Booming China gives the American dream a low rating

PEKING - A scene in A Native of Peking in New York, a television series set in the United States that was this autumn's ratings success on China's state television, said a lot about current Chinese attitudes to the US. The hero, a Chinese immigrant who makes a fortune in New York, only to lose it in the 1987 stock market crash, is berating his daughter.

Since her arrival in America, she has turned into a wilful, high- living young woman who has married her boyfriend's father. America, the film seems to be saying, is a lawless, exciting, amoral place.

While this may be the view of average Chinese, that of China's professional America watchers has been even further removed from reality. In his book Beautiful Imperialist; China perceives America, 1972-1990 David Shambaugh of London's School of Oriental and African Studies writes: 'Old habits die hard, and it was not until the mid-1980s that China's America watchers apparently concluded that the US was not on the verge of a socialist revolution led by an aroused proletariat.'

For the first two decades after 1949, China's view of the US was one of fear. At the end of the 1950s, in the shadow of the Korean war, there was the fear of a US military strike. Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 broke the ice, and led to full normalisation in 1979.

Since the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre relations have been dominated by antagonism between the two countries. The annual stand-off over China's Most Favoured Nation trading status, US opposition to Peking's Olympic 2000 bid, the sanctions imposed on China for alleged proscribed military sales to Pakistan, US arms sales to Taiwan, and US lobbying over human rights issues all have fuelled China's anti-US propaganda machine.

What scope then for progress in Seattle? President Jiang Zemin said this week he hoped his meeting with President Bill Clinton would help 'put the past troubles between our two countries behind us at an early date'.

China's scholars tend to be divided on the likely outcome of the meeting, though the fact it is taking place is seen as a breakthrough. But Zi Zhongyun, President of the Society for Scholars of Sino-US Relations, in a Chinese media press interview, said this week: 'It is hard to say that the relationship will warm up in a short period of time.'

A senior Chinese foreign policy adviser said: 'Given the domestic economic and political situations, it is difficult for China to make compromises at the meeting. The US image in China has become worse even among intellectuals. China's economy is booming, many young people have stopped worshipping the US.'

He added: 'People also accuse the US of applying a double standard to issues of human rights. The US supported (Boris) Yeltsin's crackdown in Moscow simply because the US likes Yeltsin's system, regarding it in the interests of the US.'

Very few Chinese can understand that human rights is the cornerstone of US foreign policy, he continued. 'They think economic issues are the real focus, while human rights are just something used to intimidate others.'

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher's recent warning about human rights and MFN had been 'like reprimanding a child. The Chinese will never take such a dressing down,' he added.

Since the pre-Seattle offer by China that the International Committee of the Red Cross might be given access to Chinese prisons, Peking has stressed this concession is made to the international body, and not to the Americans.

Chinese scholars would like to see a US presidential statement that explicitly supports China's opening and modernisation drive. But President Jiang, the policy adviser said, would never do anything 'that would make him look like a traitor'.