Is China a measuring stick or a warning sign for America?

President Obama delivers the State of the Union address.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 7:15 PM

BEIJING - People here might be forgiven for feeling self-important after President Obama mentioned China four separate times in his State of the Union speech.

The problem for some, though, is the way China was mentioned.

China never came up in the foreign policy section of last month's speech, where Obama talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, tension on the Korean peninsula and America's new "partnership" with India.

Instead, China was held up as something for Americans to be measured against - a place that is educating its children better, investing more in research, building better infrastructure, and posing a challenge to American greatness. "China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer," Obama said at one point. "China is building faster trains and newer airports," he said at another.

That might all sound like flattery. But some here who closely track American policy and politics wonder why China is being singled out so regularly, with the compliments overdrawn. Others worry that China is being demonized, and that there could be an anti-Chinese nationalist backlash against everything from the country's growing wealth to its expanding military prowess to its population's new taste for luxury goods.

Even strict Chinese child-rearing practices have been held up as something to be emulated, following publication of "The Battle Hymn Of the Tiger Mother," the parenting memoir in which writer Amy Chua argues that indulgent Western parents have contributed to declining educational standards.

Even before Chua's book appeared, fears of an education gap were heightened in December, when Shanghai students came in on top of a test given to 15-year-olds from 65 countries, including the United States. American students came in 23rd in science and 31st in math.

Many Chinese just don't like all the sudden attention.

"Worries about the Chinese economy have been followed by worries about the Chinese military and even by overblown fears that Chinese educational values and 'tiger mothers' may be superior to American ones," wrote Niu Xinchun, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in an opinion piece last week. "Obama's State of the Union greatly reinforced these fears."

Many here compare this period to the "Japan-bashing" of the 1980s, when some feared that Japan, with its then-booming export economy and restrictive trade practices, would overtake the United States.

The nationalistic tabloid daily newspaper Global Times, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece People's Daily, ran an editorial shortly after Obama's speech accusing the United States of a "strategy that intensifies and exploits public fear of the unknown," much like the fear of Japanese economic power in the 1980s.

"This time, the difference is that demonization is running full scale," the paper wrote. It also said "many dogged U.S. media outlets are devoted to disseminating China-phobic fears." The paper said the American economy still had many advantages, but opined, "prosperity comes from competition, rather than fear."

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