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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Drifting between China and the U.S. to find a middle ground

Grappling with propaganda, culture and bias.

China has consistently oscillated between economic and political friend and foe of the U.S. In media reports on China’s political and economic matters, we can observe a growing fear and animosity toward the nation as its power expands to create an increasingly bipolar world. In my experience, this has created an emotional atmosphere for discussions surrounding U.S.-China relations, where deviations from this mainstream view on China are often taken as an existential threat to American liberalism, democracy, national security and prosperity.

I lived in Shanghai from age two to 13, when I moved to New York City for high school. My personal life has not been free from the tensions of the U.S.-China rivalry, whether geopolitical, economic, social or cultural. Even as a child living in China, my experiences were much more defined by perceived cultural differences between the two nations; in accordance with the traditional ideals of American exceptionalism, I viewed the U.S. as the most prosperous and beautiful country in the world. On the other hand, China existed in my mind as a place where you could never escape pollution, where you didn’t have adorable suburban houses and exhilarating football games, where the people simply could not understand or obtain true freedom and opportunity.

In many conversations with Americans, I have witnessed how the cultural underpinnings of their opinions parallel the biases that I held onto as a small child. Of course, adults are more intelligent than children, and we are more able to understand complex geopolitical relationships and each nation’s desire to prioritize their own wealth and security. Yet, in many classes that I have taken on U.S.-China relations and Chinese politics, there is a whisper — and sometimes even a roar — of the exact same sentiment I possessed as a child: The U.S. is the nation where you can find the good life, China is the nation that robs its citizens of it.

As I adapted to living in America during my first two years of high school, I was shocked to discover that I missed Shanghai deeply, given the fact that I had spent my childhood desperately wanting to leave. My fervent desire to live in America was due to a self-loathing that never held any truth about the two nations. This jarring realization broke down my worldview, and, almost as if I was subconsciously compensating for the years of self-hatred that I grew up with, I swung radically in the opposite direction. Suddenly, I believed Chinese Communist Party rhetoric on how China is paving the way for a benevolent, non-exploitative socialist future; for every matter on which the U.S. and China were divided, I always took China’s side.

There are still certain things I believed in this time that I still stand by. For example, I do not think that the CCP is a wholly evil government; it has lifted millions out of poverty, and the Chinese people have reason to appreciate that. At the same time, I have been able to better grapple with the complexities of Chinese affairs, and have also come to understand that even if American media misrepresents certain problems in China, that does not mean that the problem doesn’t exist. For example, the Chinese government might have made economic strides, but that doesn’t negate the corrupt inner mechanisms that exist within the party. As another example, China might have legitimate historical ties to disputed territories, and interethnic relations are much more complex than a supposed hotbed of violence; but if an overwhelming majority of a community wants sovereignty, that cannot be blatantly violated. I am beginning to move away from the mindset that has allowed Chinese people to support the CCP: the prioritization of economic and social rights over political and civil rights. U.S.-China relations no longer tell me a story of a virtuous socialist underdog that has finally gained the power to challenge the evil capitalist; it tells the story of two nations that are both invested primarily in their own national mythologies, economic wealth and political dominance.

It took me nearly a decade to go from blind hatred towards China to blind support for China, and finally to a middle ground where I am able to see past both American and Chinese propaganda about how China really is. The funny thing is, however, that throughout my time in America, people have almost always viewed my opinions ofChina with disdain. During the time when I thoughtlessly supported China, I was told that I was just buying into Chinese propaganda; yet, was the American exceptionalism I grew up believing not propaganda as well? Why were people able to recognize one but not the other?

Today, despite my more nuanced views, any mention of how some of China’s geopolitical and economic concerns might be legitimate is still met with uneasy looks. It feels like no matter how much I deepen my understanding of China and U.S.-China relations, it is, by and large, a solitary journey. I can only hope that American and Chinese people both are willing to obtain a more intimate understanding of each other’s society.