A few weeks ago heavy snow in the Northeast forced the National Football League to postpone a scheduled game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles. This did not sit well with outgoing Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.
Speaking to a Philadelphia radio station, Rendell opined:
We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.
Rendell’s words neatly encapsulated the prevailing stereotype of China held by many Americans: that they’re a tough, lean country on the rise who are poised to overtake America (and they’re good at math, too). How did this happen? Perhaps it comes down to parenting. In a now-infamous piece with the Wall Street Journal, the Yale law professor Amy Chua argued that Chinese parents are “superior” because they care little about niceties like self-esteem and social life and drill, drill, drill their children into submission.
So it’s no wonder that many Americans now think that an army of Chinese, reared by uncompromising “tiger mothers,” are well on their way to passing us weak, decadent, lazy Westerners by.
Consider the results of a recent Pew Research poll asking Americans to choose the country with the largest economy. 44 percent chose China, while only 27 percent correctly identified the United States. In truth, the American economy is nearly three times the size of China’s. In terms of per capita income, the average American earns a staggering 15 times more than his Chinese counterpart. The CIA World Factbook ranks China’s per capita income 128th in the world, behind countries like Algeria, Ecuador, and Albania. By virtually any other traditional measure of power- military, diplomatic, cultural influence- China lags behind the US by a significant margin.
As an American who lived in China for six years, I am often struck by how the perception of China’s strength differs from reality.For all the talk of fancy restaurants in Shanghai’s elegant French Concession district and hot new sales of Ferrari cars, the vast interior of the country contains hundreds of millions of agricultural workers, many of whom live in villages without running water, electricity, or paved roads. I recall speaking to a middle-aged man about why I had come to live in China and study Chinese. “There’s a lot of opportunity here, and Chinese is the language of the future.” I said. He laughed. “You sound like all of the young Chinese people I speak to who want to go to America.” Indeed, I was often asked by Chinese friends why I had interrupted my life in the United States to move to China, as if the decision was wholly irrational- by being an American, hadn’t I already made it?
This is not to say that the Chinese have a lack of regard for their country. In fact, I found the majority of people there to be patriotic and optimistic about its future. They do however have a more accurate impression of China’s real strength than do Americans.
What accounts for the discrepancy? The media shoulders some of the blame. Stories about new infrastructure projects, the rise of a luxury goods market, and weapons procurement are sexier than ones covering rural poverty and endemic corruption. Most of the stories in the American media feed the narrative that China’s rise is inexorable and swift. The vast majority of Americans who travel to China stay in the prosperous coastal cities, lending the impression that the entire country is filled with massive skyscrapers and fancy new airports. Few make it to the impoverished hinterland where the majority of the population lives.
In addition, there exists a link between the geopolitical and the cultural. Amy Chua’s piece on motherhood captured the nation’s attention because her contention- that because children raised by Chinese parents are more successful, China’s power relative to the United States is increasing- resonates with the stereotypical impression of China held by Americans. Rendell’s piece too implicitly attributes China’s rise to determination, toughness, and hunger absent in modern-day American society. In the public imagination, these qualities supersede the complex geopolitical factors that actually explain the relationship between China and the US.
The buzz surrounding Chinese President Hu Jintao’s arrival in Washington exemplifies the importance of the Sino-American bilateral relationship, one that is poised to remain central to global affairs in the coming decades. Yet in thinking about China it is instructive to consider the country’s actual conditions- its economic, military, and social power- rather than succumb to the popular caricatures glorified by the news media and political leaders.