How China Feels About America: Dangerous Love

08/17/2010 12:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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, their view of the Middle Kingdom remains locked post-Tiananmen imagery. My own twin brother - by American standards, an educated, intellectually-curious guy -- still perceives China as "dusty," "robotic," "grey" and ultra-conformist.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are fascinated by America, often perplexed by our society's inherent contradictions. The United States is free and unfair, creative and fashion-challenged (some describe blue button-down shirts and khaki pants as our "uniform"), sporty (NBA rules!) 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.

Deep Ambivalence

Actually, the Chinese are more than perplexed by America; they are deeply ambivalent. On a personal level, they admire - are even intoxicated by - U.S.-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 United States, 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 all cost." I had been in the PRC 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 the Mainland at the expense of the Mainland. After a week, however, tempers cooled but a scar of regretful suspicion has since marred the cultural landscape.

Deep Affection

Evidence of deep affection - and inspiration by - the American way of life is everywhere. Illegal DVDs of American movies and television shows sell like hotcakes. Archetypal TV fare -- "Friends, "Prison Break," "Sex in the City," "Desperate Housewives" and, more recently, "The Big Bang Theory" -- celebrate a quintessentially American fusion of community and individual idiosyncrasy. They are beloved, downloaded as soon as new episodes air in the States. The election President Obama, a black man with no dynastic credentials, is regarded with awe, a tribute to genuine egalitarianism. Apple-mania is sweeping the nation, at least in first-tier cities. Every Mainland conglomerate wants to become "GE of China." Furthermore, our "capitalistic heroes," from Bill Gates to 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 cousins in glittering coastal capitals, America is not only esteemed for its "freedom"; it is also described transcendentally as "a land of dreams" and "golden horizon."

American Individualism and Me.
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. Regarding the former, the individual is not considered the basic building block of productivity. This has always been, and continues to be, the clan. Human "rights" are either a theoretical abstraction or, even in good times, luxuries to be sacrificed on the Altar of 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. (Today, the acquisition of wealth defines the ultimate definition of success, not as a "right" but, rather, the most valuable contribution to China's rise as an economic superpower.)

Yes, in China, 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, manufacturers of Golden Tickets of success, 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 are modern-day Gods of Self-Actualization. Sporting figures such as brash Kobe Bryant and even turncoat LeBron James are idolized infinitely more than their Chinese brethren. Yao Ming, for example, once revered 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.

Tempting but Forbidden. On the other hand, American icons, while adored, are rarely emulated. Rebellion - i.e., challenging the system -- is a red line few dare cross. 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 grey. 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. Taking a bite is tantamount to a one-way ticket to the Land of Outcasts.

The Chinese remain intoxicated by the allure of genuine American self-expression but frustrated by its ultimate impossibility. As a result, attitudes towards our nation, and its character, are mixed, sometimes dreamy-eyed and sometimes derisive. Many snicker at our naïveté; others scoff at our braggadocio. George W. Bush was often compared to a chimpanzee.

National Insecurity, National Suspicion

Chinese ambivalence towards the United States will only grow as the former assumes its rightful place as a modern superpower, Herculean in ambition but still brittle, politically and economically. As China confronts the challenges of sustainable growth, more people in the Middle Kingdom 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 United States is a society balanced by rule of law. We are crazy kids bouncing around rubber rooms with padded walls. The Chinese tip-toe through a crystal palace, always in danger of shattering. They 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 exchanges are closer to Macanese gambling parlors than temples of efficient capital allocation. It knows its courts are subordinate to the Party's, not the People's, interests. It knows the roadmap needs to be redrawn. Institutions require modernization.

But how? No leader has articulated a clear path forward, and this is scary. America, and the political and economic systems that underpin it, is a mirage, not a destination. Vast cultural chasms exist between the United States and China. The American "model," rooted in civil liberties, born of Greek rationalism and monotheistic self-determination, provides no blueprint for the future.

Yet the subject of political reform is largely taboo, except in the pages of rarefied intellectual journals. Fortunately, the China people have faith in the wisdom of their central government leaders, confidence in their ability to "cross the river by feeling the stones," belief that that empowered leaders will - somehow, someway - outline a series of incremental reforms that transform the PRC into a modern state. Unfortunately, however, faith is beginning to wear thin; uncertainty expresses itself as anxiety on the most personal level. Real estate prices are sky-rocketing, more than twenty times per capita income. The supply of well-paying entry-level jobs remains vastly smaller than the number of new college graduates. China's 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. In short, life is increasingly stressful. More and more 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. True, our recent economic setbacks and political immobilization has released a tidal wave of Schadenfreude. However, in their hearts, they believe our 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. "

America the Hegemon? The United State's capacity for reinvention is threatening, all the more so because, in Han eyes, the powerful - lao da -- are bent on maintaining their advantage at the expense of the weak. And the people, while celebrating their nation's rise to the world's second largest economy, are clear-eyed about challenges. "China has a large population, a weak economic foundation, relatively few resources and a large poverty population, which remains our basic situation," Ma Jiantang, head of China's statistics bureau, said in January. "Therefore, while we take note of our expanding size of economy and enhancing economic strength, we should also have a sober understanding that China remains a developing nation."

Given an acute aware of their system's limitations, the Chinese are hypersensitive to any perceived assault on China'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. U.S. 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, the Maginot line protecting the Middle Kingdom from disintegration.

Frustrated Ambition, Nationalistic Repression. More subtly, attacks on national potential also threaten confidence in "my own greatness." 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 - deemphasizes the individual. Yet both Confucianism and Deng Xiao Ping'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 - i.e., nationalism -- is seized en masse as the ultimate identity surrogate. The success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and increasing deference paid to China in the diplomatic arena, assuages, but does not eliminate, trenchant vulnerability.

Twenty-First Century Harmony?

Is all lost? Will China's love-hate relationship with America result in perpetual conflict, an engrained win-lose approach to 21st century affairs? I don't think so.

First, the Chinese, despite their insecurities, are eminently pragmatic. They realize our economies are inextricably intertwined. They know they are dependent on the American market and will remain so even after the remninbi's inevitable appreciation. 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." In our hearts, there remains a reservoir of admiration for the scale of Chinese ambition, not to mention respect for citizens' individual drive. Our 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 United States as parallel universe of double-edged desire.