After three long years, I finally returned to China to visit my friends and relatives.
It appears that after the protracted Covid-19 battle, life in China has returned to normal. Gone are the health codes, location tracking apps, mandatory mask requirements and anxiety over fever medicine shortage, all that is left are a few abandoned Covid-19 testing booths.
Tourism is gradually rebounding and the nightlife is reviving, with youths queuing along the streets to try the latest food fads and customers returning in droves to dine at popular restaurants. Such scenes are reminiscent of a regular pre-Covid summer evening.
American’s and the Chinese perception of the world
Over the past three years, the Chinese can’t seem to take their minds off the US, with their concerns ranging from the origin of the coronavirus to the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and the price of “miracle drugs” on the Chinese black market.
When I met with my friends and relatives that have diverse backgrounds, experiences and perceptions, I could sense their complex feelings towards the US. This state of mind, in turn, is in constant conflict with some kind of systematic propaganda about the US in the Chinese media, provoking more thought, or confusion.
... various information and research outcomes are, to a large extent, freely disseminated in English, which greatly helps Americans understand the world.
In fact, few Americans have passports or international travel experience, and their knowledge of the world is also severely restricted by a US-centric perspective. But indisputably, as the US still enjoys a special status in the world, different cultures have converged in the US following major waves of immigration. Furthermore, various information and research outcomes are, to a large extent, freely disseminated in English, which greatly helps Americans understand the world.
Besides, the truly influential American elites’ knowledge of the world is definitely incomparable to that of rednecks at the bottom of the social scale.
China’s situation is clearly more complicated. When I met my Chinese friends and relatives on various occasions, their negative impression of the US mainly concentrated in a few areas: one, life does not feel safe with all the shootings in the US; two, racial discrimination is rampant and Asians are bullied; and three, the brazen “smash-and-grab” crimes are largely perpetrated by African Americans.
Also, while it can be said that the US was seen as a living hell during the pandemic due to its failure to contain the coronavirus, no Chinese is talking about this anymore, at least in my experience.
On top of that, my younger friends and relatives who “volunteered” to be part of China’s “Big White” army (大白, anti-epidemic “volunteers” in white uniforms) did not hesitate to discuss the many tragedies that had happened at the residential communities during the lockdowns: the numerous suicides, attempted sexual assaults and the bus that crashed en route to a Covid-19 quarantine facility late at night.
... apart from those newsworthy occurrences, Americans generally lead quiet lives, and the vast majority of gun owners keep their gun possessions private and secret.
Racial discrimination and gun control in the US
With regard to the Chinese’s negative impressions of the US, I disagree with the US’s lax gun laws. But apart from those newsworthy occurrences, Americans generally lead quiet lives, and the vast majority of gun owners keep their gun possessions private and secret.
In small and mid-sized cities, it makes no difference whether one locks the door or not; in terms of child protection measures, the Amber alert system, or the child abduction emergency alert that is accessible from one’s mobile phone, perhaps puts the US miles ahead of China.
Racial discrimination is a longstanding problem in the US. But in this complex process, when the US Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions programmes at several prestigious colleges, effectively prohibiting affirmative action policies long used to raise the number of Black, Hispanic and other underrepresented minority students on American campuses, the decision was welcomed by many Chinese Americans.
In China, discrimination due to gender, age and the rural-urban divide is common. Job ads blatantly list upper age limits, such as PhD holders under the age of 35. This is not only illegal in the US but also extremely shocking, because it violates academic and education laws.
Although the US has long been plagued by the black-white conflict, violent smash-and-grab robberies have so far only occurred in a few megacities. Thus, readers of Chinese media are also biased if they treat such news as daily occurrences and think that US shopping malls are looted all the time.
But what I am most concerned with is the fact that most Chinese only have one single source of information and live in a world of simplified Chinese characters...
Dearth of information and knowledge
But what I am most concerned with is the fact that most Chinese only have one single source of information and live in a world of simplified Chinese characters (both Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional Chinese characters), which could result in them developing a distorted and illusory view of the world.
For example, the majority of Chinese people are not aware of the widespread use of credit cards in Western society, their functions in accumulating personal credit and cash rebates, or that they are a viable alternative. They mistakenly believed that “scanning QR codes” is the only standard in the world.
Some of my friends asked if Americans use WeChat, completely unaware that the world has many social networking app options to choose from, including WeChat, and none of these technological concepts were originally created in China.
I was also made speechless by a relative’s comment, asking if there are highways in the US. While it is incredible that they are driving on broad, straight highways in the Chinese village — a great testament to China’s remarkable development over the past few decades — their ignorance and arrogance leave much to be desired.
The issue is that while there is tremendous development and change, including significant government investments in environmental protection and people’s livelihoods, there is also a dearth of information and knowledge. Due to this imbalance, the Chinese people become increasingly complacent and arrogant in their perception of the world, with some of them even having the illusion that the US’s survival is highly dependent on China.
In reality, China is no longer the top exporter of goods to the US, with American imports from China only accounting for 13.4% of the US total. Even if tariffs were imposed on consumer goods from China, they can hardly affect US inflation.
On the contrary, with a small but highly productive agricultural population, the US is exporting key agricultural products to China, and its chip restrictions have also put China in a chokehold. It is hard to say who is the more dependent party.
... the American education system stresses and encourages innovation, values the free acquisition and dissemination of information, and ensures academic freedom in classroom discussions.
Why America is ahead
Fortunately, there are still clear-headed people around. Some of the Chinese people I spoke with openly acknowledged that China would not be able to overtake the US, at least not right away, and that it was unnecessary to actively compete with the US. Due to the latter’s long-term accumulation of economic and technological advantages, as well as its ability to siphon talents from all over the world, the US will continue to lead the world for a long time.
Not only that, the American education system stresses and encourages innovation, values the free acquisition and dissemination of information, and ensures academic freedom in classroom discussions. As a result, generations of Americans pride themselves on being unique, outstanding and innovative. The fundamentals of the American culture and system are also, to some extent, what set the US ahead of other nations.
At the college where I teach, professors are assessed annually on whether their teaching methods and approaches are “innovative”. This is in stark contrast with what I have heard about the Chinese education system, which advocates uniformity, suppressing a child’s individuality at the basic education level and innate urge to play in the name of safety; maintaining strict discipline among teachers and researchers; directing academic research with state-controlled programmes and funding at the college level; and the perverse pursuit of journal ranking and publication numbers by administrators.
Even the most “involuted” and “nationalistic” parents have to admit that the education their child is receiving is not ideal.
While the Chinese people can critique and examine all societies, including American society, this should not become an obstacle to China’s pursuit of an open-minded view of the world — a difficult process that has been ongoing for the past 100 years to restore rationality.
While it is not easy for the ancient civilisation of China to recognise and study the strengths or qualities of others, it is easy to relapse into blind hubris under the influence of the media — which controls public opinion — especially amid the rapid development of high-tech means and infrastructures.
While the Chinese pride themselves on the convenience of their mobile phones to complete just about any type of payment, it has also severely inconvenienced foreign visitors or even overseas Chinese returning to China to visit their relatives or tour the country. This could have been overlooked by a “China-centric” perspective as well.
The peaceful coexistence between China and the US, as well as the world, is largely dependent on the Chinese people’s rational perception of the real world, and their tolerance and acceptance of foreign technologies; not the creation of artificial barriers to benefit its own people and reject outsiders.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “后疫情下中国人的美国观”.
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