If anti-Americanism is on the rise around the world, no one told the kids in the student visa line at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The quest among Chinese students for visas to study in America, say US Embassy officials, has become so intense that it has spawned Internet chat rooms, where Chinese students swap stories about which arguments work best with which U.S. consular officials and even give them names like "Amazon Goddess," "Too Tall Baldy" and "Handsome Guy."
Just how closely Chinese students strategize over the Internet on how to get visas to America -- at a time when fewer are being given for security reasons -- was revealed to the embassy recently when on one day one consular officer had scores of students come through with the same line, which some chat room had suggested would work: "I want to go to America to become a famous professor." After hearing this all day, he was surprised to get one student who came before him and pronounced, "My mom has an artificial limb and I want to build a better artificial leg for my mom and that is why I want to study in the U.S." The consular officer was so relieved to hear a new line that he told the young man: "You know, this is the best story I've heard this morning. I really salute you. I'm going to give you a visa."
You guessed it. The next day every other student who showed up at the embassy said he or she wanted to go to America to learn how to build "a better artificial limb for my mother." Said one U.S. official: "We have to be so careful what we say, because it gets into the chat rooms right away." Hearing stories like this, you have to wonder: are Bush officials right when they dismiss all of this talk that President Bush has made America more unpopular in the world now than at any other time in postwar history? Do people really hate us? Don't those visa lines say otherwise? This is worth a closer look.
To begin with, there a few "technical" reasons why anti-Americanism generally does not have the same edge in Asia as in Europe and the Middle East. Asia's leaders, as a group, have much more legitimacy than leaders in the Arab world, either because they have come to power through free elections or because they have delivered on their core promise to their people of economic growth. Because of that, they don't need to demonize America regularly to deflect their people's anger from them. Also, Asia generally is focused like a laser on economic development -- and countries like China see investment and technology transfer from America as critical to their growth. "People in Asia do not hate the United States," Singapore's elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, said to me. "Big countries like China and India are focused right now on their economic development and they see in America an enormous well to draw technology and economic growth from."
But here's the problem: Young people want American education and technology more than ever, but fewer and fewer want to wear our T-shirts anymore -- want to be identified as "pro-American." As one former U.S. diplomat in Beijing put it to me: "They want to cherry-pick us, not line up with us. We've lost prestige."
The idea of America as the embodiment of the promise of freedom and democracy -- not just of technology and high living standards -- is integral to how we think of ourselves, but it is no longer how a lot of others think of us. They are now compartmentalizing. The unilateral war in Iraq, the postwar mess there, the walk-away from Kyoto and other treaties, the Abu Ghraib scandal have taken a toll. The idea of America as embodying the charisma of democracy has been damaged. As the political theorist Yaron Ezrahi put it, "America as the do-gooder has been hurt, but America as the goods-doer is still there."