Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) state visit to the US ended without many surprises. After the pomp and circumstance, major issues of contention remain between the two sides. Though both governments have claimed the visit to be a success, one should not expect a smooth road ahead in US-China relations. Taiwan, Tibet and trade will continue to disturb Beijing and Washington, even as they cooperate on a wide range of other issues. However, the biggest obstacle to better relations is a deeply rooted cultural misunderstanding of the two societies.
A couple of events that occurred during Hu’s visit show how big this cultural gap is.
Beijing launched an aggressive and expensive “national image” campaign in the US to coincide with Hu’s visit. It began to display a high-profile, one-minute advertisement on six huge screens in New York’s Times Square. The ad is to be shown 300 times a day until the middle of this month, with images of a select group of happy, smart and wealthy urban Chinese elites, including actors, athletes, scientists, entrepreneurs and astronauts. It aims to boost China’s image abroad and present a modern and peaceful nation to the world. The ad also runs on CNN and other networks.
Most Americans are probably indifferent to this ad. Some of them might interpret it as China’s implicit message to the US that China can do well and beat the US in every aspect, including the space program.
According to a recent Pew survey, 47 percent of people in the US think China is now the biggest economic power, compared with 31 percent who believe the US is still the top dog. Americans also consider China to be the greatest threat, ahead of North Korea and Iran. In this context, this ad may add to the fear among Americans that China is ambitious, fast-developing and will eventually defeat the US economically and militarily. With some members of the US Congress blaming China for the high unemployment rate, this ad could cause concern among Americans given the grim economic conditions.
Whoever advised the Chinese government on this ad does not seem to understand US society. Americans prefer straightforward conversations. It would be more effective for the Chinese government to reach out to Americans directly and explain in plain language how China’s growth can contribute to the US economy and benefit US consumers.
Cultural misunderstanding is also obvious on the US side. A lack of sensitivity to other cultures is a common problem in US foreign relations. During the US-China press conference at the White House, Ben Feller from The Associated Press was given the opportunity to ask the first question, and he asked a question about human rights.
“[US] President [Barack] Obama, you’ve covered the broad scope of this relationship, but I’d like to follow up specifically on your comments about human rights. Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people? Do you have any confidence that as a result of this visit that will change? And, President Hu, I’d like to give you a chance to respond to this issue of human rights. How do you justify China’s record, and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?” he asked.