The real US deficit with China – knowledge

As China returns as a world power, Americans should update their impressions.

Americans are out of touch with today's China. It's a knowledge deficit that carries more weight in the long-term bilateral relationships between China and the United States than the ballooning US trade deficit with China. And as China makes a comeback on the world stage, it's one that the US should address.

Chinese visitors to the US have shared the shock of witnessing a severe dichotomy between how much Americans seem to talk about China and yet how little they know about it. The US status as the world's superpower, coupled with its location, warrants people this type of benign negligence.

But what about those experts who have the power to impose their perceptions of China on others? All too often China experts in the US cannot even speak the language. How can they claim to understand a culture without knowing how its people communicate?

This knowledge deficit accounts directly for widespread and deep-rooted misperceptions about China.

There are three faulty, recurring talking points in the American media.

First, China is a rising power, and a rising power is dangerous. The first part of this argument is incomplete, and the latter part is misplaced. China is not only a rising power; it is a returning power. China, as a united continental power, has existed for more than 2,000 years.

As a returning player, China is composed, restrained, and mature, just like a former champion returning to the title game after a short lapse. Also, if history is any guide, Chinese-ruling regimes have not been considered aggressive or expansive; they were famous for building walls. This fact alone should call into question the comparison of China's current resurgence with Japan's and Germany's disastrous rising path before World War II.

Second, China is a Communist country, and Communism is evil. Repeatedly placed upon China by media commentators, most notably CNN's anchorman Lou Dobbs, this characterization is both simplistic and utterly misleading.

To today's China, Marxism is as foreign as liberal democracy. When you look back at China's past, no alien cultures have uprooted Chinese tradition; instead, they were either localized, or submerged. China can still be Chinese without the Communism title.

Likewise, today's ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could easily be renamed the Chinese Confucian Party (CCP) without changing much of its ideological belief or organizational structure, or even its acronym for that matter.

Both the "ruling by virtue" policy promoted by former President Jiang Zemin and the "harmonious society" guideline proposed by current leader Hu Jintao were derived more from the Confucian doctrine than from the Marxist ideology. Singling out "Communist" as the definer confuses the reality.

Third, Tiananmen Square in 1989 is an iconic image that lingers in the minds of the Chinese. American observers' obsession with this tragic event reflects how deep their perception gap about China runs. There is no question that what happened that summer was historic. However, it was a generation ago, and sea changes have occurred since then.

Those who were born in 1989 are turning 19. What this new Chinese generation cares about is not the guy who blocked those tanks, but the Chinese Super Girl Singer and Yao Ming. America's unyielding interest in Tiananmen is out of touch. Is the Watergate scandal still the dominant issue facing the US today?

This lack of updated information about China becomes more problematic in a larger context. Chinese students are required to study English beginning in primary school. Students are exposed to both American culture and the Western way of thinking by college. For at least two decades, tens of thousands of the best and the brightest Chinese students attend American's top-tier graduate schools, channeling back the most updated perceptions and information about the US.

Although the number of American students studying in China witnessed a huge jump over the past few years, the accumulated knowledge deficits and language barriers are still immense.

This imbalance of knowledge, just like the imbalance of trade, is unsustainable. With the trade problem, Chinese leaders outlined a "win-win partner" scenario, and American policymakers have mapped out the "responsible stakeholder" blueprint. However, no strategy will be feasible if the two parties cannot understand each other well enough to weather the uncertainties ahead.

It is highly probable that the next generation of Americans will live in a world where China is the largest economic power. Are they prepared? When and how are they going to fix this current knowledge deficit with China?

Xu Wu is an assistant professor in strategic media and public relations at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Chinese Cyber Nationalism."

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