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China and the US: A Unique Relationship

Zhu Shida

The relationship between China, one of the oldest civilizations with the biggest population, and the United States, one of the youngest civilizations with the strongest economy, is significant not only for the two peoples but also for the future of the whole world.

The factors influencing the Sino-US relationship include economic, strategic, diplomatic and cultural elements. Undoubtedly, among them the economic factor is the most important one. Economic interests are at the heart of China-US relations. In 2001, trade volume between the two nations hit US$80,400 million, 8.1 percent higher than the previous year. Tempted by the colossal Chinese market, the US has become China’s biggest investor with an investment of US$4,858 million in 2001 and an accumulated investment of US$35,548 million. Since many American companies who have invested in China are multinational corporations, any fluctuations in Sino-US economic relations may affect the global trading and financial system, and may in turn exert influences on the two countries’ political and diplomatic decisions.

Strategically, China and the US have common interests. The White House needs China’s assistance and influence to handle North Korea and non-proliferation issues. America also needs China’s cooperation in fighting terrorism. On the Taiwan question that remains the most sensitive issue, China asks the United States to abide by the three joint communiqués and pursue the one-China policy.

Diplomatically, the imbalance of the mutual foreign policies is one of the reasons for misunderstandings and difficulties between the two nations. On the US side, by redefining China as its rival rather than strategic partner, the Bush Administration indicates that China is not at the key position in its Asian and Pacific policies. However, in China’s foreign policies, the United States is important both economically and strategically, especially when dealing with the Taiwan issue.

The ideological discrepancy explains why the United States has always taken China as its enemy rather than a partner or friend. Thus, learning the origins of American culture and spirit is necessary for China in dealing with political and diplomatic relations with the United States.

Domestic politics has played an important role in shaping the China-US relationship. In the United States, a sharp increase in the population of minorities resulted in the popularity of multiculturalism over the past decade, a movement that aims to achieve for minorities -- including African, Latin and Asian Americans -- the same status white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) have enjoyed in political, social and cultural life. Multiculturalism has strengthened the political power of minorities and intensified the conflicts between whites and minorities. Consequently, conservatives hope to strengthen the influence of the mainstream, i.e. WASP values and attitudes in response to the growth of multiculturalism. Recently, Asian, especially Chinese Americans have become a newly emergent force in computer, educational, scientific and technological fields in the United States. The rise of Chinese Americans may arouse antipathy and jealousy of racists, conservatives and other minorities, which has been seen in the Wen Ho Lee “Spy” Case. In addition, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the White House reexamined its opening-up, adopted tougher immigration policies, and said it would restrict the granting of immigrant visas. This tendency of conservatism may play a negative role in the Sino-US cultural exchanges.

On the contrary, in China, intellectuals as well as young people hold a good opinion of the United States. A survey indicates that 87 percent of Chinese youngsters regard US as a rich and powerful country, and 74.3 percent are impressed by the colorful cultural and entertainment life in America. According to a poll made in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in September, 1997, some 58 percent of those polled nursed quite a favorable impression of the US in general; 27.1 percent thought that by then US was China’s international friend; while only 13 percent described China-US ties as hostile. In a survey conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Harbin on first impressions of the United States, 40.4 percent of the interviewees brought up the wealth of the US and its standing as a superpower, 7.5 percent reflected on such social problems in the United States as drug addiction, unemployment and homelessness, 5 percent mentioned Motorola, Coca Cola, IBM, the Silicon Valley and other high-tech and branded products. Of all countries referred to in the interview, people were most impressed by the United States and listed it as the richest and most powerful country in the world. In addition, the US has been the first preference among Chinese people as a place to visit, travel to and send their children to study in.

However, after China-US IPR (intellectual property rights), MFN (Most Favored Nations status) and WTO (World Trade Organization) negotiations, especially after the missile attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the Air-Collision Incident last year, an anti-America feeling is growing among Chinese young people who are rather westernized both in their wearing and thinking. This is a signal to the American policy-makers: When dealing with US-China relations, they need to fully consider traditional Chinese culture and national feelings since Chinese people who are cultivated by their distinctively face-saving culture value mutual respect greatly.

To handle the Sino-US relationship appropriately, both sides should realize the necessity to further understanding and respect for each other’s cultures, which, unfortunately, often has been neglected.

The origins of American culture lie in a combination of Puritanism, liberalism, individualism and republicanism. Reflected in politics, American culture takes the form of hegemonism with a strong religious flavor and labeled by its self-defined freedom, democracy and human rights standard. The cultural reason for American people’s conceit and authoritativeness lies in the so-called “America exception” derived from the American political culture. Beginning with the original immigrating Puritans, Americans have regarded themselves as the chosen people, superior to any other peoples in the world. Meanwhile, in free and open America, there is no room for the strict consensus system characteristic of traditional societies. Therefore, without a unified attitude and consistent account in all fields of its political culture, discordant voices can be heard from time to time in American society, which is unimaginable and almost impossible in China.

The essence of Chinese culture is family affection and attachment. Any individual behavior damaging national dignity and group honor is not encouraged in Chinese society that thinks highly of collective benefits and reputation, which is beyond the understanding of American people.

In addition to the cultural differences between the two nations, we also need to realize the inherent discrepancies in American culture that influence American politics and foreign policies frequently. On the one hand, in terms of Puritanism, one of the origins of the American culture, since the earliest Puritans came to the New World due to the religious persecutions they suffered in England, the freedom and right for individuals to pursue welfare have occupied a special position in Puritanism. Naturally, Puritans harbor religious fervor for human rights. On the other, the protracted existence of racial discrimination and segregation did not change until after the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, the deep-rooted barrier between whites and minorities is still hard to be removed completely in the United States. The cultural contradictions are the source of America’s double standards on the human rights issue.

The aggressive American culture with a short history of a little more than 200 years is built on the basis of individualism and liberalism, while the introversive Chinese culture with a 5000 years’ tradition lays stress on collectivism and cultural consensus at the expense of individual voices. Obviously, the essences of these two cultures are contradictory. This cultural contradiction is the main reason for the constant Sino-US clashes. Nevertheless, mutual complementarities in economy magnetize the two nations, forcing them to compromise for their cultural discrepancies.

To maintain close ties between China and the United States, the establishment of culturally complementary, mutually trusting and crisis handling systems is necessary. The differences between Chinese and American cultures as well as the inherent contradictions of American culture need to be fully considered. Mutual opening based on mutual trusting is also important to bilateral relations. Meanwhile, cooperation on economic, strategic and anti-terrorist issues cannot change the essential political and cultural discrepancies, which makes it inevitable for the constant appearance of crises between the two nations. By and large, China and the United States need to face their cultural differences and establish mutually trusting relations based on deepened understandings and reasonable analyses and judgment on cases. Only in this way, any possible crises in the future can be reduced to the degree benefiting both sides.

(The author is a researcher with the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

(china.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, March 19, 2002)

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