The China Paradox and American Misperceptions

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in

The United States and China: Mutual Public Perceptions

, a publication by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


China’s journey into the 21st century is a paradox of hope and fear. A triumphal mood has begun to take hold in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the past decade. A series of historic events–China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Beijing’s successful hosting of the Olympics, Shanghai’s reemergence as a cosmopolitan center as evident in the recently held World Expo, the dynamic infrastructure development in both coastal and inland regions, the launch of the country’s first manned space program, and the country’s ever-growing economic power–have understandably instilled feelings of pride and optimism in the Chinese people.

At the same time, China’s progress and promise have been accompanied by increasingly serious problems and pitfalls. Enormous economic disparities are arguably the most daunting problem China faces. In addition, rampant official corruption, a high unemployment rate, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, frequent public health crises and recurrent industrial accidents, growing rural discontent and urban worker strikes, inflation and skyrocketing high prices for housing in major cities, worsening ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang, the absence of an overriding system of beliefs or values, harsh media censorship and brutal crackdowns on political dissidents and religious activists all seem to suggest that the Chinese regime is sitting atop a simmering volcano of mass social unrest ready to explode.

Not surprisingly, these paradoxical developments have often led students of China to reach starkly contrasting assessments of the country’s future trajectory and the abilities and intentions of its leadership. How can we reconcile the widely divergent phenomena mentioned above and reach a more accurate and balanced understanding of present-day China? How have U.S. perceptions of China changed in recent years and what factors tend to shape our perceptions of this rapidly changing country? What wisdom can we gain–and what lessons can we learn–from recent work in the field of China studies?

To a large extent, students of China must acquire the intellectual ability to live with complexity, tolerate ambiguity, and expect uncertainty. However, the immense complexity of our subject is no excuse for failing to use good judgment and to present well-grounded predictions. Rigorous, insightful assessments are particularly valuable today, when China has more influence on the world economy and regional security than perhaps at any other time in modern history. Misperceptions of China’s socioeconomic conditions or misleading assessments of the quality and intentions of its leaders risk rendering our policies toward China ineffective.

This essay examines some of the prevailing U.S. perceptions of China over the past decade (2001-2010) with a focus on Chinese political and socioeconomic issues. This brief article, of course, does not aspire to present the “state-of-the-field,” nor is it based on comprehensive and quantitative research.2 Rather, it aims to provide a critical assessment of the problems and challenges in the way the United States perceives China’s political and socioeconomic developments as well as its future trajectory. In seeking to improve the quality of China watching in the United States in the coming years, this essay makes a concerted effort to explicate the field’s deficiencies, such as prevalent misperceptions, blind spots, topical obsessions or inadequacies, and methodological missteps, rather than showcase the field’s accomplishments.