BEIJING –- The Chinese love to balance contradictions. They’ve been doing it for millennia. The newest and most compelling one is their intensifying love-hate view of America.
This isn’t just a sociological curiosity. Getting beyond simplistic, emotional yin yang to a serious, nuanced and adult relationship is crucial, not only for the two most important economies on earth, but also for the world.
Right now the Chinese leadership and much of the population of this country of 1.3 billion are trying to decide just how angry they should be at the United States government.
The answer seems to be: a lot.
Everyone from top-ranking government officials to the average TV news-watcher in the hinterlands thinks that President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the East is actually code for trying to “contain,” harass and hem in China -- even as China protests that it doesn't have and never has had expansionist goals.
As if by rote, well-informed Chinese people in Beijing can and do tick off the old list of perceived slights that preceded the “pivot”: support for the Dalai Lama, for Taiwan, for Tibet, for Falun Gong. But those are the appetizers.
Now they are apoplectic about Obama’s recent high-profile moves to be pals with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom the Chinese regard as a war criminal by proxy for his refusal to apologize for Japanese atrocities in China before and during World War II.
Chinese leaders for some time have been whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment, and now the U.S. has come to be seen as the unindicted co-conspirator with China’s longtime enemy.
Leading national television news shows -- think of CNN with an audience 10 times the size -- feature a non-stop diet of anti-Japanese and now anti-American stories and rhetoric.
The ratings are through the roof, according to knowledgeable sources.
On the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter (both blocked in China), paid, anonymous supporters of the government line attack critics by referring to them as “American dogs” or “Japanese bastards” -- and they link the two.
The Chinese, who tend to think that everything has a complex, hidden explanation, see the recent, deadly anti-Chinese riots as at least in part the product of American instigation. Officials refer vaguely but ominously to unseen “parties and forces” that work in Vietnam these days.
Neither do they like the president’s show of support for the Philippines, which has long-running territorial disputes with China over the sea between them.
Now comes the unexpected U.S. indictment of five Chinese army members on industrial espionage charges. On one level, the move by Attorney General Eric Holder is a silly exercise; there is no chance the officers will be tried in U.S. courts.
The Chinese know this and see it as a legal Kabuki (all makeup and no real blood). Everyone knows their idea of “technology transfer” includes outright theft, and the U.S. and China have been in talks about this -- and what the U.S. does from its side -- for months, if not years.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the anger here as entirely for show. They hate to be surprised -- as they were in this case. And they hate even more to be shown up, to lose face.
In person, top Chinese officials project an aura of calm and confidence they regard as appropriate for the operational descendants of emperors. But in fact they can be thin-skinned and, like the emperors, never publicly admit they are wrong.
From the Chinese point of view, the Obama administration was going out of its way to make them look bad, and they hate it.
But even as all of this is going on in the world of diplomacy and politics, the Chinese are also becoming evermore enamored of all things American -- and America itself.
A new generation is rising that has learned to expect material prosperity, a greater sense of web-enabled freedom (every knows how to get around the censors if they want to), and with parents who themselves grew up after the sacrifices and hardship of the Cultural Revolution.
This more freedom-loving and entrepreneurial generation is obsessed, at its more educated levels, with America.
They still listen to Korean pop and follow Korean fashion, but if they are serious about planning their lives to thrive in China, they feel they need to understand and emulate America to do so.
At a branch of Ritan High School here, I asked a group of 10 students how many of them wanted to go to college in the U.S. Five of the oldest said they did; some of the others weren’t far enough along to have gotten to the point of deciding.
“I want to go because I can get a better education there, and then a better job here,” said one student, who said he hoped to study at Yale University.
Legions of "tiger" moms and dads in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are even deciding to send their kids to American prep schools.
Singer and TV host Kelly Cha is launching a show on a popular online channel here that will cover American pop trends every day.
Entrepreneur River Lu, who studied languages at the Monterey Institute before returning to China, is a dedicated fan of Ayn Rand and wants to build a business explaining one culture to the other. The Chinese obsession with "House of Cards" is well-known, but Lu said she doesn’t like the show because it shows too dark a picture of American politics -- and all politics.
“I liked 'West Wing' much better,” she said. “It’s more positive.”
The younger generation’s interest -- even obsession -- with America isn’t fundamentally about politics, though.
Rather, it is about making a living, about entrepreneurship. In part because they know technological ways around it, they don’t for the most part stress about censorship -- and they don’t particularly want to make an issue of it.
They want to start their own businesses and live their own lives as they wish.
From The Little Red Book to The Fountainhead in three generations: Is this a great country, or what?