Peaceful periods, turbulent times

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at University of California, Irvine, is a specialist in modern Chinese history, author and blogger, who gave a lecture at Santa Monica College on Thursday on the history of U.S. relations with China, as well as the future ahead.

A Santa Monica native, Wasserstrom first visited China in 1981, where he spent a full year and has continually visited the country ever since. He said there is an ever-present need to understand the global giant that China has become in the last century.

The country is always in the world's spotlight, but Wasserstrom said there are conflicting impressions about what the U.S. thinks of China, and vice versa.

Within a single generation, China has evolved into a state of large economic and political power.

"The ways in which Americans feel about China tend to be intense one way or another," Wasserstrom said. "China has rarely been a country that we've felt neutral to. We've spun wildly between admiring China and fearing China."

At the same time, America is not viewed by China in a neutral sense either, Wasserstrom said. For the longest time, the U.S. has waited and expected China to converge into an American-esque culture, something that he said are American "positive fantasies" about China.

In many ways China has converged, but it has also stayed the same. Rather than any one image of one social group, ethnicity or gender, Wasserstrom said it is impossible to generalize what China really is.

Wasserstrom showed a series of past images of magazine covers and propaganda, that illustrated how American views toward China have fluctuated the "positive and negative fantasies" over the years.

The photographs that Wasserstrom showed consisted of Chinese tanks from a 1989 Time magazine cover to another from a book titled "Death by China" with the image of a Samurai sword piercing the U.S. with the phrase, "One lost job at a time." This conveyed a sense of hostility and anxiety with the country.

Another image was of basketball player Yao Ming with Ronald McDonald, the face of McDonald’s and a clear American symbol. Wasserstrom said it seems that in the American imagination, China is either seen in a positive or negative way.

"September 11 switched our attention of fearing China for some time, but it's slowly coming back," Wasserstrom said, who spoke of "dream periods" and "nightmare periods" characterizing the relationship between the U.S. and China.

Wasserstrom said that China is not alone in its involvement in the "seesaw" of emotions, like Japan, but that the U.S. has historically fluctuated with feelings toward them as well.

Taking globalization into consideration, and the flow of the American way of doing business, Wasserstrom pointed out that there is a concern that China may someday become too much like the U.S. and eventually surpass it.

"China is both an economic worry and a geopolitical partner," Wasserstrom said, after posing the question of how the cycle can be broken.

He stressed to keep in mind the multiplicity of China because the worst of the writings about China make it easy to forget its diversity.

Wasserstrom said that it is important to remember that America has more in common with China than is often thought, which may go unnoticed in these turbulent, political times.

Fabian AvellanedaComment