Opportunistic China Bashing is Counter-Productive

This is Part 4 of a post series written by Peter Vernezze exploring the mindset of young Chinese through essays written by Sichuan University students in a graduate writing course. Previous articles have addressed their attitudes toward the elderly, marriage and the wealth gap.

Although American politics is not known for its spirit of bipartisanship, this is definitely not the case when it comes to policy towards China. Indeed, China bashing is one of the areas of rare consensus between Democrats and Republicans. Ironically, almost none of it has to do with the issue on which some legitimate bashing might occur. Instead, the debate sounds after a while like a bad radio station playing the same hits over and over again: currency manipulation, unfair trade practices, and financial obligation. Was it Nietzsche that said we hate those to whom we are indebted?

The trash talking of China is taking place against the backdrop of the Arab Spring turned winter. If that turmoil contains any lessons, one of them ought to involve the necessity to win hearts and minds, especially among young people. The tragic part of the story is that while we probably have no chance of this occurring with youth in the Middle East, our politicians seem to be doing everything possible to make certain that we alienate whatever good will that Chinese youth have towards America.

Chinese Hearts and Minds

This reservoir of good will towards America among Chinese youth was something I personally witnessed during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. At the university where I taught, the basketball courts were filled at all hours of the day and night. Many students not only played the classic American game but also passionately followed the exploits and achievements of some of its well-known stars like Kobe Bryant.

Kobe Bryant in China
Kobe Bryant gestures to fans in China

In a survey I took in my classes about whom they admired, Bill Gates appeared as frequently as Mao Tse-Tung. American television shows and movies were likewise immensely popular and used as regular reference points in discussion, while American products filled the store shelves and were invariably seen as the most desirable.  This positive attitude towards my country is demonstrated as well in the statistics about foreign students coming to study in America. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of mainland Chinese students at American universities increased 23% to more than 723,000 in the 2010-11 academic year.

In light of all this, how to explain the recent American political campaign, where candidates seemed to take turn trying to win the prize of who could piss on China the longest. The low point had to be the Republican primary, where even a supposed friend of China like former ambassador John Huntsman found himself promising to “take down China.”

The situation did not improve in the general election with Mitt Romney repeating the term currency manipulation like it was a personal mantra while President Obama found himself a week before the election signing off on the U.S. taking legal action against China in order to help secure Ohio’s electoral votes. Listening to the debates, one would not have realized that the U.S. economy managed to maintain itself over the past four years largely because of money borrowed from China.

Romney China comic
Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte of the International Herald Tribune

Anyone holding out hope for maintaining the good will of Chinese youth at this point had to pray that they either weren’t paying attention to the beating their country is taking or that they didn’t care about the China bashing.

Chinese Nationalism, American Apathy

American bald eagleChinese youth do care about their country. If you’ve been in China for any length of time you don’t have to be told that many Chinese youth are incredibly nationalistic. Indeed, when I try to explain their attitude to my American friends, I tell them to remember what America felt like the day after 9/11 and this will provide them with the current mindset of Chinese youth about their country. This may be an exaggeration, but a slight one, or so I would argue.  By contrast, the American college students who make their way to China are much more likely to either be politically apathetic or into America bashing.

And if my student papers were any indication, these young Chinese are paying attention to American actions and words. Paper topics covered both American foreign and domestic policy, often demonstrating more knowledge on these issues than most Americans.  Students took particular aim at American interventionism in Iraq, Libya and North Korea. On economic issues, they showed knowledge of the issues and an ability to respond intelligently. The following, for example, considers the argument that China is somehow responsible for U. S. unemployment:

“This is a false cause. The speaker claims that it is China’s manipulation of currency that leads to unemployment in the U.S. There are a host of elements causing unemployment, such as education and ability. Even if China’s RMB is undervalued, it may just coincide with the unemployment in the U.S rather than be the cause of it.”

How to Move Forward

Given that we are being watched by a group whose ultimate attitude is of some concern to us, how should we (America, that is) respond?

There is no need to hide our policy differences with China. And I am certainly not suggesting any change in American domestic or foreign policy be taken to appease China’s up-and coming-generation. But if we stay silent about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia simply because we need their oil, the good will of Chinese youth seems a similarly valuable resource for our own country’s future. In light of this, can’t we at least tone it down a notch?

31 thoughts on “Opportunistic China Bashing is Counter-Productive”

  1. Great piece, Peter. You have really insightful things to say based on your experience in education. To add to that, readers who aren’t American should know how much the Obama administration and colleges & universities across the U.S. are depending on stepped-up revenues from international student tuitions and fees… sad.

  2. I think that many Americans have a distrust of China’s motives because of their lack of understanding of what China will become. Many Americans think of China as a country that produces knockoffs, a country that has corrupt officials, and as a country that manipulates their currency to make their products cheaper in the global marketplace. One day, in the near future, China will not be the factory of the world; it will be the consumer of the world and the economic leader in the world.

    Americans have lost their union factory jobs to China and resent China for it, not the American corporate executive that made the decision to outsource the job so that he could maximize the stock price of the company and earn his annual bonus.

    Hopefully, with more time and exposure Americans will understand the rich culture, history and promise of the Middle Kingdom, and focus less on the economic cost that have been inflicted by profit hungry corporations.

    It seems Chinese appreciate American culture more than Americans appreciate Chinese culture.

    • @China Newz
      “Many Americans think of China as a country that produces knockoffs, a country that has corrupt officials, and as a country that manipulates their currency to make their products cheaper in the global marketplace. One day, in the near future, China will not be the factory of the world; it will be the consumer of the world and the economic leader in the world.”
      China is a country that produces knockoffs, a country that has corrupt officials (more accurately, where corruption IS official), and a country that manipulates their currency etc. Calling a spade a spade is not China bashing. And as fore what China will become, a global leader in consumption etc., in my opinion the cards are stacked greatly against that. I think it more likely that China descends into civil war than grows into anything resembling a modern country.

      The rest of what you have to say, I generally agree with, however, the so-called “Chinese economic miracle” is a direct result of foreign investment and manufacturing. If China were left to its own devices, things wouldn’t be much different than they were in 1980 or 1950 (in many areas, they are still not).

  3. I think most Americans view China with suspicion for at least two reasons:

    1) Americans receive too much info about their own country’s dubious efforts to promote peace through war and such, and are relieved to have a simple enemy to direct their fears at

    2) China really is in many ways a brutal feudal state lurking at the edge of modernity

    • Sascha:

      1. Agree. China-bashing has nothing to do with China at all but has everything to do with U.S. Imperialism.

      2. Disagree. Qing was the last feudal Dynasty to govern China but since Sun Yat Sen’s 1911 Revolution, China has seen various attempts to bring China into the modern world: 1). Mao’s Communism; 2). Deng’s Market Reforms, and 3). Xi’s China Dream.

      Brutal, yes. Feudal, no. But the PRC’s brand of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is still a work in progress just as the ROC’s brand of “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics” is a resounding success.

      • And one more thing: if you want to see a feudal society in China today, try Hong Kong, a city ruled by slumlords and landlords.

  4. “panda basher” really is an unfortunate term. It kills discussion dead. Criticize China for legitimate reasons (ie. IP protection) and you’re “bashing China”. Kinda lazy intellectually…

    Also Peter, you gotta know that Chinese are unfailingly polite to foreigners (it’s a nice quality in some ways), but what gets said or thought in private is often very different…(students have said to me that Bin Laden was a hero and that 9/11 was justified)….shit, a Chinese friend just today commented that my apartment is “very tidy”. Nice words, but I KNOW that ain’t true!

    • I did not mean to imply that there are not a lot of negative attitudes about America among young Chinese. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I ran a film group at Sichuan Normal University, and in the discussion after the film 9/11, it became very clear that all of the students held the U.S. completely or partially responsible for the events of that day. And I certainly don’t mean to stifle criticism of China (read the sentence in the first paragraph about things China might be legitimately criticized for). My point was that the way U.S. politicians drag China pull out China as some kind of ecnomic bogey man is both hypocritical and counterproductive. There are ways to go about attempting to win the hearts and minds of young Chinese that are consistent with raising legitimate concerns about China. But U.S. politicians prefer cheapshots that in the end will only backfire.

    • Agree, China basher or panda basher does no service to an argument about issues of debate. It is clear what Peter means by the phrase but by reducing an argument about an issue to “China bashing” has a discrediting effect without actually addressing the underlying issue.

      In my mind, proper China bashing would be saying something like, “We need to stop the Chinese because they are Chinese”. That would rightly be interpreted as racism, but criticism based around points of contention are legitimate issues that can be discussed.

  5. You mention that presidential candidates were competing with each other to see who could bash China harder, and Romney obviously won that with his cutting rhetoric. But polls indicated that China (in contrast to the rest of the world) actually wanted Romney to become president. What do you make of that?

    One major difference between the US and China is that Chinese are very often manipulated into nationalistic fervor. It’s relatively easy for them to paint someone as an enemy, whereas this is becoming increasingly difficult in the US where we have access to information which challenges any agenda that our government proposes. I feel that this is a major difference between the US and China when it comes to the propaganda war of bashing.

    I feel that America is justified in much of its criticism of China. It can be argued that the developed world has used China as a crutch to expand the world economy but by offering this help which benefits China as much as anyone else, it gives them a strong enough economy to create policy with relative impunity. This policy is almost always designed to increase the power of China’s sole political party and is irrespective of the interests of the rest of the world. The developed world saying “China, we don’t like it when you do that” is as effective here as it is in North Korea. The real battleground for change is the hearts and minds of Chinese people, not the rhetoric of diplomats.

    • My experience in talking with students and other young Chinese was that they were overwhelmngly for Obama. But it wouldn’t surprise me that Chinese overall might have favored Romney. As for nationalism, I don’t disagree it’s much easier to whip Chinese into natiionalist fervor, although it’s not all that much harder to do the same to Fox News viewers. To be sure, there is much justified criticism of China. But very little of it comes across on Amercan television.

    • Charlie:

      “I feel that America is justified in much of its criticism of China.”

      But China is justified too in its criticism of America. Besides, a lot of the criticisms leveled at China is already moot and academic:

      1) Currency manipulation: isn’t Bernanke’s QE a form of currency manipulation?

      2) IP theft: hi-tech companies such as Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba, etc. prove China’s ability to innovate and create its own IP, so much so that China now wants to protect its own IP.

      3) Corruption: Deng’s market reforms allowed China to prosper but also allowed corruption to flourish as well. Big deal.
      Even the U.S. was corrupt when it was a developing country 100 years ago.

      “One day, in the near future, China will not be the factory of the world; it will be the consumer of the world and the economic leader in the world.”


  6. I think the problem with the American politicians is that they are American politicians. They talk a lot of bullshit. Sure they bludgeoned China in the last election, but do you think anyone of any intelligence really bothered to listen? If american politicians were really serious about China they’d be imposing the sanctions they promised after 1989 and arresting the execs of American companies doing business in China. Anyway, so far as I can tell, America and its political leadership are just a lot of hot air. If Chinese people can’t see that and think that what some two-bit politician says in an American election reflects what Americans believe, then that’s their tough luck.

    Personally, I’d like to see some real action from the USA, the UN, and every-other country in the free world on China. 1)The refusal to recognize the CCP as China’s government. 2) The recognition of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Manchouko as legitimate states with Inner Mongolia being governed by Mongolia. 3) The enforcement of all treaties signed by the Qing (welcome back HongKong!). 4) NATO airstrikes to help establish a people’s government over the greatly reduced China modeled on the British Parliamentary system.

    This may seem extreme, but in looking at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria etc., is it really so far fetched? Anyway, with American politicians piloting the free world, it’ll never happen.

    Other issues, much more important than currency manipulation could be handled. Ensuring non-Chinese sovereignty of Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea for one. The US should just sink all Chinese Navy vessels that set off to trespass in these locations. Also, when it comes to Chinese companies, everyone which is listed on US stock exchanges is controlled by the Communist Party of China whether “state run” or not. They don’t divulge this to investors and therefore are illegal. Seize their assets and de-list them.

    China needs a dose of good old colonial gungho mentality. (The West IS modernity after-all…) Basically, send the message to China: “You can do either things our way or you won’t be doing anything at all.”

    • Hey KopyKatKiller, I had a good laugh reading your post; we don’t often get satire on these boards. I liked your deft use of the term ‘free world’. But is only funny because some people think this way. While you humour is appreciated, you have also made us reflect on the difficulty of getting on with each other!

    • KKK:

      “You can do either things our way or you won’t be doing anything at all.”

      You mean China should build up its military and bomb other countries so defense companies can make more money?

      You should run for President of the U.S. of As-holes.

        • KKK:

          “I mean that they should be forced to abide by the international laws and business practices the West created.”

          China is getting there because it realizes the benefits of a rule-based world trading system. As I said, the criticisms leveled at China by the West tends to be one-sided. Bernanke’s QE is far, far worse as far as currency manipulation is concerned. IP theft is practiced all over the world, for example, Google and Samsung stealing Apple’s smartphone IP. And in case if you haven’t heard, the U.S. Congress blocked Huawei from selling its network gear to U.S. customers for fear of espionage. Guess what? Snowden’s revelations alleged that the U.S. NSA was carrying out extensive spying of the world’s telephone, email and internet records.

          China did copy foreign technology but later created its own IP, e.g., China now has its own 4G standard called TD-LTE. Nothing new here. Japan did the same in the 50s and 60s, copying Western technologies shamelessly until they create their own technology and perfected them eventually.

          The problem with the political rhetoric in the U.S. is that politicians want to use China as a scapegoat to divert voters attention away from their myriad domestic problems. If the U.S. has problems with China regarding trade issues, it should go through the proper channels for redress such as the WTO, separating trade issues from domestic politics.

          Huawei, Lenovo, Tencent, Alibaba, Gree, Haier, Xiaomi, etc. are all legitimate hi-tech Chinese companies doing business all over the world. Charlie’s comment that somehow China owes its stunning economic success to foreign investors is only partly true. They allowed the local companies to learn from them. And they eventually found their own way. What’s wrong with that?

  7. The reason the US is the greatest country in the world is that we’re the only country that, as a matter of principle, puts individual rights above the rights of the collective. Individual rights are an absolute in the US, at least they were until the 1930’s. The statists have made great progress here as well as elsewhere in the world. Human beings actually have only two rights: The right to own property and the right to free trade. All other rights, such as freedom of speech/press/religion, merely derive from the right to property.

    The Chinese people are slaves to their government. The Chinese government has offices in corporate headquarters at Huawei and subsidizes them. The Chinese government decides what businesses in China are going to succeed and funnels them money. The Chinese government subsidizes the products of the chosen Chinese businesses so that they can sell product below cost in the US. If the Chinese government asked Huawei to spy on the US government, it is doubtful they could refuse. The Chinese government forces women to have abortions and kills people’s dogs. China restricts the rights of citizens to move about the country and their access to parts of the Internet. There is no rule of law in China, no due process, no independent judiciary, no real restriction on the absolute power of government to crush the individual. We all remember Tiananmen Square. That’s how China treats people who want freedom.

    The United States has its problems. China is an abomination.

    • China is just doing things the way Emperor Qin would have done… Which means that China’s fundamental problem is lack of social development. China is the world’s most backward country, 5000 years backward if you believe the PRC psychophant nationalists.

    • JR37:

      “The United States has its problems. China is an abomination.”

      You sound like a well-informed American but you’re naive about the nature of the Beast.

      Your individual rights in America are merely an illusion to a hidden reality. Your “freedoms” are like your credit cards, you more you use them but the more you go into debt. In a sense, Americans are slaves to money and their government is run by politicians for money.

      Just like ancient Babylon, America is like a whore and the U.S. is her pimp. Men from all over the world have come to taste her flesh and fornicate at her altar to mammon.

      Is there corruption in China? Sure. But at least the graft and corrupt does not unduly influence public policy nor impede effective public administration. And that’s why despite the rampant graft and corruption which exists in China, the Chinese people can still depend of THEIR government to defend, protect and promote the National Interest, unlike the U.S.A whose government officials peddle influence to the highest bidder. Although there is corruption in the Chinese system, the AMERICAN SYSTEM of money politics itself is corrupt.

  8. You are bashing me? Why I can’t feel the pain ? Maybe it’s simply because my ignorance of america and the world. Many young chinese like america simply for its power, like the wolves admire its leader. I think ‘admire’ here is more accurate than ‘like’. We all want to become heroes like those in hollywood films. Should a young mind fed by american culture get bashed by america? If so, why america bash itself? There are lots of differences between chinese and americans, but there are many more shared aspects of character.

    From a young chinese.

    • I think this comment might be at least insightful if not more insightful than the article itself. I taught an American culture class to English majors at a university in Wuhan, and I agree much more with this comment than the article. In particular:

      –Though Chinese youth are nationalistic, they themselves are also critical, and I think that when people criticize the administration of China, the youth do not necessarily feel targeted by that (“the people of China” are not the China that is being criticized). From the comment: “Why I cann’t feel the pain ?”

      –I totally agree with the idea that it is “admire” more than “like”–my students respected prosperity and heroes, but were not even slightly interested in things that were simply American, and were in fact hostile to a lot of typical American institutions or social values, to the point that I had to remind them frequently of cultural tolerance and patience when learning about other peoples.

      –Unrelated to the comment, I envy the article author’s students intensely and do not know where he found them if he describes them this way: “Paper topics covered both American foreign and domestic policy, often demonstrating more knowledge on these issues than most Americans. Students took particular aim at American interventionism in Iraq, Libya and North Korea. On economic issues, they showed knowledge of the issues and an ability to respond intelligently.” My students thought that Mao defeated the Japanese in World War II and that South Korea started the Korean War, knew nothing of politics or of political debate, and had to be repeatedly encouraged not to interpret EVERYTHING in light of Marxism, at least not if they want understand America like Americans generally did. Their ideas about virtually every war America had ever been in were woefully misguided either by bad history or lack of context… I don’t even know where to start. That, and most of them cheated on their papers…I wish I could have gotten students like the article author, but at least I don’t think they are very representative.

      –“There are lots of differece between chinese and americans, but there are much more shared characters.” Sage observation.

  9. Frankly I am surprised that the Chinese gov’t has allowed you to post this series of essays with that trampled, dirtied Chinese flag. I lived in Guangzhou for five years–2001 to 2006–and I knew of a young man who was deported for having a Chinese flag with some photoshopped imagery added around it that would be considered “degrading” to the Chinee patriotic spirit.
    Best watch your p & qs young man, they don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.


Leave a Comment