In China, What 's The Attitude On The Street About The U.S.?

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 8:12 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have results of an experiment. We asked people in China, what's one word that comes to mind when you think of America? And then we asked Americans about China. We've been hearing stories of people who connect the U.S. and China as the two pull apart. But what's the basic attitude on the street? In each country, we left the capital and traveled about an hour by train.

One of China's high-speed trains carried us to Langfang, a small city by Chinese standards. But the first impression getting off the train under the railway platform is how massive it is. High-rise apartment buildings over there and more high-rise apartment buildings off to the horizon as far as you can see. There are American brands in town - a Super 8 motel, a KFC. Although, we chose to eat Chinese for lunch in a dumpling shop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How about we order four different kinds, and we share?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

INSKEEP: Through our interpreter, we chatted with the couple at the next table.

Is there one word you would use to describe America?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Democracy.

INSKEEP: Is that a good thing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yes, I think.

INSKEEP: Why?

In a mix of Chinese and English, he said, any person who lives in this world deserves freedom. And democracy is meant to ensure it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Freedom.

INSKEEP: We're not mentioning the couple's names since their views could cause trouble for them in China. The woman said she finds President Trump more down-to-earth than China's leader, Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) President Trump likes to tweet a lot. And he seems to know how to get close to his people. Whereas, it's very different from our presidents, who doesn't do that and who are quite distant from us.

INSKEEP: The day we walked through Langfang was a holiday. And on a shopping plaza, people had set up a temporary court for kids' teams to play basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: In the crowd, we met a college freshman named Soong Sheeao Hahn. What's her one word to describe America?

SOONG SHEEAO HAHN: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: "Prosperity," she said. A short distance away, we met a woman in a bear costume. So we're interviewing a bear. She had to wear this costume while passing out flyers for work. Gao Sheen answered our questions through the little breathing hole in her bear head.

What is a word that, in your mind, describes America?

GAO SHEEN: (Through interpreter) A very developed country, especially with advanced technologies, so - developed.

INSKEEP: In 14 interviews with Chinese people on the street, we heard few negative words. Decades of Chinese propaganda, sometimes very critical of the U.S., seemed to have left little impression - except for one thing that we heard from Gung Sun. He was working behind the counter of a smoothie shop.

Do you think Americans like China?

GUNG SUN: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: "I don't think Americans like Chinese people," he says. "Chinese go to America, and Americans resent that the Chinese work so hard and so long." In the Langfang People's Park on this holiday, senior citizens played cards beneath the trees or spun this kind of giant yo-yo on the end of a string. A man named Jim said his word for America was open.

Do you have any connection to America?

JIM: I often listen to your radio, NPR.

INSKEEP: He showed us the NPR app on his phone, which he uses to practice hearing English. We heard a subtly different sentiment from a man nearby named Leow.

LEOW: (Through interpreter) America is a very rich country, that's my impression. But our country, China, in the near future, it will be that rich country too and maybe surpass America.

INSKEEP: So those were some words people offered for America in a Chinese city on a holiday. What words do Americans offer about China on a holiday in the U.S.? Memorial Day, to be exact. Our producer Amara Omeokwe took a train to Baltimore, Md.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Good morning, ladies and gentleman. In just a few moments, we'll be arriving at Baltimore's Penn Station. If Baltimore's your destination...

AMARA OMEOKWE, BYLINE: So we are here at the Baltimore waterfront. There are all kinds of boats here today - little boats shaped like Chinese dragons. And across the water, we see container ships and all kinds of large ships. Some of those ships carry cargo to and from China. That trade is on the mind of Willie Sadler. He's a college student, and he was strolling the waterfront with his friends.

What is the first word that comes to mind, Willie, when you think of China?

WILLIE SADLER: Tariffs. We got a trade war going on.

OMEOKWE: Sadler learned in economics class that trade barriers can be harmful. And he knows China owns a lot of U.S. debt.

SADLER: It's kind of like if you owe your parents money, and then you're going to try to play hardball with them. I just don't really think it's a smart tactic.

OMEOKWE: We spoke with more people down the waterfront just past an old sailing ship that's now a tourist attraction.

VALERIE YOUNG: My name is Valerie Young.

OMEOKWE: She's a government worker. And a pensive look crossed her face as she told us how she sees China.

YOUNG: Authoritarian, communist but still capitalist, no freedom of the press - so pretty serious human rights issues, but also a very, very big geopolitical and economic power.

OMEOKWE: Her 23-year-old son sometimes travels to China.

YOUNG: For leisure and curiosity and tourism. He lives and works in Singapore. And China is a - you know, a place of interest. But it's also always something that concerns me because sometimes people go there and disappear.

OMEOKWE: A few steps away, we met a man who had visited China.

When you think about China, what is the first word that comes to mind?

MARK MCCRACKEN: Large (laughter).

OMEOKWE: Mark McCracken was sitting in the shade of a tree having a snack with his son.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I like granola bars.

OMEOKWE: (Laughter) I like them too, buddy.

(LAUGHTER)

OMEOKWE: McCracken's work as a data analyst took him to Beijing and Shanghai.

MCCRACKEN: They really have massive roads and public infrastructure projects going on. And in many ways, a lot of it is brand new. So it's impressive compared to the U.S. in the sense that we have the infrastructure as well, but it's aging.

OMEOKWE: And a woman we met by the glittering harbor thought there's much China might teach the U.S.

RACHEL O'NEIL: A lot of my lab mates are from China.

OMEOKWE: Rachel O'Neil is getting a Ph.D. in immunology. She knows some worry about China's growing strength in science and technology. To her, it's more complicated.

O'NEIL: Anyone who's working on advancing science, especially in our field of cancer, is benefiting the whole field. And it doesn't bother me that it's from China or, you know, any small or large country. I just - the cure is better than not.

OMEOKWE: O'Neil is wrestling with the same question many people are - how can two great rivals overcome their differences and work together?

(SOUNDBITE OF SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "PEACE HOTEL")

INSKEEP: Our colleague Amara Omeokwe with American views of China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.