TheLectern

By Steve Kelman

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Who are China's Americaphiles?

It is virtually impossible to get a reliable answer to a really important question about the US-China relationship: To what extent do the Chinese people admire and respect the US, and to what extent do they see themselves as our adversary, rising while we are declining? How many seek friendship, how many want superiority?

The most obvious reason it is so difficult to answer this question is that there are no opinion polls or independent research to consult. But a second reason is that, unless you speak good Chinese, the people with whom Americans associate in China are inevitably a biased sample of the population – people who speak good enough English to have a real conversation with Americans, and who are sympathetic enough to the US to wish to do so. Americans who are interested in China but don’t speak the language are frequently reminded of a “nationalist” current on the Chinese Internet that accuses the Chinese government of being too “soft” on America, and seeks more belligerent government responses to issues ranging from holdings of US dollar-denominated debt to efforts by the Philippines to claim South China Sea islands that China claims for itself.

I do not have an answer to the question of which group is larger. But I do want to assert a more limited claim: there are definitely real Americaphiles in China. It is hard to know what percentage they are of the population, but there are enough of them, and many of them are in elite enough positions, that in my view it would be politically difficult for the Chinese government to adopt a stance of thorough hostility to the US.

I thought about this as I was listening recently to a Chinese student telling me, “As long as we don’t have freedom in China, we will be poor no matter how much money we have.” That’s a very “American” thought, and this student associates the thought with American society and with the desire that China become more like the US. There are many Chinese students, professors, and professionals who fervently espouse ideas such as the “rule of law” and who agree that the Chinese economy will lack significant innovation without political, cultural, and Internet freedom.

Then add the cultural attractiveness. The other day at a local KFC outlet, I noticed a little boy, with his parents, who was wearing an Annapolis t-shirt emblazoned NAVY. Others wear t-shirts with American flags. Add to this the dreams of hoards of Chinese young people, and their parents, to study in the US – not to speak of houses and other property the Chinese elite are buying here.

Do these currents represent a significant or fairly small part of the Chinese reality? I really don’t know, and I don’t think anybody does. They do reflect an ongoing debate about globalization versus nativism that is important in China just as it is important in the US itself. Recently the English-language Beijing Review featured a debate about whether China should adopt its own Mother’s Day, perhaps to be celebrated on the birthday of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, who had a particularly devoted mother. The article noted that many Chinese are now celebrating American Mother’s Day, along with Christmas and Thanksgiving (something I discovered a few years ago when I started getting Thanksgiving greetings from Chinese friends). Supporters of a China-unique Mother’s Day said China needed to guard its Chineseness, while opponents said it was important for China to be international.

In terms of US-China relations, I think the message is this: there is an articulate group of Americaphiles in China, not the least among the well-educated, and a Chinese government ignores their sentiments at its peril.

Posted on Jun 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM


Reader comments

Mon, Jul 23, 2012 Lu Li Beijing

I would say the Chinese elite with education background in the US admire and respect America no matter if they admit it or not. My opinion could be partly proved by the article below which talks about Chinese women's frenzy of giving birth to baby in the US. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077693,00.html The fact is ont only the upper- and mid- class women are willing to pay a fortune to do so, even the most ordinary people are willing to as well. As far as I know, the fee is as much as 50,000 USD to get a decent service.

Fri, Jun 22, 2012 Kevin Chen BEIJING

Regarding the international relations issue that Steve just raised, I think it is helpful to consider this question, too: What are the forces that encourage Chinese government to “become more hostile to the US”? First, the government needs a proper level of nationalist sentiment in order to hold the society tighter together. This is especially true given China’s current economic inequality and social divide. This is just a very practical reason. I wouldn’t be very surprised if some “eagle” government officials are actually Americaphiles in terms of values/culture. Second, there are some true conflicts of national interests between the two countries. Facing such conflicts, some people genuinely believe that taking a more confrontational approach will get China a better deal. I cannot tell right vs. wrong here since it really depends on specific issue/circumstances. Third, in terms of values and culture, there are Americaphobics as well. Many elites, including intellectuals, government officials, and businessmen, do not agree with certain “universal values” as defined mostly be westerners. Chinese people live in a complex transition society. Many believe that it is important to be reasonably skeptical of both capitalism and socialism. Now getting back to Steve’s original question: will the existence of Americaphiles prevent Chinese government from becoming more confrontational? If the first and second factors (as mentioned above) are the dominant forces behind the “eagles”, then not necessarily. But good news is, both factors are based on practical calculations. No one wants to go too far as to hurt himself. If the third factor (as mentioned above) is the dominant force behind the eagles, then it comes to a simple competition or compromise between Americaphiles (in terms of values) and Americaphobics (also in terms of values).

Sun, Jun 17, 2012 Steve Kelman

Thanks for all these really interesting comments! I guess I am thinking of two different things. One is an admiration for certain values and culture, sometimes associated with the US -- and people are maybe "-phile" those values, not the US as a country. The other thing was an international relations issue -- will the Chinese government become more hostile to the US, provoking greater confrontation between the two countries? Here my thought was that there is a constituency in China that, whether it's because they like the US or like "US values," would resist that, which is good for peace. Reactions?

Fri, Jun 15, 2012 Kaiping Shanghai,China

I think Quyang's response regarding himself is very interesting since I have similar feelings as him~~Thus, I am very much interested to know the definition of "Americaphiles". I would like professor Kelman to tell more about the meaning of Americaphiles in his perspective. Is Quyang an Americaphiles according to your opion:))

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 Ouyang Xi'an, China

Interesting question. First, am I an Americaphile? I always praise publicly the good performance of American law system, education system etc. I only watch American TV shows, and listen to nearly all American music. But I will never treat myself as an Americaphile, nor as any-state-phile or something. I admire freedom or other universal values, not because it existed in American, but because of those values themselves. And if something urgent happened, I would decide to choose the stance on the "right" side based on my own values. In some way, I abhor politics, and instigation of Chines government toward anti-American (My 92-year-old grandpa even told me it might break a war between both countries last year after he read some provocative critique from a local newspaper.)as well as most responsive acts of American government are nothing but politics. Therefore, I really don't know how I become an Americaphile although I talk alike, which in fact I am not. Second, Who are China's Americaphiles? My answer is those who criticize American almost everyday but send their family to American. Maybe they are just part of China's Americaphiles. But at least I am sure, for their motive is too obvious.

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