Crouching Superpower,
Hidden Kowtow

American Perceptions of China Or What You Won't Learn By Spying.

By Ben Calmes

THE NIGHT THE CREW OF A CRASH-LANDED American spy plane was released by the Chinese military, the Bravo cable network broadcast throughout the USA Zhang Yimou's sumptuous "Raise the Red Lantern". No doubt, the showing was originally planned to cash in on the unparalleled success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" which won this year's Academy Award for best foreign language film. Like "Crouching Tiger" "Red Lantern" was co-produced by the China Co-Production Film Corp., a mainland company, and filmed in China. Both films revel in the timeless and mystical aspects of Chinese culture and its propensity for tragic love but neither is set in contemporary China.

The popularity of these films is due not just to their superior production values but because they fit the American image of China --the China of old, the one that was "lost" to the communists. Most Americans still retain a missionary's view of China as a backward land of hard working friendly peasants that desperately needs our values --a colorful Shangri-la brutally oppressed by ruthless rulers. The average American is abysmally ignorant of present day China yet generally hates the place. Most American political leaders think no differently. To many in the highest government offices, China is still "Communist China" or "Red China."

In Chinese, the USA is mei guo (pronounced May Gwo), literally "beautiful country." Chinese people embrace American culture and, as this writer discovered first hand, even the average man and woman on the streets has an understanding of the economy and political structure of the USA. Our television shows (reruns mostly) are the most popular, and American pop culture sets the trends in fashion and music. No sooner was it released last year did Madonna's single "Music" hit number one in China. Chinese students are eagerly learning English and the preferred accent and slang is American. Basketball is hugely popular and there is already one Chinese superstar, Wang Zhizhi, playing in the NBA.

Beyond popular culture, the Chinese government looks to the USA as a role model of sorts. For example, China has been quick to take cues from the American executive branch on public relations. Executive ministries hold stagey press conferences and the President and Premier (Prime Minister) give regular press briefings. What may someday resemble Western democracy in China is being built less on classical European parliamentary models than on American ideas of balancing interest groups with a strong executive.

In economics and finance, China openly borrows and learns from the American experience. The ambitious new national freeway system in China is based on the success of the interstate highway system of the USA built in the 1950s and 60s. The embryonic Chinese welfare system is inspired by the American social security umbrella. The bad debts and assets of Chinese banks are devolved to asset management and disposition agencies modeled on the USA Resolution Trust Corporation that managed the savings & loan bank crisis of the 1980s and 90s. In its dreams to create "big three" companies for nearly every industry China wants an American economic oligarchy with Chinese characteristics.

During the standoff over the spy plane incident, the American press, less regulated than their Chinese counterpart but no less a mouthpiece for government policy, created a picture of "anti-America" hysteria sweeping China. Chinese newspapers, for their part, increased sales with inflammatory headlines that would have made William Randolph Hearst proud. Yet, as the returned American crew has said on many occasions, they were treated with no overt hostility. One crewmember, elaborating on his ordeal during a Today Show television interview on April 17, said the guards were friendly and wanted to trade caps and money. One guard even asked to know the lyrics of "Hotel California," a song by the Eagles, since it was a favorite. Arnold Zeitlin, an American journalist in China during the "crisis", found no evidence of hostility toward the USA, even in the capital Beijing.

There is much consternation in the USA about the Chinese demand for an apology. The opinion of China academics and think tank "experts" is that the apology is part of ancient Confucian tradition and the need to "save face." The anti-China camp has called the apology, and in particular use of the words "very sorry", a humiliating kowtow to China. A kowtow is a salutation performed by touching the forehead to the ground while kneeling on both knees. It was used in old China to show both respect and submission. It is not a public custom in modern Chinese society although it is common to see older Chinese kowtowing before Buddhist altars or images of ancestors. That critics of China and sinophobic ideologues are using the term kowtow is revealing. It belies their backward perception of China --a mixture of martial arts and Charlie Chan movies with lingering images of Red Guard rallies before Chairman Mao.

The events of April 2001 between the USA and China are proof of a giant gap in understanding between the two countries. But that gap is widest on the American side. Both countries are already the dominant economies of the new Christian millennium. It is essential for the peace and prosperity of the entire world that relations remain productive and trusting. Only increased awareness and understanding can make such friendly relations possible and we have much to learn from one another. But real awareness is not accomplished by spying for military "intelligence". We must learn to accept China on its own terms, abandon the deep-rooted anti-Chinese bigotry in American culture, and get to know China today.

© 2001 Sinomania!
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