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The waning of an infatuation

DISCUSSIONS | May 31, 2006

Xiaoping Chen, China and Wisconsin

1998 Nieman fellow; now a doctorate of juridical science candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School

“America is just so-so.” This was the first time I heard a Chinese person express such subtly scornful feelings toward America. For most Chinese, America is a wonderland. Although I don’t remember his name, I met him through his wife, who was a visiting scholar at Harvard. He had come to the U.S. to visit her and he joined us to celebrate the July 4 festivities at the Esplanade on the banks of the Charles River in 2000.

Actually, I did not find what he said about America too alarming, because he is a Shanghainese, and different from Chinese from other parts of the country; people from Shanghai have their own unique view of the world. A reporter in the Shanghai Bureau of the New York Times once told me that one of his staff members had told him “Shanghai is the center of the world.”

But just several days ago, a student from China at the University of Wisconsin Law School, also told me that “America is just so-so.”  She is from Hubei, a province in central China, not from Shanghai. This time I took the tone more seriously. It seems that the Chinese infatuation with America is waning.

Surfing on Chinese Web sites, one can find many Chinese opinion polls about views toward America. When asked which country interviewees hoped to visit, a survey conducted by the Horizon Group in 2003 [note: this link and othes below are in Mandarin] revealed that among the 444 respondents between the ages of 18 and 60 from the three major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, 15.5 percent answered “America” – the first-ranked among all destinations. However, in 1995, 35.7 percent of survey respondents had wanted to visit America.  So within 10 years, America’s attraction for urban Chinese was reduced by more than 50 percent!  Even though one sees throngs of Chinese lined up in front of the embassy in Beijing to apply for a visa, the actual appeal of America has declined dramatically. 

The student at the University of Wisconsin explained to me: “Before I came here, I had only fantastic images of America in my mind. But after staying here for a while, all these illusions have disappeared.” The change in her impression is partially due to China’s recent prosperity and opening to the outside world. Now that more and more Chinese have the opportunity to visit or to study in America, they are finding that America is not as remarkable as they had expected, no longer the wonderland they had imagined.

There is no doubt that some Chinese truly hate America, for instance those netizens who hailed the 9/11 attacks on the Qiangguo (Strong Country) forum, an official Web site affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper. Another Horizon Group survey, conducted in 1999 and 2004, showed that 70.3 percent and 74.1 percent of interviewees respectively viewed America as “the most unfriendly country toward China.” They reportedly detest “American hegemony,” and they grind their teeth when they hear mention of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 or of the U.S. EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001. Most recently, the incident in which Zhao Yan, a businesswoman from Tianjin City, was savagely beaten by a U.S. border inspector in 2004 only exacerbated the anti-American views of some Chinese.

For me, a far more disturbing dimension to this fading attraction of America to urban Chinese is the accompanying declining interest in American political institutions. Although many mainland Chinese still admire the American political system, others, many of whom have lived or studied in the United States, take a sharply different position. Last year, Outlook Weekly online, a weekly journal affiliated with the official Xinhua New Agency, conducted an interview with Lao Yao who had lived in America for eight years, first as a student and then as a computer technician. Lao Yao reported that based on his experience abroad, he felt that China should go its own way and not necessarily follow the United States.


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