Will China’s admiration of the US triumph over its antagonism?by Yu Hua / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Three different pictures of America have dominated the Chinese imagination over the past 40 years. First there was the Mao-era view of the United States as a weak nation with imperialist pretensions. Later, during the Deng Xiaoping-era, came the image of the US as a democratic model to be emulated.
The third view of America emerged at the end of the 20th century and still prevails. The contradictions within this view have a significant influence on relations between the world’s leading powers. In China today, there are two diametrically opposite attitudes to America. Mao-era resistance to US hegemony and the Deng-era aspiration to American democratic freedoms have become locked in a rancourous debate.
This argument is not only about the US, it reflects broader discussions taking place within China about the country’s future. But to understand the significance of these debates, we need to look back to 1978.
That December, the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 11th Congress marked the end of the era of Mao and the beginning of the era of Deng Xiaoping. Two years after Mao’s death, Deng used this meeting to make it known that China was now under his control. Ten days later, on the 1st of January, 1979, China and the US formally established diplomatic relations. And on the 29th of that same month Deng, then Vice-Premier but in effect China’s paramount leader, began an official visit to the US at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter. A succession of “three Americas” sums up the Chinese public’s changing views of the US during the 34 years since then.
The first America was a hangover from the Mao era. America was an imperialist nation that oppressed its own people, and people all over the world. America was a paper tiger, and if it were ever to launch a war against China it would be doomed to defeat. China, with the world’s biggest population, was invincible.
In those days we Chinese thought of war very much like a brawl: whichever side had more people was bound to win. If we went to war with America, there would be six of us for every one of them and it would be easy for us to beat them silly.