The China Syndrome

It’s silly but undeniably true — our image as Asian Americans is largely shaped by whatever Asian nation happens to be in the news. During the 70s and 80s it was Japan, so we were assumed to be loaded with more money than we knew what to do with. During the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the runup to Hong Kong’s reversion and Beijing’s recent sabre-rattling, China took center stage and our image as Asian Americans took on a cruel and intransigent edge.

Events in the news are only the tip of the socioeconomic iceberg, but they dictate American opinion about Asian nations and, by unfair and illogical but perhaps inevitable extension, Asian Americans. Complaining certainly won’t remove the perceived linkage between events across the Pacific and us. The best we can do is help fellow Americans achieve some perspective and balance. With our deeper, more consistent interest in the changes taking place in Asia and our cultural insights, we can better understand the social and psychological forces on the move. What’s more, as the handiest target for the emotions flowing from the media’s Asia coverage, we have the most at stake in ensuring that it’s accurate, fair and balanced.

During the 80s and early 90s the coverage of Japan and, on occasion, of Corea, was distorted by major blind spots, some of which is addressed on this site. The recent coverage of China, however, is more ominous than anything I’ve seen about Japan. Maybe it’s because China is more threatening to Americans than Japan has ever been since World War II. Or maybe it’s because, unlike Japan, China has no giant multinationals spending hundreds of millions each year to woo American consumers, giving the U.S. media little incentive to be fair. Whatever the reason, America’s China coverage, with rare exception, started by being wildly starry-eyed, then turned offensively jingoistic and/or grossly partisan especially during the runup to the return of Hong Kong.

Yes, there are thousands of newly minted millionaires in Guangzhou and Shanghai, but China remains by our standards a poor, backward nation struggling to build an economy capable of simply feeding and housing its 1.2 billion. Yes, China enjoys a $65 billion annual trade surplus with the U.S. but that’s because we Americans can more easily afford inexpensive, well-made consumer goods than the Chinese can afford American luxury items or hi-tech durables. Yes, Beijing is quick, and sometimes brutal, in suppressing dissent, but it has also moved decisively to free the Chinese people from hardline communist strictures and encourage virtually unfettered capitalism. Yes, Beijing reined in Hong Kong democrats from trying to change the political system overnight, but Britain only began permitting democratic action only at the very end of its extremely racist and heavy-handed 150-year colonial rule.

As much as we cringe at some of Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics — and, ultimately, because we feel for China’s disfavored citizens — it’s in our interest as Asian Americans to encourage China’s success in maintaining stability while liberalizing its economy and reclaiming national honor. If it stays on course for another decade or two, China will have a hearty last laugh at the expense of its media snipes. And our own image as Asian Americans will have taken a dramatic turn for the better.