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Why Are Americans Afraid Of China?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We were talking about movies earlier in the program, so later we'll find out which movie rapper and actor Common could watch a million times. That's coming up. For now, though, we are continuing to focus on China in advance of President Obama's meeting with China's leaders. We wanted to conclude by putting some of the questions and concerns many Americans have about China to someone who knows the country well. He's Bruce Pickering. He's a vice president of Global Programs and executive director of the Asia Society, and he's with us now from San Francisco. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

BRUCE PICKERING: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Now you had a chance to listen to our program today. I think you hear both excitement and anxiety. A lot of people are excited about doing business with China, about China doing business with the U.S., but you also hear anxiety. And I'm - now as you travel across the country, I'm wondering what you think is the predominate attitude Americans have about China.

PICKERING: I think it's probably something closer to insecurity. I don't think they know exactly what to expect. They know that China is a rising power in Asia. They know that - and a rising power globally. They know that China has, in many ways, become the workshop of the world. And they know that they've - that America's position as the only real superpower no longer is as clear as it was even 10 years ago. So I think a lot of this is kind of an insecurity over what this portends for the United States itself.

MARTIN: What about the other way, Chinese attitudes toward the United States?

PICKERING: It's interesting. There's - they are sometimes rather contradictory. The Chinese quite - I think it's difficult to generalize. I mean, you're generalizing about a country of 1.3 billion people. But I think, you know, on one hand, there's great admiration for what the United States has accomplished. America has a long history - a long history in the last 300 years because of course we're young by Chinese standards, but we have a history of working in China, working with the Chinese. So on the one hand, I think there's a sense of positive belief that the United States actually represents something that the Chinese aspire to in terms of lifestyle and, frequently, how we go about our business, but there is also a negative side. There's also a belief in China amongst, I think, many, especially in the educated classes, that the United States is trying to hold back China, that the United States is afraid of what a strong China means. So those somewhat contradictory terms, I think, are often played out in the media, the press, and even private conversations.

MARTIN: You know, but there's also the human rights issue. For example, in advance of this meeting, we got news today that a Chinese-American businessman and engineer who specializes in catalytic converters and got involved in dispute with a Chinese competitor, he wasn't allowed to leave Shanghai for almost five years. You know, Americans hear stories like this and they're not sure what to believe. How do you think a story like this should be framed and discussed?

PICKERING: Well, I think, first of all, you know, China is not the United States. It doesn't have the same legal systems we do. It doesn't have the same governmental structure we do. So you have to be aware whenever you do business anywhere, whether it's Mexico or Great Britain or Canada, I mean, you're dealing with a different set of rules and regulations. That being said, I mean, one of the points that has been made to us consistently by commentators in Asia, which is something you don't hear much in the United States, is that much of our moral authority, much of our, I think, rule of law that the sort of - the intellectual and moral supremacy, that adherence to the rule of law we had was to some degree, and I think it's to some degree, was damaged by our use of, basically, torture techniques in Iraq. I mean, a lot of people don't want to call it that.

But these enhanced interrogation techniques were seen widely across Asia as torture, and that had an impact on how we're viewed as a moral actor on the world stage today. It's something we have to be aware of. But that being said, you know, that the rule of law still is paramount in the United States. It's still admired by many and by - you know, I think most people really do admire what the United States stands for. And in a case where this happens - you know, the business leader in China, there's - the problem we have is that there's a limit to how much you can really, really do. I mean, we're not - the United States Consulate in Shanghai can make a counsel representation, but at the end of the day, this guy, our businessman, is actually, you know, in the Chinese legal system and it's limited to what you can do about that.

MARTIN: And what about the whole question of workplace conditions? That's something I spoke about early with the mayor of Toledo, Michael Bell, and his argument, which is the argument that a lot of municipal leaders have - they have the same argument about American companies, by the way, when they go into different communities and sometimes communities don't welcome them as much as the companies wish they would or as much as local leaders wish they would. And they say, you know what, that's what the laws are for. But when you hear that the reporting that's coming out now about the working conditions in some sort of - in some Chinese factories, and a lot of Americans look at that and think, what's our responsibility here? And I'm curious about how that conversation plays out in China, recognizing, as of course you said, this is a very big country, that's a very big country, a much bigger country. But how are those, the kind of the American interest in the conditions of Chinese workers, how is that playing out overseas?

PICKERING: Well, we have - I think we have an interest. And the American consumer, by and large, I mean, there are sometimes competing priorities because the American consumer, on the one hand, wants inexpensive products. That's why the Chinese have, you know, so much of our trading has been with China is that they've been able to produce so many products Americans want comparatively inexpensively. And there is a concern, I think, on the part of companies that also, though, the American consumer doesn't just simply want products without any kind of ethical, you know, handling. And the more they know, of course, the more likely people are to make educated choices. So I think, when operating in Asia, given a choice, Americans would like to get low-cost products with ethical, you know, kind of ethical sourcing. And when information comes out, they tend to make decisions, I think, that move away from, you know, kind of workplace conditions that are inhuman or at least not very nice.

I think one critical point to make here is that China is evolving very fast.

I mean, it's hard for us understand because we've been a pretty settled power for quite a while. For China, coming from where it did in 1950, which was a real kind of low point where it really accounted for only about 6 percent of the global GDP, gross domestic product, to where it is now, it's an amazing evolution. It's very fast, and it was - I think you have to look back historically and say, well, in the United States, you know, it was a little erratic for long time until we set a - we created a sort of level playing field for our companies operating in the United States. So China's moving in that direction, but it's a very big country. The economic situation is moving very fast and what's true today will probably not be true in five years and hasn't been true - and what's true today wasn't true five years ago. So you have to kind of keep that sense of mobility in mind.

MARTIN: If you're just joining with us, I'm speaking with Bruce Pickering. He's a vice president at Global Programs and executive director for the Asia Society. What about the other way? Now that Chinese companies are buying stakes in American companies, in some cases buying up whole companies - I mean, their effort to buy Smithfield Hams is something that has gotten a lot of attention. What do we know about what happens when Chinese investors take over a company? Do they bring a lot of people with them? I mean, do their families stay here? What track record - what do we see from where Chinese businesspeople have taken over companies and established stakes in - elsewhere around the world?

I think, you know, in the United States we're used to thinking of the fact that well, when people come here, they become Americans. Their kids start eating pizza and arguing over curfew like everyone else. You know, that's just what happens. Kind of - what do we know about this?

PICKERING: Well, that's a good question. I think it's going to be different. You know, the Chinese have been very active in South America and Africa and other places, and they have tended to move. But they've tended to be - I think one gets the impression a bit more of an enclave. In the United States, it's a relatively new phenomenon. We just did a study - we've done two studies, actually, on inbound direct investment from China into the United States two years ago, and then into California this last year. In both cases, it's - the motivations are a little different because it's not resources so much as it's intellectual property that the Chinese are looking to. So if they come to California, they're likely involved in some element of either trade or investment and to things like technology industries, service, things like that. If they're moving to other states, it'll be heavier industry and things. But it all depends on what - I mean, they're businesses and they make rational business decisions. But part of the reason they're coming is that it's a stable investment platform.

They know that there's a rule of law, that intellectual property is protected, that it is a healthy environment for their families. And increasingly, China is facing some massive environmental issues, and so when they come to United States, you know, it's much more difficult to create an enclave. And I know that where I live, in the Bay Area, and of course in our area, we have a lot of incoming Chinese. They live in the neighborhoods. They send their kids to the schools. I mean, they're actually looking, I think, to re-create basically what Americans want, which is a kind of a good, solid, you know, middle-class lifestyle with the amenities that Americans have enjoyed. And I think that's - you're going to see a lot of that over time as they invest in companies across America.

MARTIN: A question which you might find sensitive, but I'm going ask it anyway. Often, people who have relationships with China - you heard from Mayor Michael Bell - kind of imply or say that there seems to be a level of bias associated with the hesitation that many people have about America's growing relationship with China. So I want to ask you, a - how much of it is bias and, b - is there something, rationally and appropriately, that Americans should be worried about as the ties with China get closer?

PICKERING: Well, you always have to be aware of the security concerns, and those are there and they're - but there is a mechanism, the Syphius mechanism, for dealing with that. And it's a pretty rational - from what I understand, it's a pretty rational mechanism that's relatively unbiased. I think part of the problem for Americans is we haven't really defined what we're looking for in an inbound direct investment from China, and a key element of this, of course, is jobs. I mean, the Chinese, if they invest in American companies are capitalizing those companies, they're creating wealth, they're creating jobs in America. And so they're reversing, in a lot of ways, the trade flows of the last 10, 20 years, where a lot of money has gone out of the United States without coming back in. And if one looks at - for example, I grew up in the central valley of California, which is, economically, still very depressed.

And on the one hand, there is concern - what do the Chinese mean when they come to California? What are they - why, you know, why are they coming? What are they bringing? But if you look at what they're purchasing, for example, in the central valley, if they invest in agriculture, which is something that the area needs now, I mean, they're going to be bringing jobs to an area that needs those jobs, and that's true all across the United States. So, a lot of this depends on how you look at it. If they're investing in a technology firm, sure, you do want to make sure that the laws and regulations are followed carefully but if they're investing in agriculture, there it's a pretty straightforward deal.

MARTIN: But what about national...


MARTIN: Forgive me, what about national security concerns?

PICKERING: Well those are going to be monitored carefully.

MARTIN: Is the main issue technology? Is the main issue technology transfers which then might be used in the aid of regimes that we don't support, with values that we do not support, for aggressive intentions? Is that the main concern?

PICKERING: I think that's what is on a lot of people's minds and certainly the cyber-security issues are in the forefront. But if a Chinese company's operating in America, it's operating under American laws and regulations. I mean, I think that's really important. They don't come and create a, you know, some kind of an alien presence. I mean, when they're actually in Silicon Valley or in Austin, Texas, or wherever they invest, I mean, they are subject to all the laws and regulations that any American company is involved with because they are operating in the United States. So I think we have to realize that it's probably a good thing in the long run that they do come here, because they are operating under a set of protocols that we, as Americans, understand pretty clearly, I think.

MARTIN: Finally, in the time that we have left, we have about a minute and a half left. You are immersed in this subject. You've spent time in both places, but what would you recommend to people who just want to know more? They are interested, they just want to know more about our relationship with China. They want to know more about China but they can't focus on it full time, as you do. What do you recommend?

PICKERING: Well, I think there's a wealth of sources out there. I mean, there's some terrific, I mean, I would say get involved in organizations like the Asia Society. We do a lot of work on this. And check our website out. But also, you know, read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, because they are full of - and the Economist Magazine - they are full of good information about it. And you do have to sort out all these different voices and there are, you know, there are a widespread, you know, wide range of ideas, but I think the most important thing is, keep an open mind and read as much as you can because there's a lot out there right now. And the enemy of this, of ignorance, is education.

MARTIN: You forgot to mention NPR, since we're, you know, sharing.

PICKERING: Oh, you know what, I always listen to NPR, every - I do, actually. So I'm really sorry.


MARTIN: Bruce Pickering is Vice President of Global Programs and Executive Director of the Asia Society. He was kind enough to join us from San Francisco. Bruce Pickering, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PICKERING: It was a real pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.