a new, shocking world in which other nations are more powerful and technologically advanced. As the dominant player in that story for more than half a century, the U.S. occupies a unique place in the Chinese imagination. To immigrants and students, it is the "Gold Mountain" a land that, ever since the gold rush in 19th century California, has epitomized the promise of wealth, progress and modernity. The flip side is the global "bully" with which China first clashed in the Korean War, and that to many Chinese still seems intent on preventing their country from rising to its natural place among the world's great powers.
"Chinese perceptions of the United States are deeply ambivalent," says Minxin Pei, China program director at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They mix resentment and admiration, fear with respect, jealousy with the desire to emulate." So long as that volatile mixture constitutes a central, "brittle part of the national psyche," says Pei, there's always the possibility that these emotions will boil over.
With China's President Hu Jintao scheduled to make his first official visit to Washington as head of state on April 20, his nation's love-hate relationship with the U.S. is once again under the spotlight. Much is at stake. After all, the evolution or lack of it in the way China's leaders and the country's ordinary people view America will go a long way to determining the course of what is likely to be the 21st century's most important bilateral relationship.
For the moment, at least, Sino-American relations are relatively warm. With Hu and U.S. President George W. Bush having already met on five occasions in just three years including a tête-à-tête in Beijing last November few people expect any groundbreaking initiatives this time around. "Hu wants to show a smiling face to the public in the U.S. and say, 'We like you very much and we will stick to peaceful development,'" says Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University. Jin thinks Hu will not only try to allay U.S. unease over China's rising diplomatic and military clout, but will seek to calm concerns over America's ballooning trade deficit with China, which topped $200 billion in 2005. Ideally, Hu would also like to hear a reaffirmation from Bush that Washington rejects any moves by Taiwan's maverick President Chen Shui-bian toward a declaration of independence from the mainland. But whatever Bush says about Taiwan, which the U.S. has pledged to help defend, Hu's most important achievement in Washington may simply be turning up. "From a domestic Chinese point of view," says the Carnegie's Pei, "you have not really established your credentials as a leader until you have been received on the south lawn of the White House with all due pomp and ceremony," such as an honor guard and a 21-gun salute.
That's particularly the case for Hu, says Pei, because he has had the least exposure to the outside world of any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin spent his early years in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, studied in the Soviet Union and reveled in his trips overseas; he was proud of his ability to recite from memory chunks of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. By contrast, Hu studied only in China and spent much of his career in its remote, impoverished western provinces. Jiang "liked to make jokes" with his foreign hosts, says Chu Shulong, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "Hu doesn't make jokes. He's pretty practical."