US academic: Polarisation causing Americans to lose faith in the US system

Americans are losing confidence in their own country while the Chinese are gaining confidence in China. This change is profoundly significant, says US academic Han Dongping. The crux of America’s decline is the deep polarisation in a country which is no longer the land of opportunity and optimism for many who live in the cycle of poverty and crime. Is it a surprise that many college students are supporting socialism and looking for new models that might work?
People walk through the snow in Manhattan on 7 January 2022 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk through the snow in Manhattan on 7 January 2022 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer released by the world’s largest public relations firm shows that 91% of Chinese citizens trust their government, topping the leaderboard of 27 countries surveyed and also recording an increase of 9% year-on-year. In contrast, just 39% of US citizens trust their government, which is 3% less than the previous year.

The results of this survey attracted as much widespread attention as they did in 2019, when Harvard University released the results of a 13-year survey conducted in China from 2003 to 2016. The 2019 survey revealed that 95.5% of respondents were either “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with Beijing.    

Over 40 years ago when I was completing my undergraduate and graduate studies in China, my peers and teachers were all fans of American democracy. In private, Chinese government officials I came into contact with also expressed their admiration for American democracy.

In 1987 when I was on a study trip to a county in Henan, I personally heard a county party secretary sharing his thoughts with the county’s cadres after his one-month trip to the US. He described the US as heaven, Hong Kong as an affluent society, Shenzhen as a slum, and mainland China as a living hell. His words were shocking to me. But because of my inexperience, I couldn’t verify his claims either.    

Many of my Chinese peers, who were university teachers in China, openly said that they wished China was also colonised by the West so that it would become affluent like Singapore and Hong Kong.

Under-construction apartments are pictured from a building during sunset in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, 7 November 2021. (David Kirton/File Photo/Reuters)
Under-construction apartments are pictured from a building during sunset in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, 7 November 2021. (David Kirton/File Photo/Reuters)

In 1988, I left China to study in Singapore, which was then a fan of America. University teachers were all returning academics who had obtained their doctoral or master’s degrees from UK or US universities, and they all supported American democracy as well. My Singaporean and Chinese peers also yearned for American democracy.

Many of my Chinese peers, who were university teachers in China, openly said that they wished China was also colonised by the West so that it would become affluent like Singapore and Hong Kong. Chinese dissident and Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo once said that China “needs 300 years of colonisation by the West to achieve Hong Kong’s progress”. Although his remarks angered some Chinese, Liu was not the only one who thought so at that time.     

Americans resigned to polarisation in the US

In 1990, I went to study and teach in the US, first at the University of Vermont and later at Brandeis University. I was shocked by how polarised the US was. I lived in a poor neighbourhood in Vermont where my neighbours were mostly illiterate and unemployed, living solely on social assistance. Drugs, racial discrimination and a high crime rate marked the area, and I saw a different side of the US. The majority of American students did not think that this was a problem — they believed that every society has a poor and ugly side, and that these bad aspects did not take anything away from the fact that the US still has the best system in the world.

People walk through a subway station in Manhattan on 19 January 2022 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk through a subway station in Manhattan on 19 January 2022 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

In my classes, whenever my professors and peers discussed the superiority of American democracy, I would always point out the problem of polarisation in the US. I stubbornly believed that the US could do better, such as helping the poor find jobs or distributing land to the poor, in the way that it was being done in China, so that these people could become self-reliant and live with dignity. But none of my professors or peers accepted my views. I studied in the US for eight years and earned two degrees. While my teachers and classmates thought that I was intelligent and had a mind of my own, no one agreed with what I said.       

I graduated with a PhD in 1998 and began teaching political science at American universities. Whenever I criticised the inadequacy of American democracy, some American students would feel uncomfortable and a few of them would report me to the college president, saying that I was anti-America and requesting that I be fired. In 2001, American television network C-SPAN invited me to give a three-hour presentation on China at Berkeley. Following the presentation’s broadcast, over 3,000 phone calls were made to my school, asking that I be sacked. In 2005, I wrote a short commentary in The New York Times questioning the paper’s reports on China. After the article was published, countless people, including some of the school’s donors, wrote to my school, also demanding that I be fired.     

Young Americans, like Chinese college students and teachers in the 1980s and 1990s, are starting to doubt their country’s future.

US model taken down a notch

But ever since the US invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, the US’s image has taken a hit. The wars have also cost the US a lot of money, and the US government has essentially been borrowing to get by since 2000. Now, the US has gone from being the world’s largest creditor nation after the Second World War to the largest debtor nation in history. Its financial crisis and growing polarisation, coupled with the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have worsened divisions and oppositions within the US.

Young Americans, like Chinese college students and teachers in the 1980s and 1990s, are starting to doubt their country’s future. Statistics from the US government in recent years also show that over 60% of American college students — this number continues to grow — support socialism and are starting to question and criticise the democratic system.

US soldiers are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in the base north of Baghdad, Iraq, 23 August 2020. (Thaier Al-Sudani/File Photo/Reuters)
US soldiers are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in the base north of Baghdad, Iraq, 23 August 2020. (Thaier Al-Sudani/File Photo/Reuters)

I have been living in the US for 32 years and personally experienced this shift in US society. As the saying goes, “Every dog has its day.” Americans are losing confidence in their own country while the Chinese are gaining confidence in China. This change is profoundly significant. Whether it is China, the US, or any other country, I think that whoever has the ability to effectively contain and solve the problem of polarisation will win.  

Related: China's new-found confidence to hit back at the West | China everything: Where has America’s confidence gone? | ‘Countering sanctions with sanctions’: Where China’s confidence comes from | No one in the world loves the US as much as the Chinese? Not anymore. | Is America falling apart?