In U.S., China still an enigma

Sun Journal

Image: Over the years, Americans' perception of the communist nation has gone through more changes than the nation itself.

July 19, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- When Richard Nixon made his historic opening trip to China in 1972, the U.S. press corps painted a rosy picture of a workers paradise free of crime and unemployment. It was even said that if a reporter left a used razor blade in a hotel room, an attendant might chase him down to return it.

Seventeen years later, when the regime sent in tanks to end the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, China seemed a much grimmer place. It no longer appeared to be run by "cuddly communists," but by a gerontocracy bent on crushing the democratic spirit of its people.

In both instances, the reality was much more complex.

During Nixon's trip, Chinese factories were in disarray and the nation was recovering from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In Tiananmen Square, some student leaders mimicked the authoritarian tactics of the government they said they wanted to reform.

Between Nixon's 1972 visit and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, China had indeed changed dramatically. Yet what had shifted even more was its image in the eyes of Americans.

The gap between U.S. perceptions of China and reality has often been broad, and has helped fuel a roller-coaster view -- spurred by events, news coverage and global politics -- in which American popular opinion has oscillated between contempt, paternalism, fear and respect.

Lately, relations between the two countries -- after nuclear spying allegations and the anti-U.S. protests sparked by May's NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia -- have hit their lowest point in years. But they have been lower.

With the rise of Chinese communism, the United States saw a staunch friend overwhelmed by a potential Soviet puppet. In fact, the Nationalist government was notoriously corrupt and unpopular, but Time magazine's publisher Henry Luce so despised the communists that he ordered articles rewritten to cast leader Chiang Kai-shek as a heroic underdog during the Chinese Civil War.

"Chiang is a man of principle, not an opportunist, not a warlord, not (his enemies finally admitted) a grafter," said a 1948 cover story not long before the Communist victory. He had defied predictions of his army's demise before, the magazine noted hopefully: "Could he do it again?"

A few years later, the Sino-Soviet split broke open, and the United States saw Communist China in a very different light. It courted Beijing to check Moscow's power, and Americans became enamored with everything Chinese, including take-out Szechuan food.

By the late 1970s, as China flirted with market reforms and dabbled with free speech, the Western press turned optimistic.

"China will be a different place after these weeks of street-corner democracy," The Economist wrote in 1978, after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping permitted people to voice their political criticisms on "Democracy Wall" near Tiananmen Square. Time named Deng its "Man of the Year." He drew standing ovations from conservative businessmen and signed autographs for congressmen during a visit to the U.S. in early 1979.

The next month he ordered the arrest of Democracy Wall leader Wei Jingsheng, who had urged Deng to institute democratic reforms.

Various factors have prompted these alternating American reactions of attraction and disgust, but mostly the United States hoped, despite the two nations' dramatic differences, to remake China in its own image. Christian missionaries sought to convert its 1.2 billion people. Multinational corporations dreamed of cornering the world's largest potential consumer market.

Compounding the problem has been U.S. news media coverage that emphasizes the extraordinary, but has had trouble at times conveying the complexity of a country that by its sheer size and opacity continues to confound the Chinese themselves.

As China introduced market-oriented reforms in the 1980s, McDonald's and other staples of Western consumer culture popped up in Beijing, inspiring stories that Marxism was dead and China was becoming more and more like America.

David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University, believes that such enthusiastic coverage sometimes failed to stress that China remained a firmly authoritarian state.

During the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, irresistible images such as the "Goddess of Democracy" -- a plaster and foam likeness of the Statue of Liberty -- left many Americans with the impression that protesters shared their political values. When soldiers opened fire on the crowds -- killing at least hundreds -- people in the United States took it personally.

"The problem was that the scholars and media did not balance the favorable image with the less savory image of the police state," says Shambaugh.

Based on its population and its leaders' sometimes-brutal policies, China is an inviting target for activists of all stripes. Interest groups such as Amnesty International and the Christian Coalition highlight religious persecution; actors such as Richard Gere mobilize the Free Tibet movement.

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