Understanding China’s image in the U.S.
Just to name a few words related to China that I have really been asked about here on campus during the past month: human rights, dictating government, gaps between the rich and the poor, media censorship, one-child policy, floppy law and piracy. According to Washington Post polls in Feb. 2012, 54 percent of the U.S. citizens think unfavorably of China, contrasting with 37 percent who think favorably. Indeed, as China’s financial and political image in the U.S. is gaining respect, China’s cultural image is going quite the opposite way.
U.S. citizens’ negative views about China were most probably shaped by news coverage. In recent opinion pieces in the New York Times, Chinese people’s lives were blatantly described as desperate and anxious (“What Keeps the Chinese Up at Night,” Sept. 9), and elementary education about China was stated as “patriotic indoctrination” (“Indoctrination in Hong Kong,” Aug. 1). These opinionated articles were usually op-ed and featured straight attacks against China’s regime. And regular news, rather than providing balanced information about China, deepened the deviation by reporting only neutral and negative news.
How could this happen? Writers were opinionated, readers were unquestioning and no effective opposition existed. First, the opinion writers on China were usually former Chinese nationals who failed to get what they wanted in China and fled to the U.S. An older generation of writers who experienced revolutions from 1950s to ’70s set the base mood of criticizing China by moving to the U.S., learning English and writing memoirs and autobiographies. Then, newcomers, with resentment from failure in China and isolation from their cultural roots found criticizing and blaming the government quite handy for relief. Especially, then, a China-criticizing tradition was established, and people could get money and fame by writing critiques in this “free speech” country that loves to be the superhero and save downtrodden people from abusing governments. In this way, opinionated writers played as authorities on China and formed and expanded the stereotypes of China. Second, the whole chain of opinionated news about China was fed by people’s reading and accepting it. Although there might be a chicken-egg relationship between opinionated news about China and increment of the U.S.’s hostility toward China, the downtrodden image of Chinese people must have satisfied something at the bottom of people’s hearts. There was no serious initiative in the U.S. to doubt this image or to try to correct it. Third, China, in the late ’70s, failed to realize the importance of this image and left it to grow unopposed. When China tried to provide correction recently, as seen in big-screen propaganda in Times Square and significant changes in Chinese leaders’ visits to US to make them more personal and more visible to common people, the established image was already too deeply rooted to be changed by words. Thus, to change this image of China to fit reality, the only approach would be more action to oppose this image from both sides.
That said, Wash. U. is quite a different place. Stereotypes are loosely held. Open minds are constantly reinforced. This intellectual profile provides an objective view and constructive skepticism. But are we transforming this into actions that make an impact? Maybe through a thoughtfully decided vote in the upcoming election. Maybe by starting to know the real China by a conversation with a Chinese person. Enjoy yourself during this exploration.