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Xi`s US Visit

Fear and longing

Chinese netizens’ “U.S. complex”

By Zheng CHANG, Visiting Academic Fellow, MERICS

Ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States, global attention has been focused on how top-level meetings shape this important bilateral relationship. However, the complexity of U.S.-China relations is also reflected in Chinese netizens' attitudes towards Washington: regarding military and national security issues, web users show a high degree of hostility towards the U.S. But in other aspects, such as the rule of law, education, culture or lifestyle, Chinese netizens recognize the United States as a role model.

This analysis is based on data from the Twitter-like microblogging platform Sina Weibo (198 million active users per month) as well as from public accounts using the instant messaging platform WeChat (459 million active users per month).

  • Weibo: Within a three-month period (10 June to 10 September 2015), using the keywords “Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit” (习近平访美) and “United States” (美国), 222 and 35908 posts respectively from Sina Weibo were identified with the help of a software tool from Thinker Workshop). The accumulated top 50 most forwarded and most commented were chosen for a qualitative content analysis.
  • WeChat: Having searched public content for “U.S.A.” (美国) via the data platform gsdata.cn, the accumulated top 50 most liked articles were included in the qualitative content analysis. 

Xi Jinping’s US-Visit: More cooperation, fewer challenges

Most discussed topics on Weibo

Within the overall discussion on Xi’s visit, Chinese netizens haven’t actively posted content themselves. The most widely commented and shared articles related to the visit have predominantly been accounts published by state media, e.g. from the Chinese edition of the newspaper “China Daily” or from the state TV, CCTV. Chinese netizens subscribe to a rather constructive view of China-U.S. relations. A piece stating that “China-U.S. relations are important for both sides” received the most comments and was most widely shared. While referencing major conflicts between Washington and Beijing like cyber security, territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, and turbulence in relation to the stock market and the currency, the article stresses that common ground and opportunities for cooperation, e.g. those related to climate change, prevail. Moreover, Chinese social media users also recognize the efforts of the Chinese leadership to ease conflict and seek compromise. Articles directly or indirectly criticising the United States, haven’t received as much attention, e.g. a link to a magazine article titled “The United States’ of America’s ‘decline’ and its counterattack”.  

Hegemon and role model – the U.S.A. in the eyes of Chinese Netizens

Placing the topic of Xi’s visit in the broader picture of netizens’ discussions on the United States, a striking contradiction appears: while Chinese netizens regard Washington as a geostrategic and military competitor, they praise the U.S. for its effective legal system and its value system based on freedom and pluralism.

Primary concern of Chinese netizens: U.S. hegemony

Although netizens didn’t react very strongly to state-induced discussions on U.S. hegemony related to Xi Jinping’s state visit, they nevertheless were strongly critical of U.S. hegemony. The most shared and commented post on Sina Weibo contains a video and reads “High resolution record of the whole story on September 11 in the United States, surely shocking!!” It displays the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center from various angles. The author of this post uses a movie-like title to play down a human disaster. In the comment section of this post, many netizens denounced U.S. “hegemony” and stated that it was Washington that was the main cause of this disaster.

Chinese netizens on the U.S.: hegemon and role model

Most shared and liked topics on Weibo and WeChat

In a similar fashion, the most liked article on WeChat also deals with U.S. hegemony, taking a slightly conspiratorial tone. The article is named “Reduction of soldiers in the U.S. army – actively giving up hegemony or preparation to rise again from the ashes?”Referring to the announcement that the U.S. army will reduce its ground forces by 2017, the writer of this article rejects the possibility that the U.S. is restraining itself. The logic of his argument is as follows:

“The reason is simple: the whole U.S. economy runs on a global hegemonic basis; its economic system, market capitalism, social welfare, military system (…). If its hegemony collapses, everything will collapse.”      

Even in the realm of economics, the most liked article also concerns U.S. hegemony. The article is a commentary on former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to China in August this year. In the author’s opinion, the main goal of her visit was to ask Beijing not to sell U.S. government bonds. The author contends that the Chinese government devalued the Renminbi with the purpose of selling off U.S. treasuries. Such a sell-off would shake a major pillar of the U.S. hegemony – the U.S. dollar.  

The Chinese people’s “American dream”

However, Chinese netizens don’t view Americans as their natural competitors. Apart from military and territorial, as well as economic, issues Chinese netizens tend to recognize, and in some cases even idolise, all other aspects of American society, e.g. legal system, education and lifestyle, as shown by In a Weibo post about a report by the federal investigation office on criminal offenses. The report contains many crime statistics and in the comment section almost none of the Chinese netizens criticised the public security situation. Quite the opposite, microbloggers complained only about similar problems in their home country. 

Even U.S. soldiers, removed from the context of territorial security and hegemony, were viewed in a much more sympathetic light. Three more articles praised the special skills of firemen, policemen and cowboys

There is similarly strong approval of America’s legal system. At least three Weixin articles tell the story of ten Chinese female students mistreating two other Chinese females. As they were brought to court, the parents of the offenders tried to bribe the witnesses, with the result that they were also arrested. For many netizens, the United States is a “mirror reference system” for China and a representative of justice and fairness. 

“Many rational people look at the United States and come to understand the strict and impartial law there. Bribery is illegal, court intervention is a crime, and there are far fewer attempts to make use of ‘human connections’!”

Even in relation to many details of everyday life, Chinese netizens accord research from the United States with a high level of authority. No matter whether it concerns the right age at which to marry, a good sleeping pill, or the relationship between loneliness and health, many posts tend to add “according to (an institute or a scholar) from the United States…”.  

In summary, when Xi Jinping embarks on his visit to the United States this week, the majority of Chinese people will – out of fear of U.S. hegemony – be firmly in favour of Xi Jinping taking a strong stance in relation to any military aspects. But citizens’ equally widespread approval of American political values and lifestyle symbols may also pose a challenge to the Chinese leadership. Indeed, ordinary Chinese might demand that Beijing govern according to their imagined “American Dream”.   

The Author

  • Stiftung Mercator