The fates of the United States and China have become linked in ways no one could have imagined 30 years ago.
The two countries' economies have become so intertwined that historian Niall Ferguson has coined the term Chimerica. We buy China's goods, and the Chinese funnel billions of dollars back to support our deficit. They are a fast-rising power whose cooperation we need.
Yet Chinese and American images of each other are frequently negative or misconstrued, and such misunderstandings can endanger relations. That was the theme of a fascinating conference I just attended in Washington, titled "The U.S. and China: Mutual Public Perceptions," sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute. The co-sponsor was the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Beijing's premier Tsinghua University, and the invitees included top Chinese experts on our country.
The conference concluded that both governments want to keep their relations stable, despite U.S. fears of a future Chinese threat and Chinese paranoia that we want to curb their rise. But to maintain that stability, Americans need to learn a whole lot more about China, and Chinese leaders need to know more about how American society works.
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According to Chinese scholars at the conference, the image of the United States in China improved markedly after 2005 (post-Iraq invasion) and after the election of President Obama. Yet Chinese polls show that, while 41.6 percent of Chinese thought the United States was wealthy and powerful in 2003, only 27.6 percent thought so in 2009.
(Chinese statistics are dicey, as there is no equivalent of Gallup; scholars rely heavily on one private polling agency, which takes samples only in urban areas.
The scholars felt that ordinary Chinese, especially young people, are more knowledgeable about the United States than their American counterparts are about China. There are 400 million Chinese Internet users, many of whom know how to evade government fire walls and access translation software to read English. Young Chinese are also familiar with American films and TV shows.
Moreover, about 100,000 Chinese students study in the United States yearly, with numbers in the tens of thousands since the late 1980s. This has created a large body of returnees with knowledge of American life.
However, hardly any of China's top leaders have ever lived in the United States or gained a grasp of Washington politics, small-town America, and the workings of civil society. This can create official (and military) paranoia about U.S. public or governmental attitudes toward China and the reasons behind U.S. actions. Such misperceptions can be dangerous, especially as Beijing tries to define its role as a rising force in the global arena, and perceives U.S. power to be on the wane.
On the U.S. side, both Chinese and American conferees worried that U.S. attitudes toward China gravitate between extremes: focusing wholly on the negative — such as Chinese human-rights violations or currency manipulation — or uncritically praising China's amazing economic growth.
Most Americans are unaware of how swiftly Chinese society is changing — with personal freedoms expanding, though still limited — or of the huge economic problems China still faces. A December 2009 survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press shows that a little more than half of Americans fear China, while 44 percent believe Beijing is already the world's leading economic power, compared with 27 percent who (correctly) name the United States.
Noted journalist James Fallows, who spent three years in China, said U.S. coverage of China fails to communicate the country's "diversity, scale, chaos, and huge variety." China's reality, he says, "is so fast-changing it can't be fully conveyed." Since most Americans don't know Chinese, they can't pursue that reality via Chinese Web sites. Chinese popular culture — still curbed by censors — has roused little interest here.
One key antidote to misperceptions would be more personal contact at the popular and official levels, including a revival of military-to-military exchanges that China recently suspended.
In November in Shanghai, President Obama pledged to send 100,000 American students to China over the next four years, up from around 13,000 yearly at present. There's no sign yet he's found a way to encourage U.S. colleges and high schools to meet the target. But that certainly would be a good start.
Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.