What China Really Thinks of the U.S.

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U.S. President George W. Bush and China's President Hu Jintao after their meeting in Beijing on November 20, 2005.

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As ever with things Chinese, the weight of history hangs heavily over the Sino-American relationship. When officials of the Qing Empire began visiting America in the 1860s, some kept diaries that expressed what now seem like eerily familiar opinions. In their book Land Without Ghosts: Chinese Impressions of America from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present, historians R. David Arkush and Leo O. Lee write that during the first period of interaction, from 1841 to around 1900, China's view of the U.S. was a mixture of wonder and fear. Woken from torpid indifference to the outside world by humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars, the Qing mandarins decided China must strengthen itself by observing the ways of other countries. But for all their awe at America's technological prowess, of "fire-wheeled vehicles" that moved faster than a Daoist sage "riding the wind," signs of distrust soon emerged. Liang Qichao, a Chinese reformer who visited the U.S. in 1903, expressed concern about American imperialist tendencies. After reading President Teddy Roosevelt's comments on the need for a greater U.S. role in the Pacific, Liang wrote: "I could not stop feeling afraid."

For the next century, China's relations with the U.S. would swing between near adulation and vilification. Amid the turmoil of China's imperial collapse, warlordism, Japanese invasion and civil war, thousands of Chinese went to study at American universities. For a time, most of the country's élite officials, scholars and scientists were U.S.-trained. But that came to an abrupt halt with the Communists' victory in 1949. A year later, Sino-American relations hit their nadir during what Chinese call the "War to Resist America and Aid Korea," which left hundreds of thousands of Chinese dead, along with more than 50,000 Americans. Later, during the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the U.S. was routinely reviled as China's greatest enemy.

Then, in a stunning historical turnaround, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, spurring what Arkush and Lee describe as a new period of "rediscovery and respect." By the beginning of China's reform period in 1978, America was once again viewed in a largely positive light by the average Chinese. "The U.S. represented the good life," says Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Project at City University of Hong Kong. "It also represented, in the eyes of university students, the peak of scientific and technological progress."

Today, Chinese still tend to admire American wealth and technological prowess. But one crucial aspect of the relationship has changed: as China's economy has boomed and the nation's importance on the world stage has dramatically expanded, Chinese self-confidence has blossomed. The U.S. may still be the world's undisputed superpower, but the gap is narrowing. Why look upon America with awe or fear when an endless trail of foreign leaders and corporate titans now flocks to China to grab a piece of the action and to pay their respects? Likewise, Chinese see the flood of less exalted foreigners arriving on the mainland in search of employment, business opportunities or the chance to learn Mandarin. They see, too, the way China's leaders are fêted with increasing pomp and ceremony on trips as far afield as Germany, Africa, Australia and the U.S. Indeed, even Washington now looks to China to play a more pivotal role in global diplomacy, not least seeking Beijing's help in contending with the twin threats of nuclear-weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.

Beijing, of course, is hardly averse to making pointed displays of China's burgeoning wealth and power. Last week, in advance of Hu's visit, a 200-strong Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Wu Yi toured the U.S., signing no less than $16 billion in contracts with American behemoths like Microsoft and Boeing. But the extent of the change in China's sense of itself is equally evident among ordinary folk. A few blocks from Shanghai's Bund, a huge American flag dominates the entrance to an outlet selling the 100%-polyester products of the Shanghai Flag and Tent Factory. In the dim interior, soft-spoken salesman Zhang Xinwei says he admires the U.S.'s economic might and its innovative corporations, remarking: "I don't understand why Americans are scared of China's rise — there are so many great things that still come from America." And yet, says Zhang, he isn't pushing his son to aim for a spot at an American university. A decade ago, this may have been the ambition of most Chinese parents, says Zhang, but times have changed: "Nowadays, my son could be just as successful if he studied in China."

Zhang's words suggest that the endlessly mutating relationship between China and the U.S. has entered a new phase — one in which the balance of power has subtly but significantly shifted. The reverberations of that shift will be felt not only during Hu's trip to Washington, but for decades to come.

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