The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Classic Pen: An Awkward Two-Step

A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Most Important Relationship

“Which is best chemistry graduate school in England? Who is your favorite NBA player? How many centimeter are you?” Launched rapid fire by the throngs of residents that swallow any native speaker brave enough to wander into one of China’s many “English corners” – plazas and parks where Chinese meet to practice speaking the language on Saturday nights – the questions begin to take on the air of a personal press conference. Any lone Westerner at one of these can expect a similarly exhilarating evening, replete with overly eager late-20’s gentlemen popping into view randomly, making googly-faces from behind the rows of questioners for effect. Indeed, the curiosity and friendliness greeted foreigners here is hard to imagine for outsiders who rarely think of China without the menacing C-word directly preceding.

As the world’s largest and most visible Communist country this is perhaps inevitable. Much U.S. press coverage of China relates to textile quotas, exchange rate policy, and corporate takeovers; complicated issues more easily made exoteric by portraying the country as hostile, red, and monolithic. Avian bird flu, tense relations with Taiwan and Japan, human rights, and an intense military build-up are no less frightening.


Remembering her Conjunctions, and with Plenty of Questions for You

This misunderstanding by no means runs only one way. The xenophobic atmosphere that festered in China during the 1960’s and 70’s persists still, marooned by intellectual debates firmly quashed in public, on-line, and in the classroom. Problems with the U.S. media there may be, but American news organizations provide reporting less fettered by direct state control and censorship. Indeed, Chinese perceptions of America are influenced more heavily by the professional basketball player Dwayne Wade and the television sitcom Friends – wildly popular in Shanghai and Beijing– than through the cycle of accurate reporting, solid analysis, and measured reflection.

A fundamental misconception underlying common foreign discussion of China, but lacking in reality however, is that a massive reservoir of pent-up ill will exists towards America. In fact, many Chinese still proffer the old saying that they “dislike the government, but like the people” of America; a statement now obsolete in many parts of the world that abhor both. Widespread membership in the Communist Party primarily serves cadre’s bureaucratic and individual career objectives rather than zealous anti-capitalist indoctrination. And soldiers’ marching drills in Tiananmen Square are today largely equitable to those at Arlington National Cemetery. Scare-mongering photos of such are better left to tabloid articles covering North Korea.

Policy-makers on both sides have to move past these stereotypes if they are to successfully manage China’s emergence on the regional and national stage. Washington’s principals must also recognize that while Joseph Nye’s “soft power” is ubiquitous throughout the mainland and its peasants and laborers have plenty of bread and butter grievances, they’re hardly clamoring for a democratic revolution. President Hu and company rightly take serious America’s tough talk – a real-politic tendency regulated by its superpower status in a rocky unipolar world – but need to understand that an adversarial relationship is not the intended result, but the concern.

The necessity of maintaining peace is consequently pressed upon by Beijing’s legitimately unnerving actions: an exponential increase in military spending with no obvious military threat; bellicosity towards Taiwan and Japan; and political cover and economic assistance for unsavory regimes from Central Asia to Africa to Latin America. How leaders are able to deal with these issues will likely determine the answer to another question frequently posed at China’s English Corners: “Will there be peace between America and China?”

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

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September 30, 2006 - Posted by | Author: DML, China, Country Profiles, International Relations, United States

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