America's biggest creditor
By Chua Chin Hon, US Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON: If you tune in to the news here and notice China being mentioned, chances are the words 'America's banker' won't be far behind.
No doubt, the usual cliches about the mainland - the bicycle kingdom, the birthplace of gongfu, the home of pandas, and of late, Tiger Mums - are still prevalent.
But increasingly, American perception of China is being shaped by the dawning of a new reality: that of the Asian power's rising economic might and its status as the United States' No. 1 foreign creditor.
China holds about US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion) worth of US government debt, a point that news anchors, alarmist television pundits, and even comedians love to remind their audiences of.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington last week for a lavish state dinner, for instance, every late-night talk show host had a joke about the irony of holding a grand party for someone whom you owe so much money.
'We're playing this just right,' popular comedian Jon Stewart deadpanned. 'When a country owes you a billion dollars, they've got a problem. When a country owes you a trillion dollars, you've got a problem. We're too big to fail!'
The impact of this new economic reality on public opinion, however, has been no joke.
According to two recent polls by the Pew Research Centre and Allstate-National Journal, nearly one in two Americans think - incorrectly - that China is already the world's strongest economy. The US economy is in fact 21/2 times bigger than China's US$5.9 trillion gross domestic product, which has only recently overtaken Japan's as the second largest in the world.
It could take years, if not decades, before China catches up with America's US$14.6 trillion economy.
Still, 47 per cent of 1,200 Americans told the Allstate-National Journal poll late last year that they thought China had the strongest economy, while only 20 per cent picked the US.
The survey by Pew earlier this month arrived at an almost identical result: 47 per cent of the 1,503 Americans polled said China had the world's leading economy, while just 31 per cent thought the US was at the top.
The results of the Pew survey are all the more striking when compared to the responses to the same question three years ago. In January 2008, before the global financial crisis struck, 41 per cent of respondents thought the US economy was the strongest while only 30 per cent picked China.
'Public opinion in this country turns on a dime, but I think the long recession really sapped the confidence of a lot of Americans,' said Mr Joe Mandel, a retired teacher in Chicago, when asked to comment on the poll results.
'People feel as if it is no longer just a case of the grass being greener on the other side. It is sadly a case where things are withering here day by day while the Chinese just seem to keep growing and growing.'
Many US politicians are adamant, however, that China's growth is the result of its unfair currency and trade policies - a problem that they want to fix with retaliatory tariffs and duties.
During Mr Hu's visit, a group of 84 legislators from both the Democratic and Republican parties sent an open letter to US President Barack Obama urging him to take a tougher stance on the trade issue.
'America's patience is near an end,' the letter said. 'Ensuring that China abides by international trade laws is imperative for the vitality of our nation's economy and for the viability of American businesses.'
Most Americans surveyed by Pew (53 per cent) agreed with this call for tougher US action on economic and trade issues. But anyone assuming that there's broad public support for a confrontational approach towards China would be mistaken. For one thing, a higher percentage of respondents (58 per cent) said that it is 'very important' to build stronger ties with China. Most Americans also regard China as 'a serious problem, but not an adversary', according to Pew.
And while familiar criticisms about China's human rights record and environmental policies continue to cast a pall over its image in the US media, the poll found that Americans regard these problems as being less important than the economic issues.
Overall, American views of China also appear to be pretty middle-of-the-road when compared with how people of other nationalities view the Asian giant. About 36 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of China, compared with 69 per cent among Japanese and 61 per cent among Germans, Pew's research found.
'Sure, I sometimes see stories about human rights abuses in China, but there are so many other stories in the media about China that it doesn't affect the way I see the country,' said Mr Brad Stevens, an American video editor based in Washington DC.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Mr Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Centre, added: 'The bottom line is that Americans don't want to demonise China, but they have deep reservations about the effects of US-China trade.
'Worries notwithstanding, most Americans for now continue to hold a favourable view of the rising Asian giant.'
But many observers here also point out that China's image in the US, while relatively benign, is also a superficial one. Beyond household names like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, few Chinese personalities are widely known here.
The country's politics, fears, hopes, and aspirations are a complete mystery, except to the small community of China watchers. Beijing is well aware of the problem, and in response launched a major self-promotional advertisement ahead of Mr Hu's recent visit.
The ad, featuring quick snapshots of successful Chinese nationals like astronaut Yang Liwei, ran in several American cities to mixed reviews. Many questioned the wisdom of running the ad 300 times a day over four consecutive weeks in New York's busy Times Square.
Like most experts here, Dr Michael Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said the best thing that China can do to improve its image in the US is to carry out genuine political and economic reforms at home, and be more forthright about its military affairs. As for public relations and advertising blitzes, he noted: 'Americans can smell propaganda.'
Land of free spenders
By Grace Ng, China Correspondent
BEIJING: In a skit aired by China's state-owned CCTV last September, four children - each wearing a national flag representing China, the United States, India and Brazil - were lined up for a race.
The American child, Anthony, swore he would win 'because I always win' as he took the lead. But he soon toppled over, suffering from cramps. This prompted his Chinese competitor to cheer: 'Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!'
'What's wrong with Anthony?' another child asked, to which the fourth kid said: 'He is overweight and flabby. He ate too many hamburgers.'
This skit, aired during the World Economic Forum, was a pointed commentary on how the Chinese viewed America, observed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He had attended the gathering, along with hundreds of top businessmen and political leaders, in China's Tianjin city.
For many Chinese, this picture of a bloated America ceding the lead to the rising dragon economy surely resonated as they witnessed their president's visit to the US last week.
President Hu Jintao brought with him US$45 billion (S$58 billion) worth of business deals that are expected to translate into 235,000 jobs for a struggling American economy.
The notion of China coming to America's rescue has prompted many Chinese to look anew at their perceptions of the US.
'When we were growing up, the US was the world's superpower that was far ahead of China,' said Ms Ding Lihua, 35, a human resource manager in Beijing. 'But watching the Americans give Mr Hu the VVIP treatment last week made me realise the US is on the decline, and China is becoming its equal,' she said.
This shift has also prompted them to reconsider what they admired and disliked about the Land of the Free.
Or rather, the land of the free spenders - which dragged China and the world into crisis - as a poll on Chinese perceptions of the US last month showed.
The US was blamed for the global economic crisis as well as the tensions in US-China ties, according to the survey of 1,400 people partly organised by the state newspaper China Daily.
Seven in 10 among those polled also saw the two countries as both allies and competitors. 'The US and China should be friends, but they cannot avoid being rivals in all spheres,' said translation company manager Michael Zhang, 43.
One area where the two may clash is foreign policy, said several Chinese nationals interviewed by The Straits Times. In their view, the Americans were 'too interventionist'.
Said corporate relations manager Wang Xingzi, 27: 'The US foreign policy is to bring democracy to countries, even those that don't necessarily want it. It said it would free people in Iraq, but it seems to have made their lives worse.'
Meanwhile, the US education system may be starting to lose its shine.
It did not escape notice that Shanghai schoolchildren recently beat those in 65 other countries in international standardised tests in mathematics, science and reading. American children came in between the 15th and 31st places in the three categories.
'I think more Chinese students are questioning if it is worthwhile to study at a not-so-good US school,' said Tsinghua graduate student Yang Jingjing, 27, who at one time studied in the US.
Still, if Chinese people were asked to name today's creative geniuses, Americans like Mr Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would first come to mind, she added. 'Silicon Valley, Harvard and Wall Street are still powerful emblems of US superiority. The huge talent and creativity there are hard to beat.'
It was its tech prowess that made the US pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai the most anticipated among the Chinese in Internet polls last year. And even though it turned out to have no futuristic gadgets and was disappointingly full of corporate sponsors' displays, one visitor, Mr Jun Caifeng, was still stirred by 'the US' branding power'.
'Americans know how to package and show the best side of themselves,' said the retiree in his 70s, citing the example of his 10-year-old grandson whose hero is National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kobe Bryant. 'I asked him why he likes an American more than Yao Ming, and he said, 'Kobe has more style and does magical dunks.' Americans really know how to impress.'
High school student Jordan Zhang, 14, echoed this: 'American culture, sports and pop music are cooler than China's.' That was why he chose to have an American college student, rather than a British researcher, teach him English. Both are volunteers at a non-profit Beijing tuition centre.
'We found most kids would rather have a Texan accent than speak the Queen's English,' said the centre's manager, who declined to be named. 'They watch too many American shows.'
Indeed, NBA games and Hollywood movies are the most-watched foreign content on CCTV as well as top video websites like Youku.com.
Even Vice-Premier Xi Jinping, tipped to be Mr Hu's successor, is said to be a fan of Hollywood's World War II movies such as Steven Spielberg's war epic, Saving Private Ryan.
For some, like Ms Qin Ping, a 36-year-old clothes shop owner, the values that come across, such as their quest for greater freedom and their greater participation in matters that affect their lives, are appealing.
Despite its recent setbacks, America was still ranked the 'best-liked country' in the world in a Global Times poll of 1,350 Chinese a year ago, beating France, Australia and Singapore, which was ranked fourth.
What is becoming clear to the Chinese is that one way to view the US is to see it as an ever-changing kaleidoscope, where you are as likely to find Nobel Prize winners as Wall Street crooks, Lady Gaga as well as hamburger-stuffed overweight children.
Said accountant Maggie Sun, 28: 'As Chinese people interact more with America, we are finding out that the US is too big and complex to be put into a box like what we used to do. I think Americans are learning the same about China.'
Additional reporting by Lina Miao