Most Americans now believe that China is a threat to the United States. According to the Pew Global Survey, unfavorable opinions of the Peoples Republic of China continue to skyrocket amongst the American people, increasing from 49% last year to 60% this year alone. The presidential campaign has served to stoke these fears—Governor Romney has vowed to designate China as a currency manipulator while President Obama referred to China as an “adversary” in the final presidential debate. American public opinion of China and its people is well documented. Yet, we know very little about Chinese public opinion of the United States. My research has found that China’s One Child Policy generation has optimistic views about American culture and the current bilateral relationship. These findings challenge the conventional wisdom and point to a much more optimistic future for US-Chinese relations. For Chinese people who were born before the 1979 Open Door Policy, the United States might very well be China’s biggest enemy. However, for the One Child Generation, those born under the influence of Western culture, politics, and globalization, the United States is still an ideal place to work, travel, and study. In order to find out just how exactly this generation feels about the U.S., I conducted focus groups of 60 students that included men and women, undergraduates, graduates, liberal arts majors, science & technology majors, students from rural towns, and students from big cities at top universities in China: Beijing University, Tsinghua University, Capital Normal University, Jiaotong University. In addition to these universities, I interviewed students from Renmin University, also known as the Peoples University of China, for its distinct connection to the Chinese Communist Party. Surprisingly, there was no distinction between these different types of students in their opinions about America.
China’s One Child Policy generation has much more favorable attitudes towards the United States than most Americans could imagine. From enjoying TV shows like the Big Bang Theory and Gossip Girl to patiently waiting for the new Lady Gaga song to come out, Chinese students have been exposed to American culture and like it. Similarly, the students portrayed Americans as being both ‘friendly’ and ‘open-minded’, qualities they really admired. Their experiences and interactions with Americans in China are both positive and interesting as they enjoy celebrating with their American friends holidays like Halloween. American Soft Power can be seen throughout all of China challenging the perceptions held by China’s Cultural Revolution generation. The students like watching American movies because they always look into the future instead of the past like Chinese ones do. In addition, China’s One Child Policy generation not only has the economic means, but also the desire to go study and travel in the United States. The amount of students from China studying abroad every year continues to increase because of the perception of prestige that comes from studying at American universities. As such, Chinese students’ ties to American culture are and will continue to be enduring.
China’s One-Child Policy generation conceives the nature of the U.S.-China relationship differently than many in the US do. Chinese students think of the United States as more of a partner than a competitor. Between developing businesses in both countries, trading goods internationally, and making foreign policy, the students believe that in the future cooperation between both countries will deepen, as it will enhance their economies. Most importantly China’s One Child Policy generation does not believe China will be more powerful than the United States 20, 30, or even 100 years from now. Their opinions are in agreement with the general Chinese population. The Pew Global Research indicates 48% of Chinese still believe the U.S. is the world’s leading economy while only 29% believe that China is. The students argued that China needs to focus on developing its society and infrastructure domestically before it can even begin to compete with the United States. Likewise, Chinese culture cannot compare with American culture and might never be able to. American culture is both diverse and popular internationally, Chinese culture is exactly the opposite. This Chinese perception of the future is completely at odds with the discourse that most Americans seem to buy into, namely, that China is attempting to take over the United States’ position in the international arena as the world’s superpower. These findings also contradict the notion of many American economists who constantly argue that PRC is an emerging global adversary and therefore an economic threat. Chinas OCP generation is fully aware that it takes more than a strong economy in order to replace the world’s leading superpower.
The students’ belief that the U.S.-China relationship is critical for the future of both countries was consistent across all groups. There is no guarantee that these particular views will remain constant however. As students become more socialized into Chinese society and enter the working world, there is always the possibility that their perceptions of American culture and politics will change slightly or even drastically. Although relations between Americans and Chinese might never become harmonious, my findings suggest that there are not only common interests among people from both countries, but also the longstanding relationship we have built through the influence of soft power will be hard to break.