Last month Zhao Yan, a 37-year-old Chinese businesswoman, was beaten and doused with pepper spray by a homeland security inspector while on a tourist visit to Niagara Falls. The inspector later said he thought she was part of a drug deal and that she resisted arrest. What has followed in the wake of the assault is significant for further revealing the troubling disconnect between Chinese and American societies.
In China, the state-controlled media bombarded the public for days with indignant reports decrying U.S. hypocrisy on human rights and the prevalence of racism in American society. Rounding out this coverage were sensational depictions of America as a police state in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Here in the United States, coverage of the incident has been practically nonexistent. There have been Associated Press reports and a few newspaper stories, but most media outlets have ignored the event.
As one might expect in the information age, this disparity in reactions has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese media, which have seized upon it as yet another example of American hubris and lack of regard for others.
In time, things will cool down. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have already apologized to China, and federal charges have been filed against the inspector involved. Growing business and trade interests should continue to ensure a stable if sometimes awkward relationship between both governments. But the beating of Zhao Yan represents another stain on America's image in China -- added to such grievances as the 1999 U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war and the U.S. spy plane controversy at Hainan Island in 2001. Coming on the heels of the Abu Ghraib abuses and the view presented in the Chinese media that U.S. involvement in Iraq is driven by oil and money, it can only complicate the task of the next U.S. president to speak about American values in Beijing.
Most Americans traveling to China will probably continue to be unaware of such things as the beating of Zhao Yan and of how passionately much of the Chinese public has come to dislike the United States. Especially for American executives, English teachers and college students studying Chinese -- people living in China over an extended period, as I have -- it has become increasingly common to have to defend U.S. policies and even cultural norms to colleagues, classmates and cab drivers. Good luck to those who end up in these situations. Even Americans fiercely opposed to the Bush administration may be surprised to find themselves feeling defensive.
My advice to these hapless souls? Talk freely of your background and beliefs, but don't bother trying to change Chinese perceptions. Any gain in understanding between the Chinese and American societies is unlikely to come from the efforts of Americans in China, who are too few in number and face too formidable a wall of Chinese public distrust.
Instead, our best hope lies with Chinese graduate students and professionals who have lived and prospered in the United States, as well as Chinese tourists (such as Zhao Yan, in better circumstances) who have experienced American society firsthand.
In many cases, these people will have both an understanding of American values and a degree of credibility back home. They -- not the American president, our self-focused media or any other American -- are the ones best equipped to challenge the Chinese government's monopoly on defining the United States to the Chinese public.
The U.S. government should be enthusiastically welcoming such Chinese in large numbers. Instead, it is playing havoc with their lives by delaying and denying their visas and now even brutalizing one of them. This is no way to deal with a gap in perceptions that could cause long-term trouble in one of our country's most important relationships.
The writer is a graduate student in international policy at the University of Chicago and a former Fulbright scholar in China. From 2001 to 2003 he worked in Beijing as a broadcast journalist for a Chinese-language television network. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.