The Evolution of U.S. Images of China

The Evolution of U.S. Images of China – Statistical Data Included

Michael G. Kulma


Over the years, the academic community has been deluged with a vast literature that provides various perspectives on U.S. foreign policy toward China and Sino-American relations. A new generation of scholarship includes the perceptual approach to the study of Chinese foreign policy. What is lacking, however, is a study that examines the role of perception in the formation of U.S. China policy. In this article, I trace the evolution of U.S. images of China from 1969 to the present, from the perceptual perspective of international conflict.

The perceptual approach assumes that state interaction is a function of how an issue is perceived by foreign policy decision makers. It is an orientation that acknowledges the role of such variables as motivation, personality, bureaucratic pressures, and other factors that influence the actions of states within the international political system. The perceptual system builds mental representations through the use of psychological mechanisms, one of which categorizes an object or situation based on elements or attributes that are shared with similar phenomena, objects, and persons. The products of this psychological mechanism, or categorization, are mental representations in the form of images, which have been found to influence the decisions of those responsible for the formulation of foreign policy. There have been a number of image categorizations offered in the literature; table 1 contains a typology of images that is based on the rhetorical forms used by political leaders with respect to their opponents.

TABLE 1 Foreign Countries’ Images as Perceived by Chinese Leaders

Perceptions of Selected

Characteristics of the Countries

Position as

Country’s Threat to

Relationship or Opportunity

to China for China Motivation Capability

Enemy Threat Aggressive Equal, but

paper tiger

Ally Opportunity Cooperation Strong

Degenerate Opportunity Declining Weak

Barbarian Threat Expansionist Stronger

Imperial I

* Dependent Opportunity Government Weak

* Third World Opportunity Insurgents Supported?

Imperial II Same as Imperial I but Imperial II country is

not as involved

Complex Not a strong image but one attributes some

facets to it

Perceptions of Selected

Characteristics of the



Relationship Decision

to China Process Culture

Enemy Monolithic/ Equal


Ally Democratic About equal

Degenerate Corrupt Falling apart

Barbarian Monolithic Inferior

Imperial I

* Dependent Weak Inferior

* Third World Monolithic Inferior

Imperial II


The most prominent source of the messages that form images is the media (Gallup 1995). The press is important because “the pictures presented in the news media represent the unobserved reality in the foreign policy area for most of the mass public. They are the raw information ingredient that enters in the process of public opinion formation” (Chang 1993). In turn, public opinion has been found to influence those responsible for foreign policy formation. In his research on public opinion and U.S. foreign policy, Eugene Wittkopf noted that “beliefs impact on the nation’s foreign policy by contributing to a `climate of opinion’ that contributes to a president’s ability to realize his foreign policy objectives” (1990).

With regard to China, an examination of public opinion polls reveals public attitudes toward the issue of China in U.S. foreign relations from 1950 to 1971. Conducted by Gallup, Harris, Minnesota, and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the polls measured the public’s feelings related to China’s admission into the United Nations. The results of the polls are summarized in table 2. As noted by Tsan-Kuo Chang, the results are significant because they demonstrate that “public opinion toward China was adamant in refusing to award China any sense of legitimacy or authority during the first 22 years of Sino-American relations” (1993). It is also evident from the table, however, that American attitudes toward China have changed gradually, but favorably, over time. More important, American public opinion toward China, shaped by the press’s reporting of Sino-American relations, ultimately became positive, at least until the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 (table 3).

TABLE 2 Public Opinion Polls Concerning Admission of Beijing into the United Nations, 1950-1971(a)

Polling Favor Oppose

Date Organization admission (%) admission (%)

July 1950 Gallup 11 58

November 1953 NORC 12 74

March 1954 NORC 11 79

July 1954 Gallup 7 78

August 1954 Gallup 8 79

June 1955 Gallup 10 67

September 1955 Gallup 17 71

July 1956 Gallup 11 74

August 1956 Minnesota 13 70

September 1956 NORC 17 73

February 1957 Gallup 13 70

February 1958 Gallup 17 66

August 1958 Minnesota 24 59

September 1958 Gallup 20 63

October 1960 Minnesota 21 69

March 1961 Gallup 20 64

May 1961 Minnesota 27 59

September 1961 Minnesota 19 69

October 1961 Gallup 18 65

October 1962 Minnesota 15 76

February 1964 Gallup 15 71

June 1964 Harris 10 73

November 1964 Gallup(b) 23 57

March 1965 Gallup 22 64

August 1965 Minnesota 26 63

January 1966 Gallup 22 67

April 1966 Gallup 25 55

June 1966 Harris 37 63

October 1966 Gallup 25 56

December 1966 Minnesota 30 59

December 1968 Minnesota 34 56

February 1969 Gallup 33 54

May 1969 Minnesota 37 55

October 1970 Gallup 35 49

May 1971 Gallup 45 38

Polling No

Date Organization opinion (%)

July 1950 Gallup 31

November 1953 NORC 14

March 1954 NORC 10

July 1954 Gallup 15

August 1954 Gallup 13

June 1955 Gallup 23

September 1955 Gallup 12

July 1956 Gallup 15

August 1956 Minnesota 17

September 1956 NORC 10

February 1957 Gallup 17

February 1958 Gallup 17

August 1958 Minnesota 17

September 1958 Gallup 17

October 1960 Minnesota 10

March 1961 Gallup 16

May 1961 Minnesota 14

September 1961 Minnesota 12

October 1961 Gallup 17

October 1962 Minnesota 9

February 1964 Gallup 14

June 1964 Harris 17

November 1964 Gallup(b) 21

March 1965 Gallup 14

August 1965 Minnesota 11

January 1966 Gallup 11

April 1966 Gallup 20

June 1966 Harris —

October 1966 Gallup 19

December 1966 Minnesota 11

December 1968 Minnesota 10

February 1969 Gallup 13

May 1969 Minnesota 8

October 1970 Gallup 16

May 1971 Gallup 17

Source: T. Chang, The Press and China Policy: The Illusion of Sino-American Relations, 1950-1984 (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1993).

(a) The phraseology in different polls varied slightly.

(b) Entries are average of Gallup and Harris polls conducted in November.

TABLE 3 Public Opinion of China (in percentages)

Overall Perception

of China

Year Favorable Unfavorable

1973 49 43

1974 NA NA

1975 28 58

1976 20 73

1977 26 52

1978 21 67


of relations

1979 65 25

1980 70 26

1981 NA NA

1982 NA NA

1983 43 52

1984 NA NA

1985 71 25

1986 NA NA

1987 65 28

1988 NA NA

1989 72 13



1989 31 58

1990 39 47

1991 35 53

1993 53 39

1994 40 53

Sources: H. Harding. A Fragile Relationship: The United States and China since 1972 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992), and Gallup Poll Monthly, March 1994.

The main idea here is that media content and public opinion reinforce the images held by those responsible for the formation of foreign policy. Table 4 summarizes how the perceptions of the press compare with the images of China seen through the eyes of U.S. presidents during a thirty-five-year period. As expected, these results correspond to the patterns and trends of public opinion toward China from 1950 to 1971 (table 2).

TABLE 4 Perceptions of China during Various Administrations

Group and Administration


of Perception Truman Eisenhower Kennedy Johnson


Negative 38.9% 24.0% 26.6% 23.9%

Neutral 61.1% 76.0% 73.4% 75.4%

Positive 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.7%

Total number

of paragraphs 72 183 94 142



difference -38.9 -24.0 -26.6 -23.2


Negative 15.1% 8.8% 13.0% 12.3%

Neutral 84.6% 91.0% 85.9% 86.2%

Positive 0.3% 0.2% 1.1% 1.6%

Total number

of paragraphs 1,613 4,068 370 1,222



difference -14.8 -8.6 -11.9 -10.7


Negative 37.9% 26.3% 35.0% 11.3%

Neutral 61.8% 73.1% 64.2% 86.9%

Positive 0.2% 0.6% 0.8% 1.8%

Total number

of paragraphs 427 1,136 123 327



difference -37.7 -25.7 -34.2 -9.5

Group and Administration


of Perception Nixon Ford Carter Reagan


Negative 2.1% 0.0% 0.2% 0.0%

Neutral 87.4% 95.4% 93.7% 88.6%

Positive 10.5% 4.6% 6.1% 11.4%

Total number

of paragraphs 621 109 429 306



difference 8.4 4.6 5.9 11.4%


Negative 0.8% 0.7% 1.1% 0.2%

Neutral 97.1% 98.5% 95.6% 96.8%

Positive 2.1% 0.7% 3.4% 3.0%

Total number

of paragraphs 2,994 548 1,488 1,212



difference 1.3 0.0 2.3 2.8


Negative 1.6% 6.3% 8.3% 6.8%

Neutral 91.8% 92.3% 85.5% 89.5%

Positive 6.7% 1.4% 6.1% 3.7%

Total number

of paragraphs 631 142 228 190



difference 5.1 -4.9 -2.2 -3.2

Source: T. Chang. The Press and China Policy: The Illusion of Sino-American Relations, 1950-1984 (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993).

Notes: Entries are percentages of paragraphs in the presidential documents (N = 1,956) and in the New York Times and the Washington Post (N = 16,719). Paragraphs with no perception were excluded. Because of rounding error, column percentages may not add up to 100. Overall perception refers to the difference between percentages of positive and negative paragraphs. Positive entries indicate the government had a favorable perception of China, and vice versa.

The image of China held by four U.S. presidents–Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson–can best be described as highly negative and adversarial during the first two decades of its existence as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In fact, Chang has asserted that “[these] four presidents, both Democrat and Republican, never used anything positive to describe China in their policy pronouncements” (1993). Over the years, however, China was portrayed in a more positive manner. The culmination of such a change in the perception of China can be traced to the Nixon administration, whose China policy initiative led to the establishment in 1979 of full diplomatic relations between the two countries. Subsequently, the image of China held by U.S. foreign policy decision makers has been fairly positive. Having made that point, I will devote the remainder of this article to a historical overview of U.S China policy, my objective being to trace the evolution of U.S. images of China from 1969 to the present.

1969 -1976

Before 1969, as my brief, initial discussion suggests, relations between these two giants were viewed as anything from “enemy” to “gradually improving.” But Richard Nixon had an agenda, and in 1969 efforts moved toward normalization.

How did images of China change from 1969 to 19727 There were a number of important variables involved. First, there was the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency. Nixon’s stance as a staunch anticommunist would give him leeway in negotiating with Communist China, as opponents would be hard-pressed to label him “soft on communism.” Second, a gradual changing of the old Chinese guard was under way. As a result, China began an open-door policy in an attempt to excel as other countries in the region had already done. Third, Soviet actions in Europe and Asia threatened the Chinese, leaving them open to U.S. advances toward normalization.

In April 1971, the Chinese government invited the U.S. table-tennis team to visit the PRC, and with that there was a significant change in the image of China presented to the public. Chinese leaders heralded U.S. acceptance as turning a new page in the relations between the two countries. Encouraged by the White House, the visit led to a marked change in public opinion, as for the first time the majority of Americans favored the PRC’s acceptance into the United Nations (table 2). “Of thirty-three newspapers reviewed by the State Department, the vast majority concurred with these changed public attitudes, declaring in favor of seating Peking in the United Nations–though without Taiwan’s expulsion” (Kusnitz 1984; see figures 1 and 2).

FIGURE 1 Press Opinion on Seating China in the UN in Kennedy’s First Year

Opposed to PRC Admission


Birmingham News

Boise Statesman

Buffalo News

Burlington Free Press

Catholic Men

Charleston (SC) News

Chicago American

Chicago News

Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Tribune

Cincinnati Enquirer

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

Dallas News

Detroit Free Press

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

Hearst Newspapers

Houston Chronicle

Houston Post

Human Events

Indianapolis Star


Los Angeles Times

Manchester Union Leader

Memphis Commercial Appeal

Milwaukee Journal

Nashville Banner

National Review

Newark News

New Orleans Times-Picayune

New York News

New York Times

Oakland Tribune

Portland Oregonian

Richmond Times Dispatch

St. Louis Globe-Democrat

Salt Lake City Desert News

San Diego Union

Saturday Evening Post

Savannah Press

U.S. News and World Report

Wall Street Journal

Wichita Eagle

Wilmington News

In Favor of PRC UN Admission

Charlotte Observer


Dayton News

Denver Post

Des Moines Register

Honolulu’s Star Bulletin

Louisville Courier-Journal

New Republic

New York Post

Providence Journal

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

San Francisco Chronicle

Worcester Telegram

Source: Special Report on American Opinion: “Public Attitudes during 1961 on Seating Red China in the UN,” 21 September 1961, Foster Papers, Box 33 (Kusnitz 1984).

FIGURE 2 Press Opinion on the “CHIREP” Question in Mid-1971

In favor of seating Peking and not expelling Taipei

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Baltimore Sun

Christian Science Monitor

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Denver Post

Hearst Newspapers

Houston Post

Kansas City Star

Los Angeles Times

Louisville Courier-Journal

Milwaukee Journal

New Orleans Times-Picayune

New York Post

New York Times

Newark News

Norfolk Pilot

Philadelphia Inquirer

Providence Journal

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Salt Lake City Tribune

Scripps-Howard Newspapers

Wall Street Journal

Washington Journal

In favor of seating Peking (no mention of Taipei)

Miami Herald

Opposed to seating Peking in UN

Boston Herald Traveler

Chicago Tribune

Cincinnati Enquirer

Dallas News

Richmond Times-Dispatch

St. Louis Post-Democrat

Source: U.S. Opinion Survey 2 (May 1971), Foster Papers, Box 13.

Note: List refers only to those periodicals with explicitly defined editorial policies. The list is meant to be representative, not exhaustive (Kusnitz, 1984).

Washington followed up on these events with further advances. In July 1971, Henry Kissinger secretly visited China on President Nixon’s behalf. The government also pressured U.S. oil companies contemplating drilling off China’s coast to consider Chinese concerns. During that time, American newspapers displayed China in a more favorable light. This leads me to propose that the image of China was changing from that of the consummate enemy to something akin to an ally (witness changing motivation and opportunity assessments). Thus was created a climate of opinion that allowed for Nixon’s next major step: a trip to China.

July 1971 brought the announcement that Nixon would visit China. Regarding rapprochement, Kissinger observed, “If the initiative failed we would soon find ourselves on the public defensive for having failed to seize the opportunity of improving Sino-U.S. relations” (1979). This example provides an opportunity to look at the influence of the mass media on public opinion and public opinion’s subsequent effect on foreign policy decision making. The mass media covered the slowly unfolding drama in such a positive way that public opinion shifted from the view of China as an enemy image to something approaching an ally. This understanding among the American public was at least one of the preconditions for continuing efforts toward a more cooperative relationship.

Although some publications (including Readers Digest) still portrayed China

in an unfavorable light, the majority did not (Kusnitz 1984; see figure 2). Thus, we see support for Kusnitz’s earlier prerequisites for an association between public opinion and foreign policy: First, the views of the majority are reflected in the overall policy of the government (see table 2). Second, there was a significant change in public opinion. In April 1972, for example, in a poll of Minnesota residents, 31 percent reported that their impressions of the mainland had changed, and 29 percent said that they were more favorably inclined following the Nixon visit (Kusnitz 1984). That shift was accompanied by like-directional policy moves. Third, the harmony between public opinion and the government’s policy results from the symbiotic relationship between the government and the public’s preferences.

The issuance of the Shanghai Communique in February of 1972 lent further support to the changing image and the interrelatedness of the components I have mentioned. This communique laid the groundwork for U.S.-China relations over the course of the next few years. Most important, the United States pledged to eventually remove its forces from Taiwan and acknowledge that there was but one China. Contacts with the mainland increased throughout 1972 and 1973, as the United States placed Chinese trade on the same level as that of the Soviet Union and ended the ban on U.S. commercial ship and air contact with China. (Kusnitz 1984). Further, liaison offices were established in the U.S. and Chinese capitals.

Shangming Su found that “News stories praising Chinese society were concentrated in the first two years following Nixon’s visit to China (1991). We see three image trends during the period: the euphoric (ally), the mixed (complex), and the negative (enemy) (Su 1991). The Chinese were described variously as “friendly, healthy, and industrious.” Others said, “More striking still, there are no queues in Peking of the sort that still spring up automatically in Moscow” (Alsop, New York Times Magazine, 11 Mar. 1973). Stanley Karnow noted a “traditional proclivity for finding positive virtue in foreign nations with which the U.S. establishes a relationship, however expedient” (Su 1991).

The mixed image spread across the period 1972-76 presented some good and some bad aspects of Chinese society. Berger reported that a common Chinese farmer “has such luxuries as a single bare electric light bulb … and a water faucet he shares with his neighbors…. But he leaves no doubt he is a contented one … “(Berger, Washington Post [WP], 25 Feb. 1973). Barbara Tuchman observed that “there is no sense of pressure or tension in the air,” but said, “The most obvious negative aspect of the process is the mental monotone imposed upon the country” (Tuchman, New York Times [NYT], 6 Sept. 1972).

Euphoric images of China were present in the early stages of this time period, but negative images became more prevalent as, closer to 1976, more reliable information began to flow out of China. One should remember that the information received in 1972 came from a society that had been closed off from the United States for twenty-two years. Thus, knowledge of people and events was second hand and rudimentary at best. The majority of negative news reports focused “on the subjects of education and the life of the Chinese youth” (Su 1991). In describing the lives of the Chinese elite, John Burns noted a number of their luxuries: “Curtained limousines, sumptuous banquets, exclusive recreational facilities, access to special trains and aircraft, salaries five to ten times those of average workers” (NYT, 23 Jan. 1974). On restrictions of freedom, Henry Hayward described “birth control and late marriage, compulsory political indoctrination sessions for everyone, strict rationing of food, clothing, bicycles, radio and television sets, and ordinary household items” (Christian Science Monitor [CSM], 26 Feb. 1972). Such comments are indicative of newspaper articles in the later half of the time period. Thus it comes as no surprise to find that there was a return to a majority disapproval of China in public opinion polls (table 3).

Further hindering change in the U.S. image of China were three conditions set forth by the Chinese as necessary for normalization. The United States was to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan, abrogate the Mutual Defense Treaty (granting U.S. protection of Taiwan), and withdraw all U.S. forces from Taiwan. Those demands, combined with the negative press and consequent public opinion, slowed the growth of the U.S. public’s positive image of China. Those issues would continue to provide sticking points in high-level government exchange.


President Ford cut ties with Taipei, and Jimmy Carter entered the presidency as something of an unknown quantity on China. Carter pledged not to sacrifice or abandon Taiwan, however, and that campaign promise kept him closely tied to the image of China being portrayed in the press and thus the image held by the American public.

Kusnitz said of Carter that despite campaign rhetoric, “[h]e was clearly interested in cutting the Gordian knot and finding a way to recognize Peking as the government of all China” (1984). Carter reportedly searched for a formula that would allow him to establish relations with the PRC (Boston Globe, 7 July 1977). At the same time that the United States held Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union, the Chinese continued to demand satisfaction of their three conditions, and there seemed little support from either Congress or the public to end relations with Taiwan (table 3). Thus, the image moved neither here nor there: If Carter were to follow public opinion, the two-China policy seemed destined to remain.

In July 1978 the normalization process began in earnest. The United States closed two of three U.S. International Communications Agency offices, began withdrawing troops from Taiwan, and reduced military credits. High-level officials such as Zbigniew Brzezinski began to push for normalized relations. The U.S. government informed Jimmy Shen, the nationalist ambassador, that he would be the last Republic of China ambassador in Washington. On 15 December 1978, in a television address to the nation, President Carter announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the PRC. A closer look at events occurring in China will perhaps shed some light on Carter’s decision.

In China, at that time, there was remarkable change after the death of Mao Zedong and the arrest of the Gang of Four. For the first time in years, the Communist Party criticized itself, blaming the Gang of Four for the misdeeds of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Efforts began to liberalize policy, as the need for an increase in people’s standard of living became apparent. Books, movies, and music banned during the Cultural Revolution began to resurface. A further opening to the world was envisioned. But that all had to be taken with a grain of salt by a people who had come to expect the unexpected, as government policy changed from day to day. How closely was this dramatic change in Chinese policy paralleled by images in the American press and changes in public opinion?

During the Carter years the media mainly presented two images, rather than the three I discussed earlier. Gone was the euphoric image of earlier relations. In its place sprang an image of “life returning to normal after the Cultural Revolution and a negative image of the social, economic, and political aspects of Chinese life” (Su 1991). The normal image represented during that time period focused almost entirely on cultural aspects of Chinese life (Su 1991). Talking about the arts in China during that time, Frederic A. Moritz wrote that China was “relaxing the reins” but that “art is not to become a means for expressing social tensions and frustrations. Instead it is to remain firmly in the service of the Communist Party” (Moritz, CSM, 6 Mar. 1978).

Poverty and deprivation are continuing themes, enhanced by the increasing flow of valid information. Accounts variously described China as a “poor country where almost everything is in short supply” (Monro, WP, 1977), a country in which a team of writers “found one 10-year-old girl who had to sleep on a closet floor,” and one whose farming was so backward that it seemed to be “a mass of humanity slowly eating away at a hillside like the proverbial ants” (Roberts, WP, 31 Dec. 1978). Such statements reveal the connection between mass media and public opinion. As table 3 shows, public opinion regarding China was still negative. How can that be justified in light of the three keys Kusnitz suggests for the realization of public opinion’s effect on policy? I pose this question because it may seem to the reader that the government had strayed too far from the public’s preferences for my theory to hold.

Not only did the public still hold a generally unfavorable image of China at the end of 1978, but Congress also showed concern, particularly with regard to Carter’s lack of prior consultation on changing relations with China. With much of Congress outraged, there were calls for legislation to support Taiwan in defiance of the president’s decision. Thus, Kusnitz determines: “Having gotten too far ahead of opinion, some backtracking was now necessary lest an already hot issue turn into a future electoral liability” (1984). Carter’s memoirs do indeed reveal a leader concerned with public opinion. When Brzezinski visited China in May 1978, Carter sent a list of suggestions to the Chinese for actions that might begin to improve the attitude of the American public toward China. Carter recalls: “[I knew I] would have to defend my actions to the American people and Congress” (1995). The need to backtrack was eventually borne out in the April 1979 signing of the Taiwan Relations Act, which contained strong language guaranteeing Taipei against future threats. It was supported in the public by a 56 to 31 percent margin (Kusnitz 1984). Although such action brought Carter back into the Kusnitz fold, it did not alter the significance of the path the United States would travel in the future.

In the pre-1972 period one sees primarily an image of an enemy. The re-establishment of ties with China brought with it a feeling of opportunity as well as cultural respect for the Chinese. But a lack of military strength stopped the image from being drawn even closer to that of an ally. Changing circumstances in the ongoing relationship altered the 1979 image. In the media, China was increasingly portrayed as poor, its people uneducated, its agriculture and industry backward. But Carter took the step of normalizing relations, and it is for that reason that the image does not fall further back toward that of enemy, but could possibly be seen as falling toward the imperial (Third World) image. With the beginning of the 1980s, normalization and economic reform, as well as the improvement of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, served as image-changing circumstances.


As stated earlier, after the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leadership embarked on a path of liberalization. During the Reagan era, reforms really began to take hold, and economic and social changes sprang to life. During the early part of the Reagan years (1980), the Chinese people were told of the glories of pursuing wealth: a wholehearted deviation from the doctrine of the previous thirty years. Such pursuit would help prepare the way for the complete overhaul of the Chinese socialist economic system.

The thrust of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms was toward material incentive. Previously people had worked for the good of society. After 1978, farmers, although still required to sell a certain amount of their crops to the government, could sell anything beyond that quantity at the market and keep the profits. That change led to massive increases in productivity and income levels. In industry, the government enacted the “responsibility system,” which led to bonuses that greatly enhanced worker incomes. People were allowed to moonlight to make extra money. Probably the most dramatic economic change was the gradual integration of private enterprise into Chinese society. Mao had deemed private enterprise the hallmark of capitalism and thus the cause of exploitation of man by man.

Western movies, books, and music rapidly entered the Chinese market. By the mid-1980s the Chinese government extended invitations to U.S. rock `n’ roll bands to visit the mainland. People began to open up to each other, with more and more foreigners allowed to visit each year. But problems still existed: Because of Mao’s belief that with more hands, production would increase, the population grew at an alarming rate. Income inequality, previously not an issue in light of socialist China’s efforts toward egalitarianism, became an issue as the gap between the haves and the have-nots began to widen. This still is a serious issue, especially when comparing urban and rural income levels. The creation of special economic zones along the coast led to huge increases in earnings among the people in those areas. So even though incomes rose in the inner regions of China, they failed to grow at anywhere near the rate seen on the coast, leading to worries of insurrection and possible government instability.

During the Reagan years, the media presented both positive and negative images of China (Su 1991). The former centered around the already-mentioned economic and cultural changes taking place. The latter cut a much wider swath, focusing on poverty and other social problems that were a consequence of reforms. About half of the newspaper images from 1979 to 1985 were of the positive type (Su 1991). Jude Wanniski wrote in 1983 that “China is running, not walking down the capitalist road” (NYT, 25 Oct. 1983). In 1982 Christopher Wren wrote: “per capita income in one area village has reached $170 a year, more than double what it was five years ago before the responsibility system was officially sanctioned” (NYT, 14 June 1982). “Along Nanking Road, the main shopping street in trend-setting Shanghai, young women are wearing hems ranging from a conservative mid-length to seven inches above the knee” (Reuters, CSM, 15 July 1985).

But there was more to the story than that rosy picture. The American public was also privy to stories detailing the “atrocities” of Chinese life. Takashi Oka wrote that “the word frugality takes on a new dimension when applied to China” (CSM, 19 June 1984). The Chinese diet “averages only about 2,100 calories a day,” claimed Fox Butterfield (NYT, 1 Jan. 1981). On cultural issues Louise O’Callaghan reported, “For nearly two months, the official Chinese news media have been filled daily with stories of the horrors and dangers of Western philosophies, art, and literature as a part of a campaign against `mental’ or `spiritual’ pollution” (CSM, 12 Dec. 1983). The prevalence of neutral media overtones during this era presents a case in which one would expect to see split public opinion. How well do these images in the media present themselves in public opinion? And to what extent were there either radical or neutral decisions in the foreign policy process?

As shown in table 3, public opinion closely corresponds to the images presented in the preceding paragraphs. In 1983, 52 percent of those polled held an unfavorable image of China. Leading up to the 1989 incident at Tiananmen, opinion turned increasingly positive or, at the very least, decreasingly negative. According to Harry Harding, “Throughout the mid-1980s, each important breakthrough in Chinese economic reform was followed by a new wave of enthusiasm in the American press.” Greater and greater moves toward capitalism and American ways of thought were the desired conclusion. “The disillusionment with China so prevalent in the early 1980s was now swept away by a tide of favorable coverage of China’s economic and political reform” (1992). The Wall Street Journal said that the 1984 economic plan for China could be described in five words “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” (25 Oct. 1984). With this increase in euphoric press coverage we see a subsequent change in public opinion. By 1985, 71 percent of persons polled held a favorable image of China, and just before the Tiananmen incident, 72 percent held a similar view.

In some ways the image portrayed of China in the United States was one of strategic ally; in others it was of barbaric intruder. In line with the former, in fall 1983, the two governments signed a new textile agreement after months of strenuous negotiations. Further advances were made when the United States relaxed controls on the export of advanced technology to China. The relationship grew with the April visit of Reagan to China, with his statements stressing hope for strengthened ties between the two countries. Further, both countries perceived a Soviet threat, thus providing impetus for future cooperative relations. In addition, the United States lent continual support throughout the period for the economic liberalization occurring in China. In 1983, U.S. investment in China reached only about $18 million, but by 1986 that figure had grown to approximately $1 billion (Harding 1992). Tourism and scholarly exchange also increased. America hoped that China might become the first communist country to abandon socialism in favor of capitalism and democracy.

Mikhail Gorbachev brought with him a new way of thinking, and thus, a new policy toward China and the United States. His thinking, although warmly welcomed in both countries, had a deleterious effect, in that it reduced the strategic significance of the relationship. As the Soviet threat diminished, a new view of global and regional issues gradually became part of the American agenda. Harding points out that “Cambodia, nuclear nonproliferation, and Chinese arms sales to the Middle East assumed a larger role in their strategic relationship” (Harding 1992). America’s access to China’s market was another sticking point in relations. Although the U.S. economy was growing, Americans thought the pace of growth was too slow. U.S. concerns over human rights violations also came to light at this time. A swelling trade deficit increasingly kept American decision makers at odds with the Chinese. All in all, in approaching the incident at Tiananmen, the relationship displayed increasing growing pains, although overall U.S. policy could still be categorized as neutral. And although they diverged somewhat from media and public opinion, the images were not yet negative enough to warrant discarding the Kusnitz criteria. At this point, I will not redraw the image of China. Suffice it to say that in 1979 and 1988 U.S. images (if for different reasons) were strikingly similar.


I take time to discuss the period around the Tiananmen Square incident because it drastically changed the image of China found in the mass media, to an image that still lingers. The incident started as a student movement to protest the blacklisting of the long-loved leader Hu Yaobang. It turned into what was seen by the outside world as a pro-democracy movement. Students, granted reappraisal of the leader’s character, further demanded freedom of the press, an increase in educational funding, the curbing of rampant corruption among party officials, and the resignation of Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping. On 4 June 1989, the Chinese government sent troops into Tiananmen Square–located in the heart of Beijing–to quell the uprising. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of lives were lost.

Technological innovations made the U.S. media’s portrayal of the incident highly influential. Images of the students camped out in Tiananmen Square were only as far away as the nearest television set (luckily there was already a massive media presence because of a Sino-Soviet summit). CNN fed images of China directly into U.S. living rooms. No one who watched can forget the protester lying in the street blocking the path of advancing tanks. The horrors of the crackdown emblazoned in our minds an image of a barbaric land. China seemed to pose a threat to everything Americans stood for: democracy, capitalism, freedom. It appeared to many in the United States as though a monolithic government was leading an inferior culture.

“An examination of the coverage of the Tiananmen incident … showed that American images of China changed abruptly and drastically along with the changing situation” (Su 1991). William P. Alford wrote, “Deng Xiaoping has consistently tried to foster economic modernization while stifling political change–as demonstrated by his prominent role in attacking intellectuals in the late 50s to early 60s, [and] in deciding to put dissident Wei Jingshen on trial in the 70s” (CSM, 19 June 1989). Criticism of China’s economic policies soon followed. “Most Chinese,” wrote one commentator, “are reluctant to forsake their jobs and plunge into business with its social and political risks” (WuDunn, NYT, 16 Nov. 1989). Those are only a few examples, but they are indicative of the purely negative images coming from the media following this tragedy. It comes as no surprise to see post-Tiananmen positive images of China at only 31 percent (see table 3). Policy regarding China would not stray far from these opinions as the United States led a worldwide show of disapproval for Chinese actions.

Immediately following the crackdown, the White House issued a press release stating President Bush’s disgust at China’s use of force. The following day the United States imposed sanctions, including “a warning against American travel to China, the suspension of military sales to Peking, and the postponement of all high-level military exchanges” (Harding 1992). The United States also announced it would review Chinese students’ requests to stay in the United States and would send aid to the Red Cross to help those who had been hurt in the incident. Congress supported the president, with some calling for increasingly harsh action if no concrete results were achieved.

Over the ensuing months the president warned against an overly emotional response to the situation, which might damage the possibility for future good relations. With that reaction in mind, it is safe to say that policy did not stray far from the significant shift in public opinion that occurred with the negative images portrayed in the media. This does not mean that public opinion led policy, or vice versa, but that the two are interlinked: the climate of opinion allows for policy movement corresponding to the mood of the people.


At the beginning of 1990, U.S. policymakers once again faced the task of normalizing relations with China. Among other things, that required lifting the various sanctions imposed by the two countries following the Tiananmen incident. To do that, President Bush stressed the strategic and commercial interests relevant to the relationship. Still, many members of Congress and the public believed that harsh sanctions should remain. According to Harry Harding, the president hoped that relaxation of sanctions “would encourage Chinese leaders to make some conciliatory gestures in response, much in the way that the unilateral overtures made to Peking by the Nixon administration in 1969 and 1970 had led to the subsequent rapprochement of 1971 and 1972” (Harding 1992). Other external events also had an impact on U.S. policy toward China. In 1989 and 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it died the overwhelming threat it had previously posed. That served to decrease the strategic military importance of the U.S.-China relationship. Then, in 1991, the Gulf War began. Before military action took place, the United States thought relations were improving, in that both countries agreed to condemn Hussein and impose sanctions. But China refrained from supporting military action and, further, condemned the “imperialist” actions of the United States.

At the end of 1989, the United States modified or lifted three of the sanctions it had imposed after Tiananmen. First, it granted export licenses for three American communications satellites. Next, it resumed Export-Import Bank lending to China, thus rescinding a proposed sanction. Third, the government said it would allow the continuation of World Bank loans on a case-by-case basis. In return, the Chinese granted some small tokens toward improving relations. What were not seen were any euphoric moves on the part of either country. Much in line with the public opinion figures until 1991 (when only 35 percent of those surveyed held a favorable perception of China), government policy was steadily cautious at best, portraying an image of China that rested much more comfortably in the complex/barbarian realm than that of ally.

From 1990 to 1994, the issue of human rights developed further, and was a key in U.S. foreign policy toward China. On 3 June 1990, President Bush had to decide whether to extend Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to China for the upcoming year (as President Clinton would have to do starting in 1994). Such a decision proved crucial to the relationship; revoking MFN would have meant the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the United States. That in turn would have prompted retaliation and likely an all-out trade war.

Bush and Clinton renewed China’s MFN status for each of the four years, thus avoiding negative consequences. Finally, in 1994 President Clinton, going against all of his campaign promises, uncoupled MFN from the human rights issue. By doing so, he allowed himself greater flexibility in policy decisions while ending the risk of harm to the U.S. economy and big business. All of the decisions made during the period were accomplished amidst a public opinion that was decidedly waning in support of China and a press that was strikingly negative about it.

To best illustrate the relevance of the preceding sentence, I jump ahead to 1994-95 to look at images coming out of the media. I suggest that the images seen there are indicative of those the press presented from the beginning of the MFN decision-making process to the present time. To illustrate this, I turn the attention of the reader to the topic of intellectual property rights, an issue found recently on the policy agenda and one that likely will be there for years to come.

Computers, computer software, compact discs, and cassette tapes have brought with them a pressing problem. Laws created to protect the rights of the inventor (variously copyright, trademark, and patent) cannot keep up with the rate of technological change. Gone are the days of doggedly working to protect the rights of authors of the written text (a comparably easy task, given that to copy a book costs about as much as to buy it). Today the government is faced with a situation in which a bootlegged copy of Lotus (which normally costs about $500) costs $50 on the streets not only of most U.S. cities, but also of China’s major cities. It is over this issue that a rift in U.S.-China relations has occurred, as estimates of U.S. business losses due to Chinese violations approached $1 billion in 1993. The 6 June 1994 issue of Business Week carried a story stating that U.S. “officials already are planning to cite China as a `priority’ violator of American property rights” (Borrus, BW, 6 June 1994). In the world of on-line communication, countless news stories relate to the ongoing crises and the “unfair” practices of the Chinese.

Numerous deadlines passed after which the president would supposedly impose sanctions. Finally, after almost a year of negative publicity in the press (regarding Chinese violations), President Clinton imposed 100 percent sanctions on upwards of $2 billion of Chinese products. Press accounts of the sanctions teemed with negative portrayals of China. The New York Times talked of “the Communist Government [that] continued to refuse to crack down on rampant piracy of American software, movies, and music.” The confrontation was said to have come at a particularly delicate moment “with disagreements brewing on human rights and arms control as well, and with China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, reported to be seriously ill” (Sanger, NYT, 5 Feb. 1995). The “theft of US copyrighted products like music CDs and computer software,” was written about in USA Today (Greene, 2 Feb. 1995). Regarding the negative images found in the press, at the 1996 International Studies Association conference in Chicago, Ping Chen, a professor of Chinese Studies at Eastern Illinois University, said to me, “of this there can be no doubt.”

Economics and human rights are not the only areas of cooperation and conflict in the relationship. The United States and China share common interests regarding maintaining a stable international order, expanding trade and preserving open markets, and strengthening international organizations. On the other hand, the United States and China have clashed on Taiwan and Tibet; the South China Sea; domestic economic development; potential threats in Asia where China sees Japan as the greatest threat; Korea, strategic alliances, weapons proliferation, and the environment.

Until recently, descriptions of President Clinton’s policy toward China on any of those issues have had the ambiguity of the 1994 “engagement” policy (Barnett et al. 1996). A lack of concrete ideas and initiatives marked it. Furthermore, U.S. efforts to dictate conditions for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, friendly U.S. relations with Russia, and the normalization of ties with Vietnam have led Chinese leaders to worry about a possible U.S. containment policy toward China. Such thoughts are bolstered by a “profound sense of national crisis brought on by imperialist encroachment and invasion, and the concomitant century-long search to regain wealth and power” (Shambaugh 1997). At the same time, because the United States has security and economic interests in the region (in Japan and Korea), Chinese actions, particularly toward Taiwan and over the South China Sea, have led to U.S. concern regarding China’s intentions.

Recent efforts by the Clinton administration purport to demonstrate a more cogent policy of “engagement” toward China. President Clinton expounded on the meaning of “engagement” in a policy speech on the eve of President Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit to the United States, suggesting that engagement allows for “expanding areas of cooperation while confronting differences openly and respectfully.” That, he asserted, is “the best way to advance our fundamental interests and values and promote a more open and free China” (1997). In the speech the president described six U.S. interests that make engaging China important: a peaceful and stable world; peace and stability in Asia; nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; fighting drug trafficking; free, fair, and open global trade and investment; and the environment. Although the two countries may not always agree, and although the United States will continue to push China on issues such as human rights, the president believes it is important to both countries that the relationship not be held hostage to any one issue. He also recognized the importance of high-level dialogues, the need of the administration and the media to articulate their policies, and the necessity of, at the same time, noting the positive efforts made by the Chinese, instead of concentrating on the negative. (Despite that, national news coverage of this speech led off with footage of tanks rolling through Tiananmen and no mention of the positive efforts made by the Chinese.) Further, and in an effort to allay Chinese fears of containment, the president spoke of the counter-productive nature of such a policy, suggesting that U.S. allies around the world would not support it and that such a policy would make China hostile with regard to weapons proliferation, human rights, opening markets, and playing by the rules of the game. Finally, he spoke of the U.S. commitment to a one-China policy.

President Jiang’s visit brought with it a greater attention to dialogue at the highest levels of government, an agreement by the Chinese to stop selling nuclear materials to rogue states such as Iran, and President Clinton’s promise to visit China in 1999. In events since the summit, China released the famed dissident Wei Jingsheng and worked with the U.S. government in four-party talks to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

As such, “engagement” is a progressive policy into which new initiatives may be incorporated. They need not, however, be held hostage to one issue (such as human rights). With this policy the U.S.-China relationship can grow and find new areas of cooperation and, at the same time, address issues that are more important to one or the other (for example, for the United States, the protection of human rights). Such efforts have led some to suggest that “America’s ties with Beijing are better than they have been in years” (Crowell 1998).


Such portrayals of China would serve to soften the images growing out of the Tiananmen incident. The U.S.-China relationship continues to fluctuate on specific bilateral issues. The same types of images seen now were also seen every year from 1990 on. The relationship between these two countries has become more complex. No longer is there the euphoric treatment in the media that there was with the establishment of ties in the early 1970s, or even the positive images portrayed at the beginning of reform in the early to mid-1980s. The media portrays and the government acts (not that one consistently comes before the other) according to specific bilateral issues still portrayed in a less-than-positive light. Although there are no current figures dealing with public opinion and the image of China, it seems safe to say that the image expressed in the press has led to a “climate of opinion,” thus facilitating the actions of the president.

Thus the image of China has traveled a long and interesting journey over the course of the last twenty-nine years: from enemy to ally, back toward enemy, to barbaric, and finally to an image of some complexity. In this article, using a combination of press and government images, I have shown both threat (economic) and opportunity (economic), aggressive and cooperative motivation, strengthened capabilities, monolithic yet decentralizing decision making, and unequal (human rights) and equal (historical) portrayals of cultural aspects of Chinese society. With an enemy image, global interests were paramount; without it, regional and bilateral goals receive greater and greater attention. The absence of the greater Soviet threat opens the door for increased bureaucratic infighting and competition on the U.S. policy front, as well as tougher debate on specific tactics. As a result, future policy processes will be more difficult, and favorable outcomes will require careful consideration of relevant information.


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Michael G. Kulma is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Graduate Center of the City of New York, specializing in U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, and East Asian politics.3

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