Though it is difficult to generalize about Beijing’s roughly 17 million residents, in the seven years I’ve been traveling to and from China, I have noticed similarities in the way Beijingers discuss international relations with strangers and acquaintances from the United States. For instance, cabbies, street sweepers, and businesspeople standing next to me in an elevator tend to employ stock lines when our conversation veers to the United States. In 2004, people would look at me strangely and ask, “What do you think about Little Bush attacking Iraq?” In 2006, conversation oddly centered on whether I was accustomed to Chinese food. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics and the environment monopolized the conversation. Many of these conversations had the undertone of “America is good” and “Why do you live in China when the United States is so rich?”
But lately a new tone has crept into conversations. It’s a mixture of pride, pity, and condescension, and it’s a result of the growing view that the US economy is going to hell in a hand basket. “Twenty percent of American homeowners [with mortgages] are facing foreclosure or are late on their payments,” a Shanghainese former banker told me, shaking his head. “Twenty percent,” he repeated. (The actual number was 12 percent in 2008, according to statistics the Mortgage Bankers Association released in March.) A Chinese scrap collector I interviewed last October for an article complained about the collapse of Lehman Brothers driving down the price of oil barrels. Standing outside her shack in a Beijing suburb, she reasoned that China would come out of the economic downturn unscathed. I’ve even met old ladies at fruit stands who, in the process of overcharging me for apples, have lectured me about the credit crisis debilitating the United States.
That’s not to say that the economic crisis hasn’t hit Beijing. In March 2009, a Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher stated that Beijing’s real estate prices will likely drop 15-20 percent this year. The same month, the World Bank revised China’s 2009 growth forecast from 7.5 percent to 6.5 percent, well below its official 13 and 9 percent real growth rates in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
But 6.5 percent growth is still fast, and the Chinese seem to be relishing their role as survivors. In a speech this March, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao said, “We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.” That a US Treasury Department spokesperson had to respond to these comments must have tickled some Chinese, who see the US attempt to placate China as a return to China’s rightful place in the center.
Many Chinese feel as though they’ve been fed a steady diet of foreign condescension ever since the First Opium War (1839-42) pried open the country. The Chinese who still revere Mao Zedong often do so because they believe he made China “stand up.”
Perhaps that is why many Chinese seem to feel more pride in China than pity for the United States as the US faces its worst economic crisis in decades. While in a coffee house, I sat next to a group of teenagers—China’s so-called “angry youth” (fenqing)—who giddily discussed how the United States is finished as a world power. A concierge at a fancy office building once pointed to a Rolls Royce in the parking lot and told me, “See? Chinese people are rich too!”
Maybe China has become the new land of opportunity. A common refrain I’ve heard from Americans here is, “I’m glad I’m not in the States.” Though some international companies have frozen hiring, there is still plenty of opportunity in a land expected to grow at 6.5 percent this year. And I imagine that teaching Chinese kindergartners the ABC’s for $20 an hour beats waiting tables in any US city. Twenty dollars in Beijing still goes a long way, especially when you consider that the average annual salary in Beijing hovers around $6,500. If the fruit-stand ladies ever give me a discount for being American, then I’ll know it really is a different era.
[author] Isaac Stone Fish is a freelance journalist who concentrates on Chinese media and culture issues. He is based in Beijing. [/author]