Tea Leaf Nation

The Few, the Rich: Chinese Who Like Uncle Sam

They still see the U.S. as a beacon for democracy, while young urbanites prefer to channel Beijing's anger.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

JINGZHOU, China — Ongoing probes against Rui Chenggang, a former anchor for China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state-owned broadcaster, continue to net related suspects in a wide sweep; the latest to fall, a public relationships professional reportedly implicated in connection with Rui, was just announced on Nov. 17. The July fall of the nationalist but cosmopolitan Rui — and the ascent of a new and much more cloistered standard-bearer for Chinese patriotism, Zhou Xiaoping — points to a deep divide in Chinese society between those who reflexively dislike the United States, and those who support it and the democratic aspirations they believe it espouses. In both cases, how these groups view the United States acts as a Rorschach test for how they feel about their own country.        

It has been quite a comedown for Rui, whose unique success story as a young, bilingual, and patriotic media icon with self-proclaimed ties to world leaders — including former U.S. President Bill Clinton whom Rui perhaps self-servingly called "a very good friend" — drew enormous fanfare. (Rui, 37, was allegedly a shareholder of a PR company that represented the channel where he was employed, and his past shareholdings allegedly violate regulations at the state broadcaster.) After Rui fell into disgrace over the summer, People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, published a short online commentary that asserted, "Rui is not a spokesman for patriotism. The only bases for his crime and punishment should be evidence and laws; it has nothing to do with patriotism." Instead, the current face of Chinese patriotism is another young man, Zhou, a 33-year-old blogger who rose into public consciousness on Oct. 15, when President Xi Jinping personally endorsed Zhou for spreading "positive energy online" at a high-profile conference in Beijing. Zhou’s work focuses on rationalizing the party and its achievements, but the United States is a recurring theme. For example, Zhou defends corruption in China by saying that the situation in the United States is no better. He is also the author of popular web essays "Nine Knockout Blows in America’s Cold War against China" and "Broken Dreams in the USA." The titles say it all. 

Rui and Zhou are, in short, an apple and an orange. The former is a seasoned, bilingual professional with relatively sophisticated knowledge of the world, while the latter is an inarticulate blogger who has never actually left the country. Their contrasting stance toward the United States speaks volumes about the urban Chinese to whom they appeal, and the transformed political and economic environments in which they reside.

However bold and loosely reasoned, Zhou’s combative observations of the United States reflect a new norm among younger grassroots Chinese, who believe in a world where China has almost secured itself in the driver’s seat, with only the United States holding it back. Zhou is a high-profile example of Chinese neo-patriotism, but also one of the more extreme. The fact that he was featured in the Nov. 21 edition of state outlet People’s Liberation Army Daily and also spoke that same day at the World Internet Conference in East China — where fellow panelists included Chen Tong, the godfather of Chinese online news and real estate mogul Pan Shiyi — are clear signals of official endorsement. Through the promotion of Zhou as an individual, of course, policymakers seek to engage and attract a larger crowd of young Chinese like him. Patriotism is considered a core purpose and mission for the government’s prospective recruits, but this is a patriotism that somehow just can’t get the United States out of its mind: Zhou’s moment of epiphany, as he recalled in the People’s Liberation Army Daily article, was the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Zhou’s success lies in his willingness to channel Beijing’s id, plainly stating feelings about Washington — as bully, competitor, and threat — that Beijing feels but can hardly address in public as the two nations’ economies grow increasingly interdependent. 

By contrast, in the elite Chinese circles that Rui once inhabited, vocal supporters of the United States are rather easy to find. Here, too, their view of the United States is directly related to the way they see China; Washington is a beacon of democracy struggling to carry on, while Beijing is an authoritarian regime trying to gain ground. But the elites’ view, like their income statements, are not shared by most in a country of about 1.3 billion citizens with a Gini coefficient that one estimate pegs at 0.74, signaling dangerously high levels of wealth inequality. 

Of course, for most wealthy Chinese families, the U.S. is little more than a favorable immigration destination, not an ideological lodestar. A September study by leading British wealth manager Barclays Wealth and London-based market research firm Ledbury Research showed that about half of Chinese millionaires plan to relocate elsewhere within five years. And according to an earlier survey in June by the Hurun Research Institute, an independent company that tracks trends of and tallies figures on wealthy Chinese, the United States is the go-to immigration destination for Chinese millionaires, who cite children’s education, fear of environmental pollution, and food safety issues as the primary motivations for leaving China.

Whether the elite motivation for a pro-U.S. slant is ideological or material, it’s all the same to those who choose to — or have to — stay behind here, and especially for the mass of humanity in this country who can’t afford to send their children overseas, place expensive air purifiers in every room, or go organic. For them, hostility towards the "one percent" in China naturally leads to subconscious antagonism towards the United States. Pan’s wife Zhang Xin, a billionaire in her own right, channeled this antagonism when she told 60 Minutes in a March 2013 interview, "For Chinese living in China … if you ask one thing everyone craves for is what? It’s not food. It’s not homes. Everyone craves for democracy." Her remarks, a profoundly wrong reading of the Chinese national pulse, instantly came under fire online. A popular freelance writer’s comment on the interview — "Democracy is a good thing, but they fucked it up" — got about 4,000 retweets on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Another noted that Zhang is unfit to represent her ordinary countrymen, adding "most Chinese crave for a well-to-do-life and not having to worry about survival." And when she and husband Pan announced a $15 million donation to Harvard University in July, the couple was again widely criticized. Mocking Zhang’s earlier 60 Minutes interview, some said the money should instead have gone to poor Chinese schoolchildren who were "craving for democracy." 

And among the vast majority of Chinese, those who have benefited from decades of market reforms find a renewed sense of national pride in Beijing’s expanding economic and political influence. The popularity of the jingle "In 1949 socialism saved China; in 1979 capitalism saved China; in 1989 China saved socialism; and in 2009 China saved capitalism" even before the age of social media is one indicator. (Another verse, "in 2012 China saved the world," was added later, an apparent reference to the plot of the action film 2012). And with strongman Xi as president, boasting ambitious initiatives and an economy that is vital to the world, some believe China’s rise will only come at the cost of a deteriorating United States, as clashes with Washington continue to escalate. 

Intricate and complex as they may be, overall, Chinese today have a more balanced view of the United States than at any time over the past century, one wracked by wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. Policymakers have become ever more calculating and agile in dealing with Americans, while Chinese elites, especially the transnational business community, often show the least hostility. The harshest comments come from the urban middle class, who see China as a maturing superpower that is trying to exert political and cultural influence to match its economic might, but finds the United States standing in its way.

And somewhere in between rests the silent majority in urban and rural China alike, those who remain suspicious of President Obama’s "pivot" towards Asia but also scorn Chinese censorship of U.S. TV shows and Internet platforms; who resist U.S. interference in Chinese affairs but remain skeptical of unfounded accusations, who don’t mind Americans fighting wars somewhere else while Beijing goes on spending sprees; who lash out against deep-seated social ills but at the same time enjoy Winnie the Pooh and Tigger spoofs of Uncle Xi and Little O (popular Chinese nicknames for the Chinese and American presidents, respectively); and who see tremendous problems in the road ahead for both countries, imperiling the Chinese Dream and the American Dream alike.

Here, as in the United States, the secret to happiness is to stop constantly wondering how the Joneses are faring and to focus on one’s own home. For China to become a superpower with a lasting mark, it will have to focus on its own issues, rather than projecting internal tensions onto external foes. China, which keeps glancing down the block at U.S. prosperity, is definitely not there yet.

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