Why Americans and Aussies Can't Think Straight About China

In response to this item and related stories, on the substantial minority of Americans and absolute majority of Australians who believe that China is already the world's "leading economic power," a reader originally from India and now in the U.S. offers this explanation:

I remember laughing when you I read your "44% of Americans are insane" headline.... It is rather funny that so many Americans would think that about China although I think the representations of China in the media (magnetic trains, the Olympics, missiles and nuclear weapons) have something to do with it. [JF: I agree.]

But I think it has something to do with what I call "siege mentality" of people. What I am going to say is probably banal. "The grass is always greener..." and all that. But FWIW, here goes.

Back home, when I lived in India, I thought India had it bad when it came to political parties. We don't have the neat liberal vs. conservative divide back home, like it is in the US. Instead there are a plethora of positions that our political parties take: religion-based (hindutva-leaning vs. secular -- although our secular parties pander far too much to Muslim clerics), economics-based (privatization-oriented or quasi-socialist). Not to mention the whole caste angle which is far too tangled for me even to talk about.

But I tended to attribute evil motives to parties whose positions I didn't agree with; it wasn't just that I doubted their means, I also doubted their ends. This was particularly true when it came to the communist Parties in India (the CPI and the CPM): I didn't really believe that they had the nation's good at heart....  With such political parties, I thought, India has a bleak future. Of course, I believed that in other countries (which I hadn't yet experienced, but only read about) it was different: political parties probably didn't agree on the means, but they were in widespread agreement about the ends.

Imagine my shock when I came to the US in 2002 and started reading widely on the web. The amount of rancor that I saw was shocking - and then, with a little reflection, not so shocking.
The liberals in the US found that conservatives just didn't care for certain sections of American society (the poor, African-Americans) while the conservatives didn't believe that the liberals had the interests of the country, as a whole, at heart. It was depressingly similar except that this time I was detached enough to appreciate both points. I found that, despite what they thought of each other, conservatives and liberals did have the same ends in mind. E.g. it was inconceivable to me that conservatives and liberals in the US would react differently to an attack on American soil -- and they didn't and won't.

But while I can see the analogy with the situation in India, it's still hard for me to think well of the Indian communist parties. Perhaps I am just way too invested. I suspect it would be the same for an American conservative in India; he would find widespread agreement about the ends as well as the means of politics among the ideologies in India but that would still not convince him that American liberals have the good of the country at heart (but it might give him a slight push in that direction).

I guess what I'm trying to say -- in my long-winded way -- is that we always think that other countries have it better than us; that they are united while we are divided, that they are all in uncommon agreement over both means and ends, but we have traitors in our midst, etc. etc. Which is probably why 44% of Americans think that China is a superior economic power. And now Australians too. What Indians think about China, well, that is another story ...
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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