For decades the rest of the world has derided Americans for being ignorant about lots of things. Not least on that list has been our ignorance of how we affect the world. We think the world loves us, our critics say, but it doesn't. But now, the United States seems to have found a rival in the race to be the most insensitive country on earth. China!
A new poll by researchers at the University of Maryland and Globescan sums it up in the starkest terms. A whopping 92 percent of Chinese surveyed believe that China has a mainly positive influence on the world; whereas a mere 39 percent of people polled in 20 other major countries agree. This is the largest perception gap among the countries' polled. (And it's getting worse. Views about China have declined markedly over the last year.)
Indeed, the survey makes us Americans look downright switched-on. According to the poll, some 60 percent of Americans surveyed thought the United States exerts a positive influence on the world; whereas 43 percent of people polled in the same 20 other major countries think it's mostly negative. A tiny gap when compared to China's. (Also China now ranks below the average the US in terms of positive influence for the first time since the poll was initiated five years ago.)
To me this poll illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of the world's interaction with China. That's the gap between how most Chinese perceive of their country and how the rest of us do. Most Chinese people appear to believe deeply in the benevolent role that China's plays around the globe. I saw this during the 10 years I lived in China. And I see it in the regular and friendly interaction I have with Chinese officials.
First, I think Chinese propaganda is very successful; Chinese have generally bought into the government that line that China's rise can only bring good things to the rest of the world. They deeply believe the line that China would never invade a foreign country, etc.
One of the reasons why Kung Fu Panda did so smashingly well in China was that the Chinese saw Po's story as mirroring that of their homeland. They think they're the dragon warrior, beloved by our global village. To make matters worse, very little negative news about China filters into the mainland. And what negative news there is, is routinely attacked by the Chinese blogosphere as anti-Chinese.
Second, there is an element of racism or just plain fear in the world's reaction to China's rise. Any new player on the world block is bound to make waves. China is no exception and it probably gets hit doubly hard because of the rest of the world's ignorance and in some circles dislike of Asians.
Some Chinese writers, such as Yan Lieshan, a columnist for Southern Weekend, have tried to address what he feels to be this dangerous gap in perceptions between China and the rest of the world. His pieces are popular and his most recent one is powerful. Here's a taste:
When asked about the behavior of Chinese tourists on overseas trips, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said he did not agree that the tourists had "backward habits" that "disgraced" the country. "Yes, it's always Chinese who gather in big crowds and talk loud in airports and restaurants, but it's just a habit. We Chinese are not used to the foreigners' murmuring and whispering at a close distance either," said Wu. I totally disagree with Vice Minister Wu.
Little voices such as Yan's can do little to shout down the triumphalism emerging from party central in Beijing.