Panda-Huggers and Dragon-Slayers:
What They Have in Common
The perception of China among Western elites has long been split between two factions: Panda-Huggers who express good will and Dragon-Slayers who bear malice.
Translated By Diana Xin
30 May 2013
Edited by Bora Mici
China - Huanqiu - Original Article (Chinese)
There is no lack of drama between China and the U.S., the two great world powers. First, American scholar Ezra Vogel’s new book, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” roused heated debate. Shortly after, Joe Biden’s commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania stirred widespread discussion. However, there was quite a disparity between the two men’s opinions.
Vogel’s book gave high praise to China’s former leader, while Biden’s speech criticized China’s advancements, stating that China was far from being able to compete with the U.S. This mixture of praise and disparagement reveals America’s different spheres of thought toward China.
The perception of China among Western elites has long been split between two factions: Panda-Huggers who express good will and Dragon-Slayers who bear malice. There are deep social and historical reasons for both viewpoints.
Early Interactions and Perceptions
The first Americans who arrived in China were businessmen, mariners and missionaries. At that time, China was like a distant mirage. Faced with hundreds of millions of heathens, the missionaries found an incredible opportunity to glorify God. Faced with hundreds of millions of consumers, the businessmen believed they had found a vast, untapped marketplace.
The U.S. entered China slightly later than Europe and was thus in a disadvantaged position. In order to expand its influence and standing in China, the U.S. initiated the Open Door Policy and actively sought to cultivate talented Chinese figures. Although this effort arose from America's own personal interest, it nevertheless benefited China as well. Many of China’s most important leaders in the early 20th century were educated and trained by Americans.
The U.S. has long held a unique ideology, believing that it was called to spread democracy and freedom to the rest of the world. In the eyes of the American elite in the early 1900s, China was like a patch of fertile land, both savage and civilized, waiting to be saved. However, the U.S. had no prior example of its ideology lived out successfully. In the early 1900s, former U.S. colony Liberia continued to be in disastrous straits.
In China, the U.S. finally found a land ready to be indoctrinated with American ideology. In the early 1900s, some American elites believed that the U.S. had a responsibility to act as guardian for China. This sentiment did not stem entirely from utilitarian thought, but was also rooted in idealism. Although the idea of the “Yellow Terror” did exist then, it was not mainstream in U.S. society.
Perception of China after the Dissolution of the 'China Hands' and the Dissemination of Popular Media
The U.S. elite’s next step in determining Chinese policy and perception depended on a group of diplomats, journalists and foreign service officers who had a deep understanding of China. They were referred to as a group as the “China Hands.” They were fluent in Chinese; some of them even grew up in China, holding a deep affinity for the country. Among this group were U.S. diplomat John Service, military officer John Paton Davies, Jr. and reporter Theodore White. Using today’s definition, the U.S. elites of that time could all be called Panda-Huggers. This should not be seen as unusual; back then, China represented an entirely new and fascinating culture and presented zero threat to the U.S. There was no reason for Dragon-Slayers to exist.
During World War II, China played an important role in U.S. military strategy. Back then no one dared to place their hopes on the unfinished atomic bomb; indeed, many officials in charge of military strategy did not even know the Manhattan Project existed. Thus, the first U.S. step in battling the Japanese was to purge China of the Japanese military, making China a military base. At the same time, China also fought a number of Japanese troops, costing Japan supplies and resources. This was a great boon for U.S. troops fighting in the Pacific.
Because of this, the U.S. government sent many diplomats and military officers to aid China in its war efforts. The “China Hands” frequently acted as a center of operations for these teams. The U.S. government and media also worked tirelessly to improve China’s image at home, persuading citizens to support China’s war efforts.
Because of internal corruption and power struggles within the Chinese Nationalist Party during World War II, the China Hands began to lose faith in the nationalist government after the war. At the same time, the Dixie Mission, led by David Barrett to inspect Yan’an and other regions with guerrilla warfare, caused the China Hands to gradually believe that the Communist Party was better-suited for ruling the country. China Hands within the government wrote a lengthy report requesting that the U.S. government establish contact and offer support to the Chinese Communist Party, winning the party over to the American side. The report also sharply criticized the Nationalist Party. Some China Hands believed that, at the very least, the U.S. should boost up the Communist Party to push the Nationalist Party to exercise more caution. Believing that the Nationalist Party would not burn down the house to catch a mouse, the U.S. thought this would promote a joint government between the two parties. The Communist Party also avidly expressed good will toward the U.S.; the Xinhua News Agency had no shortage of flattery for the U.S. that year.
However, American officials, who did not have enough of an understanding of China, were not aware of its emerging social problems, nor did they realize the severity of the Nationalist Party’s internal issues. Many American political elites also misunderstood communism, assuming that all communist parties would join forces with the Soviet Union. As a result, they gave up building connections with the Chinese Communist Party.
After World War II, the U.S. government continued to be extremely dissatisfied with the problems within the Nationalist Party — like when the head of government blatantly coveted U.S. military aid — but also did not wish to see civil war in China. Yet when the Nationalist Party resolutely declared war, the U.S. chose to stand on its side. The outcome of the war was not what U.S. officials had foreseen. Instead, the China Hands saw their predictions confirmed.
The support of the U.S. for the Nationalist Party, as well as long-standing bias, prevented the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party from establishing good relations. Instead, they began down a path of antagonism.
When the new China was established, the exceptional ideology of the U.S. suffered the biggest failure in its history. Political elites could not figure out where they had gone wrong. They had worked painstakingly and devoted so many human and physical resources to the country, yet they had still “lost China.” Thus, a discussion of “who had lost China” began to circulate in the U.S. political sphere. The China Hands, who once spoke up for the Communist Party only to get shot down, were now seen as “communist subversives.” They were subjected to deportation and even persecution. Many China Hands underwent long-term investigations and interrogations and were banned from taking any positions in the government or the military.
Suddenly, no one in the U.S. political arena dared to speak well of China. Overnight, Panda-Huggers were banished from the government; with their opposing viewpoint, Dragon-Slayers rushed to the stage. Theories about the threat China posed began to permeate political circles.
U.S. officials with the greatest knowledge of China saw the end of their political careers as they were expelled from government; a great rift occurred in the American understanding of China. The events that followed — the Korean War, the Sino-Indian Self-Defense War and the Sino-Soviet conflict — were all misinterpreted by U.S. political circles. It was not until the 1970s that the situation began to improve.
During this time, portrayals of China among U.S. citizens were primarily of danger and poverty. This led to the many strange perceptions that U.S. citizens have long held about China, with some believing that communist China was constantly plotting to destroy the U.S., and others thinking that China was so poor, newly arrived Chinese students had to learn how to use the television. Of course, there were also many Americans who were sympathetic to the Chinese, providing great assistance to Chinese international students.
The New American Understanding of China
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union appeared to have gained the upper hand in the Cold War. After witnessing the drama that played out on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the U.S. also began to understand that the Communist Party was not one big monolith; each country had its own needs and aspirations. In 1972, the U.S. and China extended the olive branch so that the U.S. could make a breakthrough in the world political stage and China could maintain its autonomy, while making urgently needed improvements. Only then did the people of the two countries rekindle their acquaintance, slowly deepening their understanding of one another over time.
Today, the U.S. has an intellectually polarized society. Elite members have a deep understanding of the global community, while the general populace has little interest in international affairs. A television station once took an unlabeled world map and asked people on the streets to locate South Korea and North Korea. Most of the people queried could not complete the task. One person said that New Zealand was the South and Australia was the North and then expressed bewilderment that the two countries were so different in size.
The impression most Americans have of China is equally varied. Because of the serious lack of understanding, all sorts of viewpoints and opinions exist. Some Americans believe that Chinese people still sport braided queues, pencil mustaches and bamboo coolie hats. When the U.S. company Electronic Arts released “Command and Conquer: Generals” in 2003, many Chinese characters who appeared in the video game bore this image. Many Americans also noticed that most of their merchandise was made in China and so believe that China has undoubtedly become the world’s most powerful country.
In addition to this, there are still some elderly Americans living under the old ideology. For instance, when a school in California began to offer Chinese education, a Vietnam War veteran began to protest outside the building, believing that the adoption of “communist Chinese” textbooks was an affront to American ideology and an indisputable sign of communist brainwashing.
Generally speaking, however, the majority of Americans have gained a deeper understanding of China in recent years. When I went to the U.S., I was surprised to find that most Americans I encountered knew how to use chopsticks. Given our globalized community, academics, businessmen and experts of all social circles have developed a fuller understanding of China. The Chinese government has also founded many Confucian schools and dispatched primary school Chinese teachers to promote Chinese education and cultural exchange. It is unlikely that the next generation of Americans will still hold a late Qing dynasty image of Chinese people.
Where Panda-Huggers and Dragon-Slayers Meet
After re-establishing diplomatic relations with China, Kissinger became the representative of the new generation of Panda-Huggers. However, U.S. politicians still developed their knowledge of China from information collected by the general population. In the beginning, both countries viewed each other with a sense of mystification, but mutual understanding deepened with the passage of time. For example, Americans at first did not know how to interpret the Chinese term “guanxi” and could only give it a transliteration in English. Now Americans understand that “guanxi” is just another form of what they call “social connection.” The term “guanxi” is also seen less frequently now, as more and more books about China have been published with the growth of the Chinese economy.
If we say that the last generation of Panda-Huggers had a true affinity and affection for China and the last generation of Dragon-Slayers rose out of a perceived threat toward their ideology, then the new generations of Panda-Huggers and Dragon-Slayers both emerge out of a sense of practicality, as they look for ways to benefit the U.S. China is now a country important enough to influence the world, with an agenda that both complements and contradicts America's own interests.
Some critics have said that Vogel’s book exaggerated Deng Xiaoping’s better qualities. This is not a new critique for Vogel, as readers of his last book, “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America,” also said that he had overly praised Japan. Vogel’s flattery of foreign countries does not represent his love for these countries but rather his desire to spur America’s own advancement. Similarly, in his book chapter “China for a Day (But Not Two),” three-time Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman is not really expressing approval of China’s authoritarian government but highlighting his dissatisfaction with the U.S. government’s inefficient decision-making. Panda-Huggers embrace China only so that they can use China to push the U.S. to advance and maintain its supremacy.
Although Biden’s recent speech makes him sound like a Dragon-Slayer, his standpoint does not differ much from Vogel’s. His attack of China stems from his desire to motivate graduates to confidently and diligently forge ahead to maintain America's number one status. Similarly, American politicians who advocate for Chinese containment and Tibetan, East Turkestan and Taiwanese independence do not despise China, but only hope that the U.S. can subdue China and retain its advanced position.
There are also many people caught between the two factions, wavering in their opinions. Former U.S. ambassador and presidential candidate John Huntsman, Jr. maintained very friendly relations with China when he served as governor of Utah. He adopted children from China and also had his biological children study Chinese. He avidly sought to increase trade with China, and he was very supportive of local Chinese communities. However, during his presidential campaign, he also declared that the U.S. could rely on China’s Internet generation to take down China, securing the competitive edge of the U.S.
Regardless of whether the U.S. praises or criticizes China, we need not take its words too seriously. When it talks about China, its eyes are nevertheless on itself. As the last few presidents have demonstrated, presidential candidates all criticize China during campaign season and then become “China’s old buddy” after taking office, only to be accused of being soft on China by the following presidential candidates. And so the cycle repeats. It is unnecessary to hope for politicians with a truly deep affection for China to take the stage. They will always stand with the U.S. and work only in the interest of the U.S.
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