The three Americas of the Chinese imagination

Will China’s admiration of the US triumph over its antagonism?
November 14, 2013

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.

I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. My parents being doctors, we were considered reasonably well off, for we could enjoy meat dishes once or twice a month, whereas many families were lucky if they ate meat once a year. Even so, I would feel awful every time I thought of the American people: poor things, in the winter they had no padded jackets to wear and in the summer were reduced to ragged shorts and tattered vests; they never had enough to eat and were hungry all the time.

As a young boy I imagined Americans to be beggars, tramping around the streets and importuning passers-by with a broken bowl in their hands. I dreamed of joining the People’s Liberation Army when I grew up and fighting my way across the Pacific to liberate them. I even imagined how, as I stepped onto American soil for the first time with my rifle slung over my back, the American people would welcome me and my comrades with tears streaming down their cheeks. Whenever I pictured this touching scene, tears would start streaming down my own cheeks.

This vision was somewhat undermined when I started watching films set during the Korean War. Every one of the Chinese soldiers in them was resourceful and courageous, in contrast to the dumb and cowardly American infantrymen, but the sight of GIs munching away on sausages made me drool—and not just me. I heard little gulps from all the adjacent seats as other movie-goers swallowed their saliva, too. It was a complete puzzle to me: with America mired in such terrible poverty, how could American soldiers be eating so damn well?

There was another scene that I’ll never forget—that of an old man walking the streets of our little town wearing a brown wool suit. It was the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution then, when I was in high school, and it was the first time I had ever seen a western-style suit, and the first time I had seen clothing made of such material. Whenever my classmates and I ran into him we would burst out laughing, for the cut of his suit struck us as totally outlandish and the fabric looked coarse and cheap. Later we heard that he had studied in America as a young man and brought this suit back with him. The message we got was that Americans dressed in sackcloth.

When Deng visited the US in early 1979, on our black-and-white TV screens we were treated to thriving scenes of Manhattan street life and glimpsed the refrigerators and washing machines in ordinary Americans’ homes. The cars left us dumbfounded—in those days only high officials in China could drive in a car, and the household appliances were unheard of in most Chinese homes. After Deng’s visit to the US, although we continued to refer to the Americans as “US imperialists,” we were coming to realise that the America Deng visited was not the America we thought we knew.

Later, our official newspapers stopped venting against “US imperialism” and began to talk about America, instead. As time went on, high-level political exchanges between our two countries became more frequent; US-manufactured goods began to arrive in China and Chinese goods were shipped to America; in newspapers and on television coverage of America became more objective. Our hostility to America slowly faded and our admiration for it grew. It was time for the second America to take the stage.

* The second America began to take shape around the middle of the 1980s. As Deng’s open-door policy allowed China gradually to emerge from the shadows of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese intelligentsia began to embrace new ways of thinking. Democratic freedoms became a goal for the majority of intellectuals and university students.

Even though this liberal tendency suffered two blows at the hands of the government (the campaigns against “spiritual pollution” in 1983 and against “bourgeois liberalisation” in 1987), it nonetheless was to bring forth the Tiananmen protests of 1989. When a knockoff of the Statue of Liberty appeared in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, it symbolised America’s place in the minds of many Chinese at the time—the avatar of democratic freedoms.

Soon the Tiananmen protests were suppressed under the crackle of gunfire, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe two years later offered a consolation to many Chinese intellectuals: a democratic movement in China had failed, but it had succeeded elsewhere, so in the future it might well win the day in China.

At this point many Chinese felt that America was no paper tiger but the most powerful nation in the world—especially after the First Gulf War of 1990-1, when our news programmes broadcast pictures of how accurately US missiles could hit their targets. The authorities soon realised that such coverage served to build up the US and thereafter avoided showing such scenes, but the clips we had seen were already enough to leave us quite stunned.

The crushing of the Tiananmen protests temporarily strained Sino-American relations, but before long bilateral trade rebounded and it was business as usual again. Even if the Chinese government was angered by American criticisms of its human rights record, the steady rise in exports to America led it to maintain a friendly attitude to the US. European countries, by contrast, though more flexible on issues relating to China’s human rights record, made things difficult for China in terms of trade and opened their markets much less broadly than the US.

The close commercial ties between China and the US in turn encouraged interactions in the world of culture and ideas. Our government tried hard to limit bilateral contacts to the economic sphere, but once a door is flung open any breeze can blow in.

Chinese people’s admiration of America was now at an all-time high. In our eyes, America had been transformed from a country that oppressed its own people and others abroad, into a rich and powerful nation that basked in democratic freedoms. If young people studied hard in those days, it was precisely so they could get an opportunity to study in America. In the 1980s promising young scholars had been sent to study at American universities at the government’s expense. These students on state scholarships ought, by rights, to have returned to their homeland on completion of their degrees, but the majority simply stayed on after graduation. Since then, more and more young people have begun to study abroad at their families’ expense. There has been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese studying in America.

Some people who had already achieved success in China went to the US, too. The Chinese artist Xu Bing, who now enjoys a global reputation, was already a leading figure in the Chinese art world by the late 1980s, but he too pulled up stakes and went to the US to begin a new career there.

At that point my first fiction collection was about to come out and the publisher wanted to include a portrait of me on the flyleaf. It was 1990, and I went to the dorm at the Central Academy of Arts where Xu Bing was living; he sketched my likeness as we chatted. That same year he left for America, and when he first got there things did not go smoothly. A friend of mine got together with him in New York, and on his return to Beijing shared with me something Xu Bing had said to him: that for an artist who is famous in China to make an impact in New York is like an art cadre from a provincial backwater in China coming to Beijing and trying to take the country by storm.

Xu Bing’s experiences in America symbolised the aspirations of a whole generation of outstanding young Chinese—that America could provide them with a larger stage.

* Turning points in history tend to be typified by some emblematic incident, and if the appearance of the second America was signalled by Deng’s visit to the United States, the appearance of the third America was surely marked by the US missile attack on China’s embassy in Yugoslavia on 7th May 1999. The bombing, which left three people dead and many injured, was part of Nato’s campaign of airstrikes against Serbian forces during the Kosovo War. The Chinese government reacted furiously, accusing Nato of deliberately targeting the embassy, although Nato denies this.

When guns were fired on 4th June 1989 and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, some students in Beijing had stopped foreign reporters in the streets, not caring whether or not they were Americans, and begged them in tears to place a call to the then president, George HW Bush, asking him to save them.

Ten years later, after the bombing of the Belgrade embassy, Beijing students, driven by nationalist fervour, surrounded the US embassy and smashed its windows. Shouts of “Down with US imperialism,” so long unheard, once more rang out on Chinese streets.

Some of these outraged students would later return to the US embassy—not, of course, to protest, but to apply for a visa to study in America, but dislike of America began to grow among ordinary Chinese during the 10 or more years following this episode.

But at the same time, admiration for America was also growing. Now, more than 200,000 young Chinese apply for admission to US universities each year. Some receive full scholarships from American universities, but in most cases the applicants come from affluent families; their parents have good jobs and good incomes and the wherewithal to support their child’s education in America, so scholarships are not essential.

There are also people at the lowest levels of society—victims of miscarriages of justice, for example—who, when the corruption of local judges makes it impossible for them to right their wrongs, come to Beijing year after year to appeal to central government agencies for redress, and when rebuffed visit the US embassy instead, hoping that the American government will come to their aid. In Chinese parlance, they are “appealing to a western court.”

Recently I invited my online readers to post on my micro-blog their views about the US. Of the two million people who read my invitation, almost 2,000 reposted it or responded to it. Just as I anticipated, a clear line separated those who dislike America from those who admire it, and a debate between the two sides developed on the pages of my blog.

Here is one typical exchange between a critic and a defender of America. The first writes: “America has a double standard in so many of the things it does. It denounces the attacks of hackers from other countries, but organises attacks on other countries’ servers [he’s thinking of the Edward Snowden revelations here]; it finds fault with other countries’ human rights records, but itself locks up the world’s biggest prison population.”

The rival camp responds, “When you talk about ‘countries,’ you don’t really mean ‘nations,’ do you? As I see it, what America takes exception to is certain regimes, not the actual countries themselves. If it tramples on something, it is simply the dignity of those regimes.”

Judging from the feedback posted on my microblog, America’s admirers in China still outnumber its detractors.

One reader named Cao Mengyu draws an interesting analogy: “My reaction to America is much like a weak student’s reaction to a strong student: envy, jealousy, hate.”

Another called Shi Zhongyu remarks: “After reading so many comments, it depresses me that people are always trying to discuss areas where China’s record can’t match that of America—no matter how they present those comparisons, they just end up making America look good!”

Others describe how their view of America has evolved over time.  “Ten years ago,” one writes, “I felt that an independent, free, can-do mentality was the hallmark of the American spirit. Now I have gradually come to understand that Americans are actually more pragmatic and rational. They hold grudges, too (their relentless search for Bin Laden after 9/11 reminds me of their ruthlessness in dropping two atomic bombs on Japan four years after Pearl Harbour), and are far from nice, judging everything in the light of their self-interest and always seeking to maximise their gains—whether in a war or in an argument.”

* The third America could be said to be a combination of the first and the second Americas. Although the first and second Americas were completely different, there was one thing they had in common: during the two periods when these conceptions of America held sway, they reflected an understanding of America that had wide currency among the population at large. With the emergence of the third America, views have become polarised.

The split reflects a wider cleavage in Chinese society itself. After 34 years of economic development, social contradictions in China have become more and more acute. Given income disparity, environmental degradation, corruption, abuses within the justice system, and other such sources of friction, divisions within society are inevitable. As distinct social strata emerge, different voices naturally are heard, and typically what we find are voices in direct opposition.

The first body of opinion hopes that Chinese society will return to the past, return to the Mao era, for in those days, although spirit was repressed and life was impoverished, the sky was blue, the water was clean, there wasn’t such widespread corruption and inequity, and income equality could be overlooked, because everyone was a pauper.

The second position hopes that Chinese society will rapidly move forward. People holding this view argue that going back in time will get China nowhere, that only true democratic freedoms can solve the social problems that are now piling up like mountains.

These contrasting stances on Chinese society in turn shape views of the US. Most people who hope to return to the Mao-era dislike America, whereas those who hope to progress rapidly toward democratic freedom largely admire it. The first America and the second America originally had nothing to do with each other—as we say in Chinese, “bridge and road—two different things.” Now, with the emergence of the third America, bridge and road are connected.

The first and second Americas reflected ideological trends in China at two particular historical moments. The third America, however, is not simply the embodiment of a trend, but also mirrors people’s individual social ranks and social interests, with different ranks and interests engendering different positions and ideas. This is why there is no shared understanding of the third America, only divergence and disagreement.

One thing I should note is that now, when conceptions of the first America reappear in the third America, we see some changes, such as a new recognition of how much power the US wields. Although some who still cling to that view of the first America are convinced that China will soon surpass the US, they do concede that America is currently stronger than China.

As I conclude, let me tell a little story. On 6th February 2012, Wang Lijun, then Deputy Mayor of Chongqing, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu. A month later I happened to meet a British journalist in Beijing. When we got to talking about this incident she wondered why, when the UK has a consulate in Chongqing, Wang Lijun didn’t go there, but instead drove pell-mell the full 340 kilometers to the US consulate in Chengdu.

“As far as the Chinese government is concerned,” I told her, “only pressure from America is going to have some impact. Wang Lijun is surely aware of that.”

This sounded right to her. “If I were Wang Lijun,” she said, “I would prefer the US consulate in Chengdu, too.”

This article was translated by Allan H Barr from the Chinese.