31 January 2009

The other day I was telling a friend that one of the reasons I continue to live in China and find it interesting is that growing up I was a scifi geek. I always loved the idea of visiting other planets, and living abroad is the closest I’ll ever get. The common wisdom in both countries about the other is a bit like descriptions of Jupiter: massive (China in people, America in power), enormous gravitational pull (markets, culture), and full of dangerous gases (pollution from China, political hot air from the U.S.). What makes China so much like another planet isn’t that China is actually so alien, but rather the distance between them perceived by both sides. China is, for so many Americans, so far away as to be an abstract concept, and vice versa for Chinese peoples perceptions of America. To illustrate, check out these surveys (disclaimer: never believe surveys):

The first comes (via ESWN) from the Chinese newspaper Global Times. Specifically, item #4:

Q. Which of these attributes affect the international image of China negatively?

52%: Corruption of certain government officials 44%: Poor quality and fakery in products 33%: Environmental pollution 23%: Work safety accidents 22%: Uncivilized behavior of Chinese people 19%: Human rights problems 12%: Lack of freedom of speech 6%: Lack of progress in developing medical care system
6%: An unjust government 6%: Urban traffic congestion

Some of these results mirror what Chinese respondents to a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey said ranking problems facing China, most notably corruption (39% very big). The Pew Study, however, didn’t ask about “lack of freedom of speech” or “an unjust government”. Global Times, despite being known for having a nationalist bent, surprises by actually including these categories at all. The Pew study indicates Chinese were most concerned about rising prices (96% moderately big problem, 72% very big), the rich/poor gap (89%, 41%), corrupt officials (78%, 39%), air pollution (74%, 31%), unemployment (68%, 22%), etc. etc. This was after Tibet last year but before the Sichuan earthquake, the Olympics and of course the global recession, and the emphasis on prices, poverty and employment were already top priority.

So what do Americans think are the most important issues affecting (the image of) China? There isn’t alot to work with, but it turns out that last September the Blue Ocean TV Network (back to this in a moment) commissioned Perspectives Resources Inc. in New York to survey 2 million Americans on ten questions about their impressions of China. A powerpoint of the results is here. The Bon survey gives some demographics, and its worth noting 44% the respondents have at most a high school education (as 2002, about a quarter of Americans over 25 had a bachelors degree or more).

Before getting to the issues question, some of the other questions. Alot of the answers are pretty obvious - most recognized symbol? The Great Wall. Most recognized people? Jackie Chan, Mao. Most recognized food? Fried rice and egg rolls. Fortune cookies beat out Peking duck. Singapore came up 22% of the time, though it’s not in China.

Then there was the brands survey. Not a single Chinese brand.

La Choy 33%, Samsung 27%, Chow Mein 27%, Toyota 25%, Nissan 24%, Chop Suey 21%, Nike 16%, Chun King 15%, Bank of America 9%??? Not a single one of those is a Chinese brand.

And yet, strangely, believable.

OK, issues:

39%: Civil rights/freedom 25%: Population control 24%: Pollution/environment 23%: Communism vs. Capitalism 21%: Economy 17%: Labor issues 16%: Sweat shops 15%: Low quality products 13%:U.S. debt to China 12%: Tibet 16%: Nothing

To refresh, the Global Times survey:

52%: Corruption of certain government officials 44%: Poor quality and fakery in products 33%: Environmental pollution 23%: Work safety accidents 22%: Uncivilized behavior of Chinese people 19%: Human rights problems 12%: Lack of freedom of speech 6%: Lack of progress in developing medical care system
6%: An unjust government 6%: Urban traffic congestion

Some might feel the urge to equate Chinese dissatisfaction over corruption with American concerns over civil rights and freedom. But the Global Times survey supplies two other categories, “human rights problems” and “lack of freedom of speech”, that are far better matches, and those issues weren’t considered a high priority in China’s international image. “Unjust government” is what an overwhelming number of Americans would probably consider a synonym for “Communism”, so there’s another reversal in those two. After all, on the question of “Communism vs. capitalism”, where do you think Americans usually stand? American policy has long been about shaping the world in its own image, regardless of administrations.

So what does this suggest? On Planet America, China’s biggest problem is perceived to be its Communist government which is identified as the cause of rights abuses and lack of freedom. On Planet China, China’s biggest problem is perceived to be corruption, and China’s biggest problem_ in the eyes of foreigners_ is also corruption, but as far as they’re concerned that’s not related to the system of government. One reason might be that Chinese people don’t see corruption ending just because the government did, something for which the former USSR provides a few examples.

The PRI study, as mentioned before, was commissioned by BON TV, an international Chinese English language TV network that is supposed to be debuting right now (could this be the big new investment reported?), but has not done anything since a press conference in September. BON is supposedly a private, non-governmental subsidiary of Skyarc Media Group in Shanghai, but its chairman is Cheng Siwei, a lifelong government official, former NPC member, and occasional semi-official spokesman for Chinese currency policy (like at Davos just the other day). So with that kind of clout, and this survey actually giving them a half-decent view of the challenges of reaching out to Americans about China, what do you think their promotional video would look like?

Well, if you were concerned about whether you could take tennis lessons, win your mom a trip to Suzhou, convince your employees that investment is more important than human rights, or convert the author of “A Year Without Made in China” into a sympathetic friend of China, this video is for you. Even after learning America has a radically different worldview, they made a video that, honestly, is really Chinese. Kinda like how many Americans see China in terms of American politics.

Still feels like two different planets to me.



blog comments powered by Disqus