By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

What do the Chinese think about the U.S.?

I was talking at dinner the other night with a participant in one of our Taiwan executive education programs who works for the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I asked him whether he had ever had any informal discussions with colleagues in mainland China about what are here called "cross-strait issues," i.e. the future status of Taiwan, which China regards as a part of China but most Taiwanese wish to be allowed to chart its own course. Yes, he had, the student replied, and I asked him about what sorts of arguments mainland Chinese officials made to him about why Taiwan should link its future to mainland China.

"They say to me, 'Don't stay together with the Americans. You're Chinese. The Americans participated in humiliating China when it was weak. Together, we can be stronger, and we can take on America.'"

I was fascinated by this account. The public Chinese government view is that the nation seeks a "peaceful rise," developing friendship and shunning conflicts with other nations, especially including the U.S.

It would be an enormous error to believe that all Chinese – a nation of l.3 billion people – have the same opinions about any important issue, such as relations with the U.S. It makes no more sense to ask "What is the Chinese attitude towards the U.S.?" than to ask, "What is the American attitude to the war in Iraq?" But it's interesting to hear the perspective that the Chinese official shared with a Taiwan diplomat, because it's not one Americans typically hear from Chinese when they talk with us. We would be mistaken to underestimate the continuing impact on Chinese culture, in a nation that traditionally viewed itself as the most civilized in the world, of the century of humiliation a weak Chinese endured at the hands of the West (albeit the U.S. much less than Britain or other European powers). This provides an element of bitterness that is a different psychological state from the talk of "peaceful rise."

By the way, I've taken advantage of my stay in Taiwan to check out two of the tales that frequently appear in the presentations of management gurus about the Chinese characters that make up various words. It turns out that it is true that the Chinese word for "crisis" indeed consists of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." However, the statement that the Chinese word for "luck" consists of the characters for "opportunity" and "preparation" is urban legend.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 29, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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