As President Hu Jintao prepares to visit the US next week for the first time as China's leader, he represents a country whose popular understanding of America has become more diverse, yet whose negative impression of the US as a "bully" and "rival" continues to deepen, particularly among young people.
The US is seen by urban Chinese through a complex love-hate relationship, and through a lens shaped both by official propaganda and a greater number of personal impressions. In recent years, views on the US have intensified as many Chinese feel more pride about the rise of their nation, say experts and ordinary people.
Many Chinese still feel a century-old sense that America is young and flexible, a "sunshine society," a place of wealth and generosity where laws are made to protect people, as one Beijing scholar here puts it. At the same time, more Chinese describe the US as trying to keep China poor, say it is trying to block China's rise as a world power since the US is weakening, and argue that the US media is more critical of China and Chinese leaders than it is to its own society and leaders.
"Most Americans are very kind," says Luo, a philosophy student whose comments were typical. "But now [after 9/11], the Americans don't care about the rest of the world, what is happening in other places, except when it concerns their own lives."
"What I hear is, 'I want my kids to go to school in the US, I want to go there on vacation,' " says a Western diplomat. "But at the same time [Chinese say] America is acting like China's enemy."
For college student Li Zhao, America is the California coast that actor Dustin Hoffman drives in "The Graduate," her favorite US film. For engineer Wang Yue, it is a grinning, gun-toting soldier wearing desert camouflage. For Yi, the US is a picket-fence neighborhood with lots of dogs, where "everyone says hello in the morning."
Such views tumble out at the "English Corner," a weekly gabfest of English students from all over Beijing at People's University. Across the street, "War of the Worlds" is playing at one of the biggest film theaters in Beijing. This is mostly a sympathetic crowd. They are interested in US lifestyles, sports, films, food: bowling, foos ball (a new rage), pizza, wealth.
They speak of the US role in defeating Japan in World War II, of helping Beijing get the 2008 Olympics, and American concern over the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Ms. Li leads an explication of the song "Scarborough Fair."
One enterprising Chinese working for a joint venture compared the maturing Chinese view of America to the popularity of name-brand restaurants. Currently, Pizza Hut is the hottest restaurant in China, with long lines in the evenings.
"Pizza Hut is the McDonald's of 10 years ago," she says. "We used to think the US was McDonald's. Now we think it is a grownup restaurant, where you use knives and forks. People go because despite what you hear, the West is still cool in our minds."
Yet even at English Corner, deep suspicions are articulated about the US. "Anti-Americanism is building, and getting bigger," says a graduate student who did not give his name. "This feeling used to be due to propaganda. But now so many Chinese feel it, that no propaganda is needed."
Perhaps propaganda is not needed. But it is not as if Chinese have a choice. State-run media in China is an arm of the central propaganda department, and no paper dares to run material on US-China relations that is unapproved.
The Chinese "unofficial" position is constantly mixed with the view that America is constantly undermining China. An American college student in Beijing recently read a Chinese textbook stating that Martin Luther King Jr. never had the sympathy or help of white Americans, and that blacks in the south are hated by whites. "It wasn't even entirely true in the 1950s civil rights movement period," commented the student, who hails from Atlanta, Ga.
However, different positions are constantly being tailored and tested in elite circles in Beijing. Last week before Hu was to go to Washington, for example, a line went out that while the American war in Iraq was a disaster, it still showed that Americans really cared about democracy. If the war had been only about oil, as was thought in oil-hungry China last year, then the Americans would not still be sacrificing blood and treasure to bring about new politics in Baghdad.
Current popular anti-American sentiments are almost a complete reverse of feelings in the 1980s, scholars say, when US-China relations were warming. "We thought the US was our future," says one.
This friendly sense peaked after the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, when, in the words of one European diplomat, "The general sense of the Chinese people was that the US government was more a friend to them than their own government was." Chinese leaders were so concerned about this sentiment that an aggressive propaganda policy was pursued to reverse it.
Yet after the Asian monetary crisis; the US accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war; after the downing of a US spy plane in 2001; the war in Iraq; and as the US has currently intensified relations with Japan - America is perceived in China as pursuing "a pattern of aggressive policies."
A recent public poll of Chinese in five cities found that Chinese who see the US as "a friendly country, a model of imitation and a cooperation partner," were 10.4 percent, 11.7 percent, and 25.6 percent respectively. Some 57 percent felt the US was "containing China," according to the poll, overseen by an American studies institute at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and the Global Times.
At the English Corner, some older Chinese argue that the pursuit of objective knowledge of America has given way by younger Chinese to the issue of whether America is treating China equally, as a great power.
The official teaching of America in schoolbook texts in China has evolved from the 1949 term "imperialist," to the current term, "hegemonic," adopted in the 1980s. Yet in a society with 395 million TV owners, with 93 million Chinese on the Internet, and as most urban Chinese usually know someone who has visited the US, the picture of America is highly diverse. "We all have our official view, and our unofficial view," states a Chinese scholar in Beijing.
Under President Hu, a new official view of the US is replacing what is seen as the more sentimental view of Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor. In the new view, China and the US may never be friends, but can be good partners.
The current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine contains an airing of this view, by Wang Jisi, head of the Central Party School: "The Chinese-US relationship remains beset by more profound differences than any other bilateral relationship between major powers in the world today. It is an extremely complex and highly paradoxical unity of opposites.... fundamental differences between their political systems and ideology have prevented the United States from viewing China as a peer," Mr. Wang writes.
"In terms of state-to-state affairs, China and the United States cannot hope to establish truly friendly relations. Yet the countries should be able to build friendly ties on nongovernmental and individual levels."
In the US, Hu will join other world leaders at the UN. He comes as Sino-US relations are being described as the most important in coming decades, but which are now strained enough to worry some in Beijing.
Hu's advisers here are saying that Hu is eager to affirm to Americans that China has no problem with a US presence in Asia, that the two nations can be cooperative not confronting, and that China is not a threat.