BEIJING — My generation of Chinese looked up to the United States.
When I was a university student in northwestern China in the late 1990s, my friends and I tuned in to shortwave broadcasts of Voice of America, polishing our English while soaking up American and world news. We flocked to packed lecture halls whenever a visiting American professor was on campus.
It was a thrilling time. China was emerging from isolationism and poverty, and as we looked to the future we studied democracy, market economics, equality and other ideals that made America great. We couldn’t realistically adopt them all because of China’s conditions, but our lives were transformed as we recalibrated our economy on a U.S. blueprint.
Decades earlier, a reform-minded scholar said that even the moon in the United States was rounder than in China. My schoolmates and I wanted to believe it.
But after years of watching America’s wars overseas, reckless economic policies and destructive partisanship — culminating in last year’s disgraceful assault on the U.S. Capitol — many Chinese, including me, can barely make out that shining beacon anymore.
Yet as relations between our countries deteriorate, the United States blames us. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did so in May, saying that China was “undermining” the rules-based world order and could not be relied upon to “change its trajectory.”
I have misgivings about some of my country’s policies. And I recognize that some criticisms of my government’s policies are justified. But Americans must also recognize that U.S. behavior is hardly setting a good example.
The shift in Chinese attitudes wasn’t a given. But when U.S.-led NATO forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1999 during the Kosovo war, our idolizing of America began to wane. Three people were killed in that attack, and 20 were wounded. Two years later, a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided in the South China Sea, leaving a Chinese pilot dead. These incidents may have seemed relatively minor to Americans, but they shocked us. We had largely avoided foreign wars and were not used to our citizens dying in conflicts involving other countries. The shift in perception gained pace as the 2000s unfolded and more Chinese had televisions. We watched as the carnage of America’s disastrous involvement in Iraq, launched in 2003 on false pretenses, was beamed into our homes.
In 2008, China had to defend itself against the consequences of American greed when the U.S. subprime lending fiasco touched off the global financial crisis. China was forced to create a huge stimulus package, but our economy still suffered great damage. Millions of Chinese lost their jobs.
Following his predecessors, President Barack Obama announced a string of weapon sales to Taiwan and embarked on his so-called pivot to Asia, which we regarded as an attempt to rally our Asian neighbors against us. President Donald Trump declared a destructive trade war against us, and Chinese citizens were as shocked as anyone when a pro-Trump mob stormed the citadel of American democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. The visit to Taiwan last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has only further disappointed many Chinese, who saw it as a violation of U.S. commitments on Taiwan.
China’s critics in the United States need to realize that American actions such as these are causing outcomes in China that even the United States doesn’t want.
It’s no accident that China’s military spending — a source of concern in Washington for years — began rising in the early 2000s after the Belgrade bombing and the plane collision. It quickly took off after the war in Iraq showcased how far ahead the U.S. military was compared with ours. China’s past weakness had been calamitous: Western powers attacked and forced China to surrender territory in the 1800s, and Japan’s brutal invasion in the 20th century killed millions.
U.S. officials no doubt want China to follow the American path of liberalism. But in contrast to my university days, the tone of Chinese academic research on the United States has shifted markedly. Chinese government officials used to consult me on the benefits of American capital markets and other economic concepts. Now I am called upon to discuss U.S. cautionary tales, such as the factors that led to the financial crisis. We once sought to learn from U.S. successes; now we study its mistakes so that we can avoid them.
The sense of America as a dangerous force in the world has filtered into Chinese public attitudes as well. In 2020 I remarked on a Chinese television program that we still have much to learn from the United States — and was attacked on Chinese social media. I stick to my view but am now more careful in talking positively about the United States. When I do, I preface it with a criticism.
Chinese students still want to study at U.S. universities but are acutely fearful of American gun violence, anti-Asian attacks or being labeled a spy. They are sent off with ominous advice: Don’t stray from campus, watch what you say, back away from conflict.
To be clear: China needs to change, too. It needs to be more open to dialogue with the United States, refrain from using U.S. problems as an excuse to go slow on reform and respond more calmly and constructively to American criticism on things like trade policy and human rights.
But although we don’t enjoy the same rights as Americans, many in China like where we are right now.
In the late 1970s, China was exhausted and traumatized from the destruction and hardship caused by the Cultural Revolution, which nearly destroyed us. Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms that brought stability and helped lift 800 million people out of poverty. We have achieved spectacular increases in income and life expectancy and stayed out of foreign wars. Tough firearm regulations allow us to walk down any street in the country at night with virtually no fear of harm. When we look at America’s enormous pandemic toll, gun violence, political divisions and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, it only reminds Chinese people of our own chaotic past that we have left behind.
None of this is meant to gloat over America’s troubles; a strong, stable and responsible United States is good for the world. China still has much to learn from America, and we have a lot in common. We drive Chinese-built Fords and Teslas, wash our hair with Procter & Gamble shampoos and sip coffee at Starbucks. Solving some of the planet’s biggest problems requires that we work together.
But that doesn’t mean following America over the cliff.