January 27, 2011

By Zhiqun Zhu

Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the U.S. 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.

'National image' campaign
Beijing launched an aggressive and expensive "national image" campaign in the U.S. 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 U.S. that China can do well and beat the U.S. in every aspect, including the space program.

According to a recent Pew survey, 47 percent of people in the U.S. 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 U.S. economically and militarily. With some members of the U.S. Congress blaming China for the high unemployment rate, this ad could cause concern among Americans given the grim economic conditions.

Reach out to Americans
Whoever advised the Chinese government on this ad does not seem to understand U.S. 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 U.S. economy and benefit U.S. consumers.

Cultural misunderstanding is also obvious on the U.S. side. A lack of sensitivity to other cultures is a common problem in U.S. foreign relations. During the U.S.-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.

"[U.S.] 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.

Human rights
Feller, like many in the U.S., is concerned about human rights conditions in China and he has every right to raise this important issue. Most Americans will not see any problem with this question and the way it was asked, but to many Chinese, this was an inappropriate question to begin the question-and-answer session with, and Feller's attitude was impolite, accusatory, if not outright rude. In the Confucian tradition, you'd begin with more pleasant remarks before shifting to any disagreements and you definitely do not "give" a senior leader or an elder "a chance to respond." That's very disrespectful.

Remarkably, both Obama and Hu handled the human rights question well. Noting the differences between the two countries in history, culture and political system, Obama emphasized the importance of continuing frank dialogues and discussions. At the same time he acknowledged the "incredible achievements of the Chinese people." Obama also pointed out that differences on human rights should not prevent the two countries from cooperating in other critical areas.

Hu did not answer the question initially due to translation problems, but when asked again by Hans Nichols from Bloomberg, he said "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights" after asserting that China recognizes and respects the universality of human rights, but one needs to take into account the different national circumstances in discussing human rights.

The two leaders seem to understand the importance of mutual understanding and have encouraged more people-to-people interactions, but there is a long way to go to narrow the gap since the two societies remain far apart in terms of political values and cultural traditions. More exchanges at the societal level will be pivotal to sustaining and developing this most important bilateral relationship. If this Obama-Hu summit is able to result in more mutual learning between the two peoples and bring the two societies closer, it will be remembered as a truly successful meeting of minds between the two leaders and the two nations.

Posted Feb. 1, 2011


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