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US status anxiety over rising China

Matt Frei | 16:51 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011

China is getting under the skin of the world's only superpower in a way that the Soviet Union didn't during the Cold War or Japan in the 1980s, when it threatened to gobble up corporate America.


Students at Duke University

China's remarkable rise has paralleled America's own relative decline. So when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week, he'll find his hosts suffering from status anxiety. The nation long driven by manifest destiny is ill at ease with itself, uncertain - perhaps for the first time in its history - that its best days are still ahead.

China's latest great leap forward is in education. Students from Shanghai scored stunning results last month in international tests, easily topping the world in maths, science and reading. Where was America? Languishing more than 20 places below in each category - the US education secretary says it is a "wake-up call".

So we visited one of America's elite universities to test the mood. Duke is dubbed the 'Harvard of the South' (although here they prefer to call Harvard the 'Duke of the North'). It's a global centre of excellence, umbilically attached to North Carolina's technology triangle that attracts international students and faculty, particularly from China. From academics to athletics - the men's basketball team is ranked one of the best - the place is imbued with the self-belief, some would say arrogance, which for so long underpinned the US in its undisputed title as the world's top dog.

We put together a team of Duke's best and brightest - including three Chinese-born students - to discuss America's place in the globalised world. We showed them a slick and controversial advert aired during the recent congressional election campaign by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Set 20 years in the future, a Chinese professor is lecturing students about the fall of the American Empire. Reckless spending led to crushing debt, he explains, before adding: "Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us." The message: America, be scared of China.

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Jack Zhang, who was born in China but grew up in Pennsylvania, was dismayed by the confrontational take.
"It portrays it as a zero-sum game and that somehow Communist China is just the mortal enemy of the US and that the way forward is through competition of some sort. I think that's the wrong approach."
Sharon Mei, who runs an "Understanding China" house course with Jack, said the advert played on fear.
"What I was most hurt by was when they had the audience of young people and everyone was yelling in a hostile and malicious manner - these are the people on the other side of the world who will take us over if we don't do something about it."

She believes ignorance about China and the Chinese fuels suspicion.

"It's the way people perceive China - that on a moral level that they're not someone we want to be a superpower."

Helen Cai, a freshman who was born in China but recently became a US citizen, says the fear is not rational.

"I don't think Chinese people are aware of this kind of power, that they are portrayed in this kind of light in America."

Jack agrees that Americans seem more convinced by China's growing supremacy than the Chinese do. He quotes a recent survey by a Chinese newspaper in which 80% of Chinese respondents said China was not yet a superpower, while 87% of Americans believed it was already.

Romeen Sheth lives in Atlanta but his family is from that other emerging economic powerhouse, India. He takes a provocative stance on the future of the US, contrasting China and India's annual economic growth of 8-10% a year with the American economy "flat-lining" at about 1.5% to 2% a year.

"If we continue on the trajectory we're at right now I think America could soon find itself in a position of global insignificance."


The US has always benefited from an influx of immigrants and ideas. But now, he says, many Chinese and Indian students and workers are struggling to get green cards and visas allowing them to stay.

"So what we're doing is giving US-acquired information and we're sending it back to India and China. So America is the first empire that is giving away its strategic weapons almost. In an information-age society knowledge is a strategic weapon."


Will Brody, a native of North Carolina, is still confident about America's role. "I still think the US will be a superpower far in the future," he says, pointing out that it remains the global trend-setter on everything from technology and social networking to politics and foreign policy.

Helen Cai says economic expansion is not the only way to measure a country's success. Americans put far more value on abstract ideas like liberty and freedom than the Chinese do, she says.

Jack Zhang argues that these values are what make America great. Yet democracy - particularly one as divided and dysfunctional as America's today - can be a handicap when it comes to global competition.

"I don't think it's so much America has become complacent in its power or prosperity, it's just their political institutions cause difficulties. China has an authoritarian, one-party state, so can afford to pursue economic policies that might not make everyone happy."


He points out that China's vast population means its government has to confront tough choices on behalf of the country. And it's not easy for Chinese people either. The sheer numbers mean individuals face intense pressure and competition if they want to be part of the economic miracle.

Jack devotes much of his time to improving understanding between the two countries and cultures that he loves. But I ask him to imagine a world where China and America are at each other's throats and he had to decide which side to back. What would he do?

It has clearly crossed his mind because he answers instantly.
"What worries me more is which side will call me out as being a traitor or a spy. That's the kind of world I don't ever want to live in and I hope we won't come to that because nationalism on both sides puts people, especially people like me, in an awkward and awful place."
Matt Frei got a very different perspective from people in Lenoir, North Carolina. Thousands of jobs have been lost there in recent years after furniture factories shut down and moved operations to China. You can see his full Newsnight film here.

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