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Kuora: How China’s perception of Westerners has changed

Today we’re highlighting one of Kaiser’s recent answers on Quora, originally posted on December 29, 2017:  

Why do many young educated Chinese say that the older generation “regard white people too highly and treat them like masters with excessive friendliness”? Conversely, what do old Chinese think about the young Chinese attitude towards white people?

Kaiser: I have heard that sentiment voiced, though not with sufficient frequency to think it’s a generally or even widely held belief. In the case of those younger (I assume you’re thinking post-’80s and post-’90s) Chinese people, it’s really not all that mysterious why they should think so: They live in a time when China is, or may well soon be, a real multidimensional peer of that premier Western power, the U.S.

No one from any living earlier generation came of age at a time when this was the case. If they looked down on guochan (国产, domestically-produced) brands it was in large measure because they really were generally inferior in quality to imported goods. China’s cultural output couldn’t really hold a candle to what was produced in Hollywood, or New York, or Paris or London. Colleges and universities were inarguably better. China paled in its military prowess. Sure, Chinese people could be proud of their culinary traditions (and rarely missed an opportunity to assert their superiority), and they could take pride in the long history of their civilization, the sublime subtleties of their language, their work ethic, their pharmacopeia, their close-knit families, ethic of sacrifice, and kind treatment of the very young and very old. But materially, physically, and in many realms even culturally and intellectually, it’s easy to see how many could have come to admire the achievements of the West — and to transfer that admiration to the Westerners themselves. (I’m going to use “Westerners” here because I’m not sure it’s really about “white people” so much as it’s about Westerners qua Westerners.)

And the Western foreigners that people born, say, in the ’40s, or ’50s, or ’60s, or even ’70s typically encountered in China — those Westerners who came to China after reform and opening began — were not typically rapacious carpetbaggers or sanctimonious missionary types. More often, they were earnest English teachers, or students, or academics. They tended to be, at least by my lights, the better examples of the people of the Western countries: open-minded, curious, respectful, uncomplaining, empathetic, unaggressive, and even apologetic for the hubris of their forebears. This was all the more reason for the “older generation” to be well regarded.

Fast-forward to the 21st century — and especially after 2008, the inflection point when one of the great symbolic moments of China’s rise, the Beijing Summer Olympics, came right before one of the great symbolic moments in the West’s (possible) “decline,” the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which made plain the fact of the Global Financial Crisis — and you can see how things might very well have changed. By that time China’s trajectory, at least, was quite clear. China’s manufactures, its educational institutions, its military prowess, and of course its overall confidence had made enormous strides. Perhaps its cultural output had, too; of that I’m less certain. And its food — well, if anything, that had improved even more quickly!

And meanwhile, with the bar lowered and many more “ordinary” Westerners making their way to China, impressions of these Western foreigners changed, too. Perhaps some of this was the contempt that’s inevitably bred of familiarity. But part of it was that, by sheer virtue of the growing numbers, there was perforce more bad behavior, and it was easily amplified by the internet.

Not only was the latest outrage more easily spread, but the appetite for it — the pleasure that we humans seem doomed to take in that feeling of indignation — had grown.

The reasons for this are fairly easy to identify. Actual direct encounters between Chinese and foreigners before reform and opening began at the very end of the 1970s were very rare, of course; but even through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, contact was polite and managed — the visiting scholar abroad, the sister city events, the trade delegations, the backpacker chatting amiably with curious locals. But as the new millennium dawned and the internet permitted the first direct, unmediated people-to-people contact at scale, Chinese and Westerners discovered that there was quite a chasm in understanding.


While I full-throatedly decry this kind of anti-foreignism, I think at some level it’s entirely natural, and I’m actually thankful that it’s kept mostly in check.


After a very rocky start to U.S.-China in the internet age (here the U.S. will have to stand in for the West, alas), with the Belgrade bombing in ’99 and the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001, relations at least at the state-to-state level actually warmed appreciably. This was mainly because after September 11, the U.S. was determined to enroll China in the Global War on Terror, and finally acquiesced in Beijing’s long-cherished wish to have the East Turkestan Islamic Movement included on a list of terrorist groups. If you look at Beijing’s relations with Washington during the ensuing seven years, say, you find very little that actually roiled the waters: Some WTO dumping cases involving underwire bras, criticism of China for supporting the Sudanese government and their militias in Darfur, but not all that much else. Criticism of China’s human rights record, whether from the Bush 43 White House or from human rights NGOs, was relatively muted. And China, I would assert, actually liberalized considerably during this period — something for another time.

But as the Olympics approached, China’s growing online population in China had both the means and the incentive to see what the rest of the world was saying about their country. This was a generation that had been taught English — well, taught enough English, anyway, to understand when China’s honor was being besmirched. And they clearly believed it was being besmirched, constantly. Comments sections on any online media allowing comments exploded with vitriol, coming to a real boil in March of 2008 in a groundswell of Chinese anger over Western (read: American) reporting on the Lhasa riot of that month. This was the time of AntiCNN.com, and of the fenqing — 愤青, the “angry youth.” Ensuing months saw things worsen, with protests against the Olympic torch relay in some Western capitals touching off retaliatory boycotts (most notably of the French store Carrefour).

More importantly, in the first decade of the century and still more in this one, Chinese were traveling, studying, and working abroad much, much more than had been the case in the early days of reform and opening. Not surprisingly, the rose-colored glasses came off, and the picture they formed of Western society — always a comparative exercise — was colored now by the changes they had seen in China.

While I full-throatedly decry this kind of anti-foreignism, I think at some level it’s entirely natural, and I’m actually thankful that it’s kept mostly in check. It lacks, mercifully, a religious tradition around which it might congeal (unlike, say, Hindutva, or various Islamic nationalisms, or extreme forms of Christianity). The party-state keeps the embers glowing because it’s occasionally useful for the rally-round-the-flag effect. But it recognizes the double-edged nature of it and doesn’t allow it to flare up uncontrollably.

As for the second part of this question — “Conversely, what do old Chinese think about the young Chinese attitude towards white people?” — my sense is that there’s a wide range of responses to it. Some are sympathetic, and perhaps even embarrassed over any sycophancy they might once have evinced. Some are probably analytical about it, and see it as natural for many of the same reasons I’ve sketched out. And some doubtless see it as dangerously hubristic — and shake their heads sadly at the irony that these angry youngsters should take on the same pathologies they profess to loathe in the Westerners.

Kuora is a weekly column.

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.


  1. Ricardo Lambo Reply

    (To give some background on myself: I’ve lived in China for over seven years; six of those years in Anhui, where I was a university student.)

    Alas for Kaiser’s reply, I would say here what Saul Bellow once said of Hanah Arendt: She could often think clearly, but never simply.

    While it is true that China’s youth ‘live in a time when China is, or may well soon be, a real multidimensional peer of that premier Western power, the U.S.’ I don’t think this is the fundamental answer to the question. I would instead point to the huge generation gap between the post-80s Chinese and their parents and grandparents. Older Chinese are more likely to be in touch with traditions of hospitality and habits of mind that saw foreigners as guests in their country, to be treated in a kind and friendly manner and accomodated as far as possible. Meanwhile, today’s youth, living in an interconnected and integrated world, are part of global currents of increasing informality, individualism, precociousness and national-consciousness that make them less likely to defer to anybody, white or colored, native or foreign.

    As much as I esteem Kaiser’s opinion, I disagree with him because I believe what I have just said would be true even if China were not now rivaling the US (‘multidimensionally’ or otherwise ). Indeed, it is true of many other countries which are no where near as powerful as China, have never hosted the Olympics, have never had their embassy bombed and never had what they consider unsavory elements included on a American terrorist list, and I scarcely see the need to bring those incidents into the question. Simply put, across the world, deference to the white man has just plain gone badly out of style and the perception of anything like that ancient deference is embarrassing to any non-Western youth–because of various general global trends, including nationalism and, yes, increased contact and familiarity.

    A thought-experiment that makes my point of view clearer would be to imagine that the question had been: Why do many young educated Americans say that the older generation “regard the clergy too highly and treat them like masters with excessive friendliness”? Sure, one could point to recent child sex scandals as damaging the prestige of the Church. But this was not a fundandamental cause; rather the discovery was an accident that served to embolden trends of securalism, scientific and rational challenges by younger generations that were already well underway. Analagously, the financial crisis, the Belgrade embassy bombing etc damaged the West’s prestige and emboldened critical voices, but even without any these incidents, even without a more general US-China rivalry, in no way would the attitude of Chinese youths today resemble those of their parents and grandparents.

    Pace, Kaiser, I also take issue with his reply to the second part of the question that: “Some [of the older generation] are sympathetic, and perhaps even embarrassed over any sycophancy they might once have evinced.” I can only speak from personal experience here, but even at their most generous and hospitable, none of the ‘older generation’ appear to me to have ever behaved in a way that would comprise their self-respect. They often seem to me much more dignified and consistent in their treatment of foreigners than the younger generation, neither going to one extreme or the other.

    I also think his answer fails to recognize something we all know Kaiser knows: that a deep ambivalence towards foreigners has always been a feature of Chinese modernity, long before China was ‘a real multidimensional peer’ of any Western power. From this perspective, the questioner’s naivité is amusing and, from the Boxer rebellion onward, he could have pretty much asked the same question several times over the last century and recieved pretty much the same answer, at least from me.

    1. Kaiser KuoKaiser Kuo Post author Reply

      Hi Ricardo, thanks much for your very thoughtful response. The generational gap and the sociological changes you describe should definitely have been part of my answer. Very well observed. I still do think, though, that attitudes were shaped also by perceptions of how the West (where all those white men were to be found) treated China.

      As to the ambivalence toward foreigners, I was keeping to the “educated Chinese” parameters that the questioner had established, and was talking about the current crop of youngsters and the generations immediately above them — living people. Wouldn’t you think these older folks, being closer to the Boxers, or the Cultural Revolution, they’d be even *more* anti-foreign? But they’re not; on that we agree, yes? More fundamentally, I’m deeply skeptical of arguments that rest on essentialism. When some attitude is said to have “always been a feature of Chinese modernity,” my hackles go up.

      1. Ricardo Lambo Reply

        Hello Kaiser, I appreciate your gracious reply and your engaging with commentators below the line.

        I did, however, just want to push back against a few more things mentioned above in order to fully have my say.

        First, I don’t think there is necessarily a direct connection between politeness/kind manners and pro- or anti-foreign sentiment, especially when it comes to person-to-person contact. On many occassions I’ve been invited to meals and generally well-looked after by elderly Chinese neighbors, only to hear later through other channels their genuine feelings about foreigners. Often these same neighbors have themselves expressed to me their disappointing prejudices towards, say, Africans or Americans, once we have really gotten to know each other and they learn that I’m actually a Brazilian. (A frequent reaction to this news is: “巴西是个好国家”, implying that, in their view, there are not only good and bad people, but there are also good and bad countries.)

        In my opinion this does not show their friendly manners to be false. Because that generation had only limited contact with foreigners and little chance to go abroad, their anti-foreign sentiment (where it exists) has always remained somewhat abstract. It is therefore not at all strange to me that elderly Chinese who are closer in time to the Cultural Revolution may have more deeply entrenched prejudices against foreigners and yet be more decorous, more polite when actually dealing with those foreigners personally. One might give that the generation even more credit and say that those who lived through a time when all sorts of extreme political ideologies were given dangerous free rein are probably not going to continue the mistakes of their youth into their old age.

        Second, I don’t think that it is essentialist to say that, historically, ambivalence (if not outright hostility) towards the West or towards foreigners has been a feature of all the various modernising programs in China in the last century, whether it was the Boxer Rebellion, the May 4th movement, the Communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution, down to the protests in Nanjing that preceded those in Tiananmen. As I tried to say, the same question posted on Quora that kicked off this discussion must have occured in some form or another to the leaders of these various movements, proving that there is nothing particularly original about the question nor is the moment we’re living in some totally unprecedented watershed, as I believe your first reply made out; rather the moment and their attendant attitudes (towards, say, white people) are just a part of a larger cycle of trends and events.

        I may be wrong, and I will be happy to admit it to it, but the above is not an essentialist argument. If I had said that anti-foreign sentiment ‘will always be a feature’, ‘must always be a feature’ is ‘somehow encoded in the psyche or DNA of the peoples of China’ or some similar absurdity, then I could have been reasonably accused of having an essentialist position. But I hold no such views.

        This brings me to my third point. As a fan of the Sinica podcast who has tuned in every week for the past 6 years, I’m well aware of how much you abhor essencialist arguments. But I also get the feeling that they are a favorite straw man to attack on the show (especially when the subject of Chinese democracy comes up). Sure, one encounters essencialist arguments on all kinds of idiotic forums where racism is prevalent and there are probably a few fringe academics who still hold to them. But in no way is it a mainstream position among people with views on China worth taking seriously or among your listeners. Most reasonably educated people know by now that, in the biological sense, there are no races or sub-species of homo sapiens, that there is less genetic variation among humans than in Canis familiaris and that what is at presently at work in China and elsewhere are just various historical contignencies.

        Might not the severity and readiness with which you raise hackles against essencialist arguments be disproprionate to their actual threat level?

  2. Bob Fonow Reply

    Many of the changes Kaiser notes were well underway in the early 1990’s. Confident millennials aren’t a new feature of Chinese life, at least to me. So I’m always surprised when people from other countries or cultures are surprised by China.

    Today, our company works with students from the Beijing Haidian university affiliated middle and high schools, so we spend our weeks meeting and talking with some of the brightest students in China. However, I haven’t noticed much change in the confidence of young educated people from 1994 when I spent two years in Shanghai managing one of the first high tech joint ventures in the city.

    The first year engineers from Chinese universities were not quite as prepared as newly graduated engineers from US universities, but the skill levels balanced by two years. What I did notice then, as now, is that the Chinese young people interact with technology differently. Where the US young engineers used cell phones as a tool, Chinese engineers played with theirs to explore more possibilities. This changed with Apple later, but WeChat reigns supreme in efficiency and convenience and includes a playful dimension not so deeply ingrained into western mobile services, for example.

    Most importantly, here’s how western and Chinese cultures differed: virtually everyone in the company was sucking up information, leaving no chance behind. There were no psychological barriers to learning or contributing, unlike in an American corporation where rigid management structures meant only certain people, in certain positions, were supposed to create and contribute. There was no limit to personal creativity in Shanghai or, later in other companies I visited, which I think is an unexplored feature of Chinese success.

    What strikes me about Chinese young people, then and now, is their work ethic and their politeness and calmness when faced with opinions they dislike or feel is contrary to their perceptions about current developments in China. Today’s students seem remarkably well informed and balanced – at least to the extent students in such a competitive environment can be balanced. The only difference now is that English fluency seems developed earlier – I can discuss complex international relations with some eighth graders. They also seem to have a natural confidence that they will be in global leadership positions in 15-20 years – just as several of the young engineers I met over 20 years ago have naturally assumed senior management roles, or started their own ventures.

  3. Arnout Jacobs Reply

    My perspective: I’ve been hiring and working with young Chinese for a multinational company since 2005 . I have noticed changes in attitude over time, and most of these simply have to do with more exposure and interaction. Travel habits are a good analogy for the mental journey that people make. The first time abroad, they might join the tour group, visit 5 countries in one week, make the picture in front of the Eiffel Tower and stack up on brand name goods. The next time they come back with a partner; do some backpacking. Finally, they rent a car to explore villages in northern Italy, explore the music scene in Berlin etc. In short, the perceptions change from superficial and stereotypical to nuanced and personal. Another example would be the attitude towards non-Chinese food. I remember the days when foreign food equaled the Golden Arches, Colonel Sanders, and Pizza The Hutt. These days, my Chinese colleagues discuss which is the best Lebanese in Shanghai, and only consider pizza from a wood-fired oven. With some exceptions, I would not say they are more positive or negative towards the West or Westerners, but they know much better what they like and don’t like.

    Obviously, I am talking about a very specific subgroup of highly educated people with an above average salary.

  4. poxipa Reply

    My visits in China suggest that even in second tier cities (not to mention less developed places) there are still enormous gaps between the local living standards and those of the most uneducated Western backpacker. What is the percentage of Chinese who traveled abroad? The Chinese who reach $1000 monthly income?
    As some of the comments above indicate a sense of inferiority does not always produce positive sentiments. But inferiority exist in the enormously poor society.

  5. Liam Reply

    I feel actually horrified by your substitution of the US for Western, being a Northern Irish (with both British and Irish passports) person living and working (in a professional capacity, not as an English teacher) in China for almost 4 years. You do realise that not all western people (white or otherwise) idolise America? In fact, most educated or sensible people in the west consider the USA to be a bloated, out of control, sycophantic country (I say country, not population as there are many nice Americans). But I have actually been on the end of some very anti American sentiment while living here, most notably when I was attacked upon leaving a club in Shanghai, with the aggressor telling me to “go back to America”. Add to that the experience of being drugged and robbed twice and it is understandable that I have a certain bad taste about some things in China, but overall I have and still am enjoying my experience of being here. I have come to understand that not all people are representative of the country they are from, so please tone down the generalisation when discussing the west, as the west isn’t only America and never will be.
    Regarding the generational attitudes discussed, I have honestly never noticed. I have many Chinese friends, from recent graduates to established middle aged businessmen, and they all treat me with the same respect I treat them. I am a guest in their country, and they treat me as such. Welcoming and generously. I respond in kind. I do have my issues with the establishment regarding the internet and the human rights issues (which you haven’t even touched on [maybe understandably given the penalties]), but overall I love being here. I can say one thing for sure though. I will definitely not be raising children here, as I feel the education system is backward (rote learning) and ultra expensive. Take from that what you will.
    Interesting read, apart from the generalisation of the West. Take a lesson from the Irish. We are liked all over the world, mostly because we aren’t wankers and we treat everyone like we would want to be treated.

    1. Kaiser KuoKaiser Kuo Post author Reply

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m not substituting the U.S. for westerners; but since we’re talking about Chinese attitudes, it’s fair (however unfortunate) to say that white westerners of any nationality are routinely conflated, in the minds of Chinese, with Americans. Your own anecdote about being told to “go back to America” is just one of many data points suggesting this is the case. Of course I realize that not all western people idolize America. That has absolutely nothing to do with the point I was making. Attitudes toward Americans, alas, is the tar with which too many other peoples innocent of those ugly American attributes you cite are tarred in China, as in many other countries. You seem to take issue with me not talking about human rights or the Internet. Wondering how exactly you think a fulsome denunciation of Chinese human rights abuses and Internet censorship would have been germane to an answer to a question about how Chinese attitudes toward the U.S. have changed from generation to generation.

    1. JJ Reply

      You’ll actually find that there’s incredibly little racism against East Asians in the west because a. There is little integration, b. People are more concerned about the nationalities that terrorists spring from, so please don’t try and make it that widespread racism against Chinese exists, it simply doesn’t.

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