November 17, 2005

China’s Youth Dance Reluctantly to U.S. Beat

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING -- Chinese student Lai Junjie loves American movies, dreams of studying at M.I.T. and is working hard polishing his American-accented English.

But ask him what he feels about U.S. government criticism of China's human rights record, arms sales to Taiwan and visits by Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Washington, and the smile falls from his face.

"They are not friendly to China," said Lai, 21. "I like Americans but I don't like their government. Too many hawks."

Lai's attitude displays a fundamental split in Chinese attitudes toward the United States, the only remaining superpower whose role as "global policeman" is seen by many in China as holding back their country's proper place in the world.

Chinese, especially the young and upwardly mobile, flock to KFC and McDonald's, snap up China-made GM Buicks, are transfixed by U.S. professional basketball and are a top source of foreign students in the United States.

These symbols of America's dominance of popular culture, which is making steady inroads into China, are easily evident as U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to visit this weekend.

But many Chinese also resent the United States for its protection of Taiwan -- a self-governed island China claims as its own -- and countless diplomatic spats over everything from trade to spying and religious freedom.

"China's economic muscle is pumping up and its influence is growing rapidly. Most people in China are proud of this growth and believe that China should eventually become a global power, just like the U.S.," said Wenfang Tang, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Yet the Chinese see that the U.S. seizes every opportunity to teach China how to run its politics and economy. For many Chinese, the U.S. is the only single country that is capable of hindering China's rise to its global power status," Tang said.


Historically China has looked to the United States as a source of learning, hoping to use its technology and institutes of higher education to propel the country into the ranks of advanced nations.

Since the waning days of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which fell in 1911, the country has sent its brightest to U.S. universities. The trend came to a near standstill after the Communists took power in 1949, but resumed in the 1970s.

"On the surface, people talk about the arrogant attitude of the U.S., but in the next breath they say that's where they want to go study," said one China-based Western diplomat.

"They don't like to be patronized. They wonder why the U.S. seems to think it has the right to 'civilize' them."

Still, the visa queue outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing often starts around dawn, and is soon filled by Chinese clutching documents to their chest in the chilly air, desperate for a hard-to-get visa.

The same embassy was stoned in 1999 by hundreds of Chinese protesting a NATO missile attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which Washington said was accidental.

Online message boards, popular with Internet savvy Chinese youth, buzz with anti-U.S. sentiment, reinforced by an education system heavy with patriotic propaganda.

"I think we have a lot to learn from the United States," said engineering student Zhang Zhiying, 25. "But they have no right to lecture us on our internal affairs, like Taiwan, which is China's inseparable territory."

President Bush has pledged to do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan, which China has threatened to reunify by force.

"Taiwan is always the number one issue for China in its relationship with the U.S.," said Susan Shirk, deputy assistant secretary of state for China in Bill Clinton's administration.

"Beyond that, it wants to keep relations with the U.S. on an even keel (and) calm down any domestic backlash in the U.S. against China because of trade issues."