Americans See Themselves in the People of China

In a new survey, U.S. respondents seem to perceive Chinese as embodying some of the defining features of Americanness.

A woman hands out investment fliers at a Beijing trade fair. (AP)

This week's headlines from the U.S. presidential race carry pretty consistent themes on China: "Obama takes on China as Romney shifts strategy," "Obama takes on China, Romney," "Obama, Romney duel over China, immigration," and, "Obama, Romney Campaigns Spar Over China," the original headline of which was "Obama, Romney Clamor To Be Toughest On China." China-toughness is nothing new for the race; Mitt Romney in particular has emphasized "standing up" to China, an approach that Obama appears to be edging toward himself.

Whatever the policy merits or drawbacks of this approach, a degree of its political wisdom is confirmed in a just-out Pew survey on American views of China. 52 percent of respondents called China's rise a "major threat to the well-being of the U.S.", ranking it as a greater risk than instability in Pakistan. When asked which countries posed the greatest risk to the U.S., respondents ranked China first, with 26 percent (Iran was second with 16 percent). Americans say they are more worried about China's "economic strength" (59 percent cited this) than its "military strength" (28 percent). So, regardless of how Romney and Obama arrived at their respective positions on China, there may in fact be some political benefit to appearing "tough" on the country.

But there's another side to American perceptions of China: what Americans think of Chinese people. For all their apparent suspicion of China's national government and foreign policy, Americans describe China's citizens in terms that are not just largely positively, but are remarkably similar to how Americans seem to view themselves.

Pew, as part of their survey, asked Americans which traits they associated with Chinese people and with Americans. Here's what they found:

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Based on these results, Americans seem to see striking parallels between themselves and Chinese, particularly when it comes to traits often closely and proudly defined as American: hardworking, creative, competitive, patriotic*. It's almost as if Americans see Chinese people as embodying some of the defining features of Americanness itself.

Where Americans saw differences, they often gave more credit to Chinese than to themselves. Americans called Chinese people less aggressive, greedy, selfish, arrogant, rude, and violent. But they also called Chinese less modern and sophisticated, perhaps due to perceptions of China's still-large rural poor population. And they rated Chinese low in generosity and tolerance.

It's hard to say where these perceptions come from. On the one hand, the story of China's rise has been the subject of deep American interest, particularly since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And that story lends itself to certain themes consistent with America's view of itself as a self-starting, hardworking nation.

On the other hand, Chinese immigration to the U.S. has been a significant part of the American story for over 150 years, long before the Chinese Communist Party even existed. "They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long," Mark Twain wrote in his 1871 book Roughing It, reinforcing some of the same racial stereotypes -- positive, yes, but stereotypes nonetheless -- that may still linger in American perceptions of Chinese today.

Update: * - I asked journalist Helen Gao, who has extensive experience in China and the U.S., if anything surprised her about these results. She said she was struck that Americans had not rated Chinese people as more nationalistic, especially given the recent nationalist protests over the disputed Diaoyu islands. Though American and Chinese nationalism are obviously quite different, she noted, Americans she's talked to about the U.S. "are not defensive the same way many Chinese are" when discussing their country.