Who are China's Americaphiles?

Are most Chinese people interested in friendship with America, or domination? Steve Kelman asks the question.

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.

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