U.S. of Who?

By Liu, Melinda | Newsweek, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview
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U.S. of Who?


Liu, Melinda, Newsweek


Byline: Melinda Liu

Why china is no longer interested in following America's lead.

China's America watchers have fallen on tough times. Back in their profession's glory days, in the 1980s and '90s, they were able to spend years in the United States learning about the place, and both Washington and Beijing were eager for them to report home on what they'd discovered in the New World. Chinese leaders were trying to integrate their vast country into a world system dominated by America, and they took particular interest in how Washington viewed their country. But now U.S. funding for stateside field work has dried up, and Beijing shows little interest in the United States except to complain, threaten, or refuse to work together on global problems.

The latest outburst came in response to word from the White House that President Obama still expects to meet with Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama next week. Chinese officials were already in a fury over U.S. plans to sell $6.4 billion worth of Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, and other military hardware to Taiwan. Beijing suspended military-to-military exchanges, and for the first time publicly ordered sanctions against U.S. armsmakers rather than quietly boycotting them. And that's on top of other slaps at Washington, going back to Premier Wen Jiabao's public criticism of U.S. economic policy in Davos a year ago.

The Chinese press says that things have changed. The Global Times, a People's Daily affiliate often critical of the West, attributed the "shift in tone" to two factors: "First is changing Chinese public opinion, which long ago got fed up with America's hedging games -- The second is China's growing power." That kind of talk may suggest to Westerners that China's new global stature has gone to its head. But what's really driving the country's leaders is a very different emotion: profound insecurity.

It's not that Chinese leaders no longer care what the Americans think. They're just so much more worried about what ordinary Chinese think. Growing prosperity and greater communication with the outside world have made the country's more than 1.3 billion people much harder to manage than they used to be. Now it's a matter of basic survival for party bosses to keep a close eye on public opinion. "Today's government needs to be more responsive to rising nationalism among its own people," says the dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, Wang Jisi. Widely regarded as China's leading expert on the United States, he deplores the notion that America doesn't matter anymore. "These days I'm studying China more than [I'm studying] the United States," he says.

Senior leaders' staffs now devote huge amounts of time and resources to monitoring public opinion. They commission social surveys and even assign undercover researchers to unearth what ordinary Chinese really think. The aides' No. 1 source of information is the Internet: Web comments are generally regarded as a key gauge of grassroots sentiment. "Public opinion mainly means the opinions of Netizens," says Jin Canrong, vice dean of the institute of international relations at Renmin University and a veteran America watcher. "China has 384 million Netizens--150 million more than America--and government leaders pay great attention to what the majority say during their decision making."

That's a scary thought. China's online community tends to be urban, young, and male--precisely the people who are most likely to spout jingoistic rants and to castigate any sign of weakness in the regime.

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