Chinese Remain Wary of American Policy ; U.S. Cultural Influences Are Strong, but Youth Distrust Intentions Abroad

By Buckley, Chris | International New York Times, September 29, 2015 | Go to article overview

Chinese Remain Wary of American Policy ; U.S. Cultural Influences Are Strong, but Youth Distrust Intentions Abroad


Buckley, Chris, International New York Times


China's increasing prominence makes the contrast between cultural attraction and political distrust especially stark.

Wearing a hoodie emblazoned with an oversize American dollar bill, Zhao Yixiang sells an American brand of skateboards for a living and admires much about the United States, including its raucous rap music and tradition of unfettered expression.

"America is a country full of free speech," he said at his shop in downtown Beijing. "You can say what you want, go where you want, choose your own lifestyle. I admire that a lot. But on territorial and military issues, we're pretty far apart."

"I think a lot of people in my generation think like that," Mr. Zhao, 26, said. "We really like American culture, but we also like to have a government that doesn't show weakness abroad."

As China's president, Xi Jinping, was to wrap up a visit to the United States with a speech at the United Nations on Monday, young Chinese citizens like Mr. Zhao present a quandary for American policy makers, who hope their country's vast cultural reach offers a beachhead into making opinion here more receptive, if not sympathetic, toward the United States.

In some ways, American cultural influence reaches into China deeper than ever. Despite censorship, restrictions on cultural imports and heavy Internet barriers, American television, films, music and technology are widely and avidly consumed. During his visit, Mr. Xi nodded to that influence, citing American authors, the popular television series "House of Cards" and several Hollywood movies, as well as meeting with prominent businesses leaders from Silicon Valley.

Yet studies and surveys show that many Chinese citizens, including the young, remain wary of the United States and hostile to Washington's foreign intentions, especially when China's territorial claims and rising influence are at stake. China is not unique in that regard, but its increasing prominence makes the contrast between cultural attraction and political distrust especially stark.

"Even when you have cultural soft power and cultural attractiveness, that doesn't mean that people identify with or support your policies," said Xie Tao, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who studies public opinion and China-United States relations.

Among his students, he said: "You can sense that the undergraduates identify with American culture -- its higher education, basketball, so on. But when you discuss American policy, many people -- many of the same people -- are highly critical."

People here were subjected to Chinese news coverage of Mr. Xi's American visit, which smothered audiences with images and accounts of the leader as a strong, poised statesman, winning the respect of President Obama, American tech executives and ordinary Americans.

"Chinese state visits to the United States are primarily domestic choreography for the Chinese public," Professor Xie said. "This state visit, with the reception by President Obama and the U.S. media attention, is to show that he has international stature and deserves and receives respect."

The promotional drive for Mr. Xi sometimes went to extremes. State news media likened the trip to Deng Xiaoping's in 1979, which helped re-establish diplomatic relations. Foreign students were recruited into offering dewy-eyed praise for Mr. Xi in an online video. The newspaper China Daily claimed that a survey found that nearly 80 percent of American youth were interested in his visit.

It was too much for some Chinese, even those usually inured to high-pitched propaganda. …

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