Not Your Parents’ China?
By Gordon Chang
The China of today is not the same country that America thought it knew in 1989 with the military crackdown in Tiananmen. It is not the country America thought it knew in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping begin the economic liberalization that is responsible for the country’s booming economy today. It is not the China of 1966 when Mao Zedong began the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. It is not the country that went to war against the United States in 1950 in Korea. And it certainly is a long way away from the China of 1900, when the United States joined a dozen other Western nations and Japan in an invading army to suppress the anti-foreign Boxer uprising, just one incident in China’s “Century of Humiliation.”
China has come a long way from these moments of encounter with the United States. China is immeasurably more open politically, socially, and economically than any time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and arguably any time in the past five hundred years if one includes everyday people contact with non-Chinese as a measure of openness. Feelings toward Americans in particular are more positive among a wider section of the Chinese population than in any other moment in the 20th century, save the 1940s when the United States and China were allies against the common enemy of Japan.
All this and more should encourage hope for the future between the two countries. Yet, the American press these days is full of dread, criticism, and disdain for the changes that are occurring. China cannot seem to do anything right. The New York Times recently reviewed a book that chronicles the demise of the old Beijing neighborhood courtyards called hutongs. More than a million former inhabitants of these crumbling huts, which have little or no electricity, running water, or heating, now live in much improved circumstances. Something to acknowledge and celebrate for these poor people? No, the Times review lamented the passing of what it called, with no trace of irony, “picturesque slums.” The same newspaper surveyed the proliferation of some of the most exciting public structures that are changing Beijing’s skyline. Designed by a gaggle of the most prominent and daring architects on the world’s scene today, the Times writer, failing to appreciate the extraordinary cosmopolitan spirit that these structures exemplify, invoked Albert Speer’s Nazi Berlin as a reference.
No, China today is neither the China of the past, nor of the prejudices, emotions, or ignorance that Americans have long held about China. The challenge of American journalists today is to UNDERSTAND that history, and those mental contexts and legacies, to try to see what is right before their eyes.
That is not easy to do, but it is the responsible thing to do.
[keywords: “Century of Humiliation”, People’s Republic of China, American journalists]