Presidential Debate 2012: Obama and Romney Talk Tough on China, But Here is What They Missed


President Obama and Governor Romney will meet for the third time this campaign on Monday evening, in a debate focusing on foreign policy. The American public will be able to hear each candidate's views on policy, especially regarding China. However, the candidates should be aware of how the perception of America has changed in the east.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

From 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, to the late 1970s, a period called Reform and Opening up, waiguoren, (translating literally to “outside country people,”) had little presence in China. However, with the market economy reforms that have taken root, China has focused heavily on economic growth and increasing foreign trade and investment. Accordingly, waiguoren have come to China in rising numbers. For many years westerners had an exceptional reputation here; Americans especially enjoyed adulation-by-association simply being from the same country that produced Apple and Titanic. But this gilded view of the West has dulled recently and a feeling of resentment towards America has crept into the collective conscious stemming from two sources: China’s nouveau confidence and the prevalence of China critics in the western media.

A sense of confidence has spread across China over the past few years. Interestingly, Chinese are extremely humble, almost never willing to accept compliments about themselves or their family members. But in regards to their country, many are comfortable espousing its current clout. Two main factors catalyzed this burgeoning confidence.

The first is the country’s rapid growth. China’s economic rise has brought about a surge in pride among Chinese. This is partially because people have personally witnessed the visible transformation the country has experienced. Though bike-dominated dirt roads thrived less than 20 years ago, this image could not be more disconnected with modern China. Highways roar throughout the country filled with the latest cars. First tier cities rival western counterparts in business and influence. In the span of a few decades, the Chinese have seen the type of transformation that took up to a century to develop in the US and the UK during and after the industrial revolution.Thus, their confidence is a natural byproduct of China’s rise to world power.

The second factor is the outcome of the 2008 financial crisis and the divergent fortunes of China and the West. While western economies tumbled, China experienced double-digit real GDP growth, averaging approximately 10% from 2000-2009. Confidence derived from this economic strength permeated international forums. In economic summits where western leaders once held sway, Chinese business leaders have become more vocal as they recognized the shift in power. At the Boao Forum in 2009, it was reported that Chinese officials were forceful in their demands that Asian interests needed to be underscored if American financiers wanted to sell China their debt.  Emboldened by a rapidly growing economy in contrast to a stagnant one, this feeling of confidence now has whispers of condescension towards the West.

The second facet of this nascent resentment is the dominance of negative articles relating to China in the western media. In the minds of many Chinese, their country has been reduced to a caricature of a two-dimensional human rights abuser while the strides the country has made in recent years have been marginalized. And as the Boao Forum demonstrated, the Chinese are mindful that while the western world criticizes Chinese policy, it also seeks Chinese investment.

A colleague of mine drew a parallel of Chinese confusion towards foreign media sources using an example of a recent ad in a Hong Kong newspaper. The advertisement showed a photo of a massive locust looming on top of the mountains overlooking Hong Kong, representing Chinese mainlanders trying to migrate into and visit the former British colony. The Hong Kong residents who bought the ad were railing against impacts they view as caused by the influx of mainland Chinese. At the same time, however, the Chinese read articles relating how Hong Kong’s struggling job seekers and businessmen are hoping to benefit from the mainland’s economic success. 

This is a similar trend to the one Chinese see in western-based sources; criticisms of Chinese policies yet a need for China's economic weight. While the press may just be the messenger in some cases, it’s difficult to separate the messenger from the opinions stated. As Chinese citizens try to digest these seemingly contradictory sentiments, they find it hard to not feel maligned. Thus, the often one-sided depiction of China in the press coupled with a new self-assured mentality that has trickled down to many layers of society has shifted the mood to a more cautious outlook of westerners.

Furthermore, most Chinese are acutely aware of the issues that modern China faces, human rights included. These educated citizens also realize the immense challenge it can be to make changes in a country with such a complex and expansive historical context. Meaning, change will take time and the West doesn’t need to constantly remind them. This is not to say that the Chinese are unreceptive. Quite the opposite — they are extremely welcoming to their foreign guests, but the once shiny coat of the West has lost some of its sheen.

There are plenty of positive stories to come out of China but rarely do they find their way to non-Chinese media. China does not enjoy the breadth of news sources that the West does, which is why it’s disheartening to see a lack of diversity on China related topics. To improve this situation, it behooves the West to expand the conversation, staying ever mindful of human rights, but not shying away from topics that would help paint a more holistic view of contemporary China.