A A Email Print Share

Looking Through China’s Eyes: How Do the Chinese See America?

Many times over, the world has questioned how America views China, especially as these two giants weld together an economic future. What the Eastern minds think of their Western counterparts often flies under the radar.

But Dr. Jing “Jay” Li, associate professor of history at Duquesne University, offers the Chinese perspective and an insider’s view in his new book, China’s America: The Chinese View the United States, 1900-2000 (SUNY Press).

China’s America makes a well-reasoned, well-documented contribution to the story of U.S.-China relations, combining personal perspectives with official positions in a coherent way,” said Edgar A. Porter, coeditor of China in Oceania: Reshaping the Pacific.

Li, who was born in the hometown of Confucius, received his master’s degree in history from Jilin University in China and worked as an assistant research fellow at the vaunted Chinese Academy of Social Science, where he specialized in the history of U.S.-China relations and received his doctoral degree from Rice University. Not inconsequentially, his studies and his personal stories encompass some of the most dramatic years of Chinese-American relations.

China’s snapshot of America differs through the lens of time as well as individuals’ age and socioeconomic status, Li said.  But generally, before 1949, China struggled with Japan, leaving China relatively free to explore the U.S.—but access was limited. From 1949 to 1976, in the years of authoritarian Communist Chairman Mao Zedong, the government dominated its people via the Cultural Revolution, and capitalist America served as a perfect example of what China should not be.

Images of Tiananmen Square characterize 1976-1989, when the road between China and the U.S. was opening. Excited at what they could learn from America, the Chinese gained knowledge of the U.S. through mass media. Li pegs 1989 as the turning point in Sino-American relations because of China’s new political winds and economic reforms.

“The economic boom in China made American culture a bit easier for the Chinese to comprehend,” Li said, as Chinese people enjoyed more money in their pockets, more goods in their markets and more social freedoms. “Villages now had more access to American businesses, students and travel. With the Internet, suddenly, access has been broadened.”

China saw, Li said, that “the U.S. has merits; America has some substance.” As the China-U.S. relationship has matured, it has grown complicated, Li said.

Now, China sees the American way of life as positive, and 30 years of free market reform have brought China closer to America in its way of life. Economically, China is the largest holder of U.S. bonds, yet is nervous about its precarious trade advantage. In export-dependent China, GM now sells more cars than it does in the U.S.

Still, Li said, China has new problems affecting its people’s view of America. For example, growing disparity between China’s rich and poor has given rise to misgivings about excessive market force and individualism, which, in their view, America typifies. Because of this, some have become nostalgic of the Mao era. Travelers in Beijing often find a portrait of Mao as a guardian in their taxis.

China faces a new nationalism. Now, its people are willing to be in touch with and to learn from America, Li observed. But they ask, “We are Chinese. We are different. What do we make of the difference?

“What sort of people do we want to be?”

If you want to speak to Li about China-America relationships, please contact Public Affairs at Duquesne.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.