Feature

Grading the President: A View From China

In the eyes of Chinese elites, President George W. Bush has two faces. His denouncement of the "Axis of Evil," together with his administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and the unveiling of a new doctrine of preemption, are interpreted as a unilateral strategy to establish U.S. global hegemony. Since the collapse of the ...

In the eyes of Chinese elites, President George W. Bush has two faces. His denouncement of the "Axis of Evil," together with his administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and the unveiling of a new doctrine of preemption, are interpreted as a unilateral strategy to establish U.S. global hegemony. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese have feared a unipolar world in which the United States would wantonly interfere with other countries’ domestic affairs and strive to prevent any other single power — especially China — from rising to a position to challenge U.S. supremacy. War in the Middle East has only heightened that fear. A frequently asked question among the Chinese is: "Which country will be next after the Americans finish with Iraq? North Korea? Iran? Will it ultimately be China?"

Yet this ferocious visage is twinned with Bush’s smiling face toward China. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Bush paid two short visits to China and welcomed former Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his Texas ranch. Bush has called China a "friend," leaving behind his campaign rhetoric about China being a "strategic competitor." Despite enhanced U.S. military cooperation with Taiwan, he has publicly assured Beijing that he does not support Taiwanese independence. As commerce between the two nations continues to thrive, the Chinese believe their relationship with the United States is the best it’s been since the Cold War ended.

Paradoxically, therefore, a more aggressive United States does not represent a greater threat to China than before, as long as the Bush administration continues to identify the "crossroads of radicalism and technology" (to quote its national security strategy) as the gravest threat to the United States. Terrorism and nuclear proliferation (especially on the Korean peninsula) are problems for China as well. For these reasons, Beijing has reacted positively to Bush’s new discourse of "great power cooperation."

An unofficial public opinion poll revealed that although more than 80 percent of Chinese citizens were against a U.S.-led war in Iraq, most of them favored a nonconfrontational approach in dealing with the U.S. government. However, China’s low-key diplomatic reaction to regime change in Baghdad cannot — and is not meant to — rescue the Bush administration from its mishandling of foreign affairs that has damaged its image in other parts of the world, including among its traditional allies.

Moreover, while the Bush administration won praise by lowering barriers to trade, it has inspired scorn by raising barriers to travel. Although no official data is yet available, the Chinese are under the impression that, since the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, U.S. consulate offices in China have greatly reduced their issuance of visas. Bush’s stint in the White House has shattered the American Dream of some of the best and brightest young students and intellectuals in China. They will certainly remember that for the rest of their lives.

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