A Chinese social media post recently highlighted the following joke:
A student from China tells his American classmate, “I want to study propaganda in the United States.”
“Propaganda doesn’t exist in the United States,” the American student replies.
The Chinese student says, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to study.”
The joke reflects growing cynicism, criticism and disappointment among young Chinese about domestic governance and foreign policy in the United States. The drastic deterioration in US-China relations over the past two years has exacerbated and aggravated suspicions, fears and hostilities. Guilt games, propaganda wars and conspiracy theories have sprung up on both sides of the Pacific.
Nationalism and anti-American sentiment are especially evident among young Chinese, including those who have previously studied or are currently studying in the United States. As political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss of Cornell University recently observed, young Chinese today are “more hawkish in their beliefs about foreign policy than older generations.”
China’s Generation After the 1990s: Changing Attitudes Towards the US
The post-1990s urban age group — especially those in their late teens and early twenties — grew up in an affluent society. Young urban Chinese are more similar to their peers in advanced industrial and post-industrial countries than to their parents and grandparents in lifestyle, higher education (including opportunities to study abroad) and socialization in the digital age.
As Li Chunling, a leading scholar of youth studies in China and the author of the new book “China’s Youth: Increasing Diversity Amid Persistent Inequality” has noted: China’s young people differ from both the post-1960s and 1970s cohorts, who grew up in “a period of fawning over the West” (Chongyang meiwai). In the eyes of young Chinese who experienced their formative years during Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up, the United States was a “beacon of liberal democracy” and a “gleaming city on a hill” (dengta guo). That sentiment was reflected in the Tiananmen movement of 1989.
In 2018, Li done research on the national identity scale with which she measures the strength of national identity among more than 10,000 Chinese respondents. The survey data showed that the younger the age, the weaker the national identity. Educated respondents from the 1990s have the lowest national identity scores, with a notable correlation between low national identity and attendance at highly regarded universities. In 2017, another Chinese research team executed a sample of 10,000 post-1995 students on 157 campuses across the country and found that most students lacked the motivation and enthusiasm to join the Communist Party of China (CPC).
As for the attitude of young Chinese to the United States, many other Chinese public opinion polls conducted before 2018 also show that the Chinese people generally had a very favorable view of the US, although hate-love or ambivalent attitudes were not uncommon. My Survey Research on foreign-trained returnees in Shanghai over the past ten years has shown that a majority took a favorable view of the United States – 90% in 2009 and 92 percent in 2014. My studies also show that those who returned from a study in the US reported the highest favorable impression of the US, compared to those who have studied in other countries and regions.
The impact of Washington’s aggressive stance on China and the Chinese people
The worldview of Chinese youth, including their attitudes towards the US, has changed profoundly in recent years. There are, of course, many factors that come into play. Washington is rightly concerned about Beijing’s excessive domestic political control and aggressive foreign policy. From an American perspective, national security and intellectual property rights must be vigorously protected in the United States. Nevertheless, the aggressive policies and rhetoric of some policymakers in Washington have had a profoundly negative effect on the Chinese public, especially students and scholars from the People’s Republic of China in the United States.
The recent wave of anti-American sentiment among Chinese youth could be a response to the following hostile moves from some of Washington’s aggressive policymakers:
- claim that Beijing is “arm” the large number of Chinese students enrolled in American universities, and that, since their families in China are subject to intimidation by the CPC authorities, many of them serve as spies or steal advanced technology;
- targeting Chinese and Chinese American scientists, the US Department of Justice has determined (for the first time) an initiative targeting a particular country and ethnic group – the “China Initiative” – in which it has used the new and controversial term academic espionage;
- the use of expressions such as ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Kung Flu’, which has led to sinophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes;
- restricting members of the CPC and their families — about 300 million people — from a visit to the United States; and
- offensive Chinese cultural heritage. For example, in a tweet in December 2020, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn claimed that “China has a 5000-year history of deception and theft. Some things will never change.”
Before these more recent unfortunate incidents, patriotism (as well as xenophobia) had already risen among the young Chinese population. A Chinese survey from 2018 found it that 90% of the post-1990s cohort expressed resentment about “prejudice” in the West about China. That same year, a survey among 10,000 young Chinese born in or after 2000 found it that 80% believed that “China was in the best era in its history or getting a better country every day.”
Raising patriotism from Beijing
The Chinese authorities have long paid close attention to the worldview and attitudes of young people towards the CPC. They have recognized that young people are often the main participants in radical social movements around the world, such as the summer riots in London in 2011 and the jasmine revolution in the Middle East and North Africa in the past decade. From the perspective of the Chinese authorities, the country’s youth – especially students and young intellectuals – are prime targets for the infiltration of enemy forces.
Shortly after taking the top leadership position in China in 2012, Xi Jinping called for strengthening the ideological indoctrination of Chinese youth. He claimed that “the values orientation of young people in the future will determine the values orientation of the whole society.” Believing that US-led anti-Chinese forces had been sent to undermine CPC rule, Xi in 2016 demanded that the country’s educational institutions adhere to the “correct political orientation” and “core socialist values”. At an important meeting of key ministerial and provincial leaders at the Central Party School in January 2019, Xi mention seven major risks facing China, the top two of which are mostly young people. Xi also referred to the youth-led demonstrations in Hong Kong.
It was also reported Xi Jinping commented on the above survey of post-1995 students joining the CPC, and called for greater efforts to recruit post-1995 students. The following year, the total number of CPC members under the age of 35 reached 22 million, accounting for 24.4% of the party’s total membership. The party in 2018 alone recruited more than 1.64 million members under the age of 35, accounting for 80% of new members.
A nationwide survey of 17,000 college students in the spring of 2020 found that recent tensions between China and the US — including the trade war and the Meng Wanzhou incident — have increased dramatically. strengthens interest in geopolitics among Chinese students and fostered growing nationalist sentiment. A significant number of Chinese students have still chosen to study in the US, and approximately 85,000 Chinese nationals by the summer of 2021 obtained student visas to study in the US But the proportion of total Chinese students in the US started to decrease even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Top Chinese students have increasingly chosen China’s own top universities. According to a report released by Tsinghua University in September 2021, only about 14% of graduates have went abroad for further studies. The report also found that as of April this year, more than half of Tsinghua alumni who went abroad from 2002 to 2011 had returned to work in China, and the proportion is still increasing. AN recent article in The New York Times noted that if the US no longer welcomes top Chinese students and researchers, “Beijing would welcome them with open arms.”
Washington’s Loss of Influence in Influencing China’s Future
An age-old view in US policy towards China is that it is important to influence or educate the Chinese youth, which will ultimately have an impact on the development of the country. This view implies that a education-based strategy would do much better than guns and battleships in maintaining a peaceful world. The remarkable US-China educational exchanges launched by President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping reflected the shared ideals of both countries.
But today in Washington, the post-Nixon stance on “engagement” with China was labeled naive or, at worst, a failure. For some US political leaders, the overarching view of bilateral education exchanges is no longer a view of hope for positive change through academic engagement. Instead, the concern is that Chinese youth, including students studying at American universities, are mainly brainwashed nationalists and weapons used by the CPC to undermine US power and interests.
However, as an American millennial who recently studied young people in China for many years be aware: “Refuse to admit that they [Chinese youth] being individuals with their own ideas, dreams, fears and desires is a particularly heartbreaking overview.” Similarly, Stephanie Studer, China correspondent for The Economist, recently observed that “young Chinese are both patriotic and socially progressive.” They have been more vocal in their support for LGBT and women’s rights, consumer rights, distributive justice, environmental protection and other social liberal policies.
For those Chinese students who have studied in the US, it is difficult to overestimate the generosity and openness of American educational and research institutions, not to mention the strong influence American society has on their views and values. At the same time, it is not difficult to understand that racial discrimination in certain corners of the United States significantly increases Chinese students’ support for the Chinese government and the party.
Policymakers in Washington need to ask themselves whether a deeper perception of American insensitivity and neglect of China’s vast young population helps promote or harm American values and interests. Strategically speaking, if America alienates China’s youth, what influence can the United States expect to have on China’s future evolution?