Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
XI’AN, China — China continues to open up to the West economically, and there are signs that U.S.-China relations could be improving. But a series of recent conversations with Chinese college students revealed that many in China remain both intensely patriotic and skeptical of the United States. And while China’s economy continues to become more capitalistic, the Chinese definitely do not think America and the West have it all figured out politically or economically, especially not after the 2008 financial crisis. The students The WorldPost spoke with were also sensitive to, and eager to defend their country against, what they perceived as negative American press and sentiment towards China.
Most of the college students we spoke with had never been to America. Their opinions came from third-hand reports, interactions with Americans in China and, of course, movies and television. Some of the students’ comments reflected stereotypes that have — like so many stereotypes — a grain of truth to them. At the same time, many of them, especially those who had encountered Americans themselves, were willing to move beyond their preconceived notions of the country.
What’s clear is that Chinese students do indeed have opinions about the U.S., opinions that may be stronger than American students’ views on China. Below are excerpts from conversations The WorldPost had with students from Jiaotong University in Xi’an as well as several other students in Beijing:
“It’s really not that easy to be president in China. It’s a lot harder than in America. Because in America, you just have to be very handsome and give some good speeches, and they are stars. But in China, you can’t just win the election. It is really official, with great authority. If Obama came to China to try to be president, he would lose.” –Chen Bo, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“I love the freedom in America. Do you mind if I sit up here? [pointing to her chair armrest] … In China, if we have a very formal meeting like this, I wouldn’t be allowed to sit here. This is just a little sign of the freedom. I would like to go to America for my Ph.D., and this is one of the reasons I choose America.” –Huang Xin, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“People in America are more independent, with more suspicion of others. We Chinese people, to some extent, are very kind-hearted. If we see some Chinese people are in trouble in the streets, maybe we want to help them — just like we’d like to give our seat on the bus to other people, such as old people or pregnant women. But I think in America, you just need to take care of your own business. I admire that because you are very independent, and you don’t want to rely on others. Maybe this is just a cultural difference. With Chinese people, we just like harmony because we have very traditional concepts of family. We care very much about other people, even if he or she does not belong to our own family but to the world and to the country.” –Wang Li, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“I had a chance to talk with a group of young American singers who came to China. They were different than us. They care very little about policies. They enjoy their life. They want to sing, go abroad and visit local plays, and they do it. I think people in America maybe are happier. They are more free to pursue their happiness but for us, our parents, government and society put so much pressure.” –undergraduate student, Beijing
“I worked with an American who came here to start a consulting company. He always worked overtime. Before, I thought Americans just want to enjoy their life but I realized not all Americans are like that. He told me that people have to work hard. He told me to fight like a war. Now I think that Americans are so hard-working.” –undergraduate student, Beijing
“This year … college students have gotten more and more opportunities to be exchange students in the U.S.A. When they first came, they were shocked and excited about the fresh air, the buildings, everything there. But after a period of time, they felt unsafe. For example, one of my classmates, she went to the U.S.A. last year, and she took a bus. She felt unsafe because there were so many crazy people on the bus. She heard some shots.” –Yu Biyan, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“[Censorship] does bother me. When I was abroad I thought, ‘Wow, this is so free. There are so many resources of information available. I can get on Twitter, Facebook, even just for entertainment.’ But in China, as we are a developing country, we have to get some things under control. It does really bother me but we are working on it, and some day we will be just like the U.S. with many resources available.” –Huang Xin, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“I want to go to MIT. I saw a movie with Matt Damon [‘Good Will Hunting’].” –undergraduate student, Xi’an Jiaotong University
“When I accommodated American students for one month, I was impressed that the students agreed to talk about their thoughts. They came here to learn Chinese and although they hadn’t grasped many words, they agreed to talk to people and go outside. So I think this kind of bravery, I can learn from that.” –undergraduate student, Xi’an Jiaotong University
Clarification: The dateline has been updated to conform with house style; reporting was done from both Xi’an and Beijing, China.