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Is China a yardstick or a hickory stick for America?

Date: Tuesday, 08-February-2011
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; A15

BEIJING - People here might be forgiven for feeling self-important after President Obama mentioned China four separate times in his State of the Union speech.

The problem for some, though, is the way China was mentioned.

China never came up in the foreign policy section of last month's speech, where Obama talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, tension on the Korean Peninsula and America's new "partnership" with India.

Instead, China was held up as something for Americans to be measured against - a place that is educating its children better, investing more in research, building better infrastructure and posing a challenge to American greatness. "China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer," Obama said at one point. "China is building faster trains and newer airports," he said at another.

That might all sound like flattery. But some here who closely track American policy and politics wonder why China is being singled out so regularly, with the compliments overdrawn. Others worry that China is being demonized, and that there could be an anti-Chinese nationalist backlash against everything from the country's growing wealth to its expanding military prowess to its population's new taste for luxury goods.

Even strict Chinese child-rearing practices have been held up as something to be emulated, following publication of "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," the parenting memoir in which writer Amy Chua argues that indulgent Western parents have contributed to declining educational standards.

Even before Chua's book appeared, fears of an education gap were heightened in December, when Shanghai students came in on top of a test given to 15-year-olds from 65 countries, including the United States. American students came in 23rd in science and 31st in math.

Many Chinese just don't like all the sudden attention.

"Worries about the Chinese economy have been followed by worries about the Chinese military and even by overblown fears that Chinese educational values and 'tiger mothers' may be superior to American ones," wrote Niu Xinchun, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in an opinion piece last week. "Obama's State of the Union greatly reinforced these fears."

Many here compare this period to the "Japan-bashing" of the 1980s, when some feared that Japan, with its then-booming export economy and restrictive trade practices, would overtake the United States.

The nationalistic tabloid daily newspaper Global Times, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece People's Daily, ran an editorial shortly after Obama's speech accusing the United States of a "strategy that intensifies and exploits public fear of the unknown," much like the fear of Japanese economic power in the 1980s.

"This time, the difference is that demonization is running full scale," the paper wrote. It also said "many dogged U.S. media outlets are devoted to disseminating China-phobic fears." The paper said the American economy still had many advantages, but opined, "prosperity comes from competition, rather than fear."

Some analysts said they were puzzled by Americans' concerns about China's rise, since most see China as a poor but emerging power coming from a relatively low level of development - with still a very long way to go.

"In the eyes of the U.S., China has surpassed all the other countries which threaten it, and has become America's No. 1 competitor," said Niu Jun, a professor in Peking University's School of International Relations. "In reality, China won't surpass the U.S. in the next 20 years."

"There is a Chinese saying, 'tall trees catch wind,' " Niu said. "The problem right now is the wind is coming before the tree has grown big."

Yuan Peng, the director of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said Obama was mainly using China as a way to "encourage Americans." But he said, "Obama over-highlighted China in his statement. Although China has achieved a lot, China's growth isn't that great to make other countries look inferior by comparison. His target audience was average Americans."

Another analyst in Shanghai, Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, gave Obama credit for trying to raise Americans' competitive game. "Obama is very frank in pointing out the areas where the U.S. is lagging behind China now," Shen said. "That shows frankness and confidence. On the contrary, did you ever see our government admitting any areas where China should catch up with U.S.?"

Some Americans who know China and work here agree that the view of China as an economic powerhouse poised to surpass the United States anytime soon is vastly overstated.

The notion that China is an "unstoppable juggernaut" is not really an accurate assessment of what's happening in the country, said Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's school of economics and management. "China has its own problems. The Chinese model has its flaws," including misallocation of capital and underlying questions of social stability.

He agreed that such rhetoric is more aimed at pushing Americans to do better, rather than reflecting the reality of modern China - much like the United States used the challenge of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and later Japan.

"It's just like what we asked about Japan in the 1980s or Russia in the 1950s - are we getting left behind?" Chovanec said, and added, "The U.S. is going through this period of soul-searching."

Researchers Zhang Jie in Beijing and Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.


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