China's America watchers have fallen on tough times. Back in their profession's glory days, in the 1980s and '90s, they were able to spend years in the United States learning about the place, and both Washington and Beijing were eager for them to report home on what they'd discovered in the New World. Chinese leaders were trying to integrate their vast country into a world system dominated by America, and they took particular interest in how Washington viewed their country. But now U.S. funding for stateside field work has dried up, and Beijing shows little interest in the United States except to complain, threaten, or refuse to work together on global problems.
The latest outburst came in response to word from the White House that President Obama still expects to meet with Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama next week. Chinese officials were already in a fury over U.S. plans to sell $6.4 billion worth of Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, and other military hardware to Taiwan. Beijing suspended military-to-military exchanges, and for the first time publicly ordered sanctions against U.S. armsmakers rather than quietly boycotting them. And that's on top of other slaps at Washington, going back to Premier Wen Jiabao's public criticism of U.S. economic policy in Davos a year ago.
The Chinese press says that things have changed. TheGlobal Times, a People's Daily affiliate often critical of the West, attributed the "shift in tone" to two factors: "First is changing Chinese public opinion, which long ago got fed up with America's hedging games … The second is China's growing power." That kind of talk may suggest to Westerners that China's new global stature has gone to its head. But what's really driving the country's leaders is a very different emotion: profound insecurity.
It's not that Chinese leaders no longer care what the Americans think. They're just so much more worried about what ordinary Chinese think. Growing prosperity and greater communication with the outside world have made the country's more than 1.3 billion people much harder to manage than they used to be. Now it's a matter of basic survival for party bosses to keep a close eye on public opinion. "Today's government needs to be more responsive to rising nationalism among its own people," says the dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, Wang Jisi. Widely regarded as China's leading expert on the United States, he deplores the notion that America doesn't matter anymore. "These days I'm studying China more than [I'm studying] the United States," he says.
Senior leaders' staffs now devote huge amounts of time and resources to monitoring public opinion. They commission social surveys and even assign undercover researchers to unearth what ordinary Chinese really think. The aides' No. 1 source of information is the Internet: Web comments are generally regarded as a key gauge of grassroots sentiment. "Public opinion mainly means the opinions of Netizens," says Jin Canrong, vice dean of the institute of international relations at Renmin University and a veteran America watcher. "China has 384 million Netizens—150 million more than America—and government leaders pay great attention to what the majority say during their decision making."
That's a scary thought. China's online community tends to be urban, young, and male—precisely the people who are most likely to spout jingoistic rants and to castigate any sign of weakness in the regime. Even so, Beijing isn't wrong to be concerned about what they think: they're also the ones who are most likely to make political trouble in the streets.
The danger is that the regime may be losing sight of how much animosity its actions are creating overseas. Certainly other nations are envious of how quickly China has bounced back from the global recession, growing at 10.7 percent in the last quarter of 2009. But that has only increased demands for Beijing to play a more constructive role internationally. Instead, China appears to be the lone holdout among major powers over levying new sanctions on Iran. At the Copenhagen climate talks the Chinese delegation was widely criticized for playing an unhelpful role, undiplomatically snubbing Obama at one point. And Beijing continues to resist calls to revalue its currency, sure to become a fierce political issue as job losses mount in the West.
Clearly there has never been more need for understanding between Beijing and Washington. But America bears some of the blame for the widening disconnect. The America-watching boom was largely sponsored by grants and stipends from the United States. Americans wanted the Chinese to see the power of democracy. "Some Americans were quite condescending," Wang recalls. "They'd say, 'You don't know much about the U.S. Come and learn from us.' " Still, he and thousands of other Chinese students gladly accepted the invitation. "But that idealism regarding the U.S. has withered away, and meanwhile, everyone's interest in China is growing," Wang says. Now, he adds, it's easier to find sponsors for research on restive Xinjiang province than to get U.S. funding "to study Oklahoma and what happens there during elections."
While research continues, some in the field worry that the focus has grown too fragmented. To justify their work, many scholars are zeroing in on topics that clearly affect Chinese interests, like international economics, climate-change issues, or energy. "There may be less understanding of important dynamics inside U.S. society if they don't directly affect bilateral ties," Wang warns. He recalls his frustration during America's 2008 presidential campaign when he predicted that Barack Obama would win. Some leading Chinese intellectuals were incredulous. "One told me, 'No way! How could a black man win? Jisi, you're being unrealistic.' " Wang says. Skepticism lingered in some high-level circles even after Obama won. People began predicting his assassination. "I would answer, 'Yes, and so could Bush have been assassinated after his election.' " Little wonder that Beijing hasn't treated Obama with the deference that his fans elsewhere in the world have.
Some of Beijing's new imperiousness may be instinctive—the last time it felt itself the center of the world, under the Ming dynasty, its focus quickly turned inward. But China's old America hands say it's far too soon to write off America. "If the U.S. is lucky and China makes mistakes, the U.S. could stay [on top]," says Yan Xuetong, the head of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies. Sun Zhe, director of Tsinghua's U.S.-China Relations Center, compares China to the Chinese-born basketball star Yao Ming at 17, "with his body grown up already, but he's just gotten into the NBA, just starting to play ball." Beijing's new prickliness could be a rookie's immature swagger—or a sign of rough times to come.