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Chinese scholar and an American observer of China offer insights into current tension

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometimes, you learn about yourself when you discover what an outsider thinks, so we recently visited a Chinese observer of America. He teaches at Tsinghua University. It's in Beijing but brings the U.S. to mind because people play basketball on campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOUNCING BASKETBALL)

INSKEEP: Some of its brick buildings were inspired by U.S. college buildings. And the school was founded in the early 1900s with American help. Up the stairs of one of Tsinghua's buildings, our team squeezed into the office of Da Wei.

We have a big group.

DA WEI: Yeah. You have a big group. I have a small office.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

His shelves were crowded with books in Chinese and English.

DA: I started to study the U.S. because I love China, rather than I love the U.S., because I want China to become a better country.

INSKEEP: He first visited the U.S. in the 1990s, early in China's economic rise.

DA: Obviously, at that time, the U.S. was kind of model for Chinese young generation. I mean, we all want China to become a country like the U.S. - economically or technologically advanced and also very vibrant society. The image of the U.S. was much better than today - in China, I mean. So then you want to know why the U.S. is such a successful country.

INSKEEP: Did you figure that out?

DA: Yeah. I think, obviously, U.S. have a quite mature political system, which run for more than 200 years - quite stable. Of course, you are facing a lot of political problem today. But, I mean, generally speaking, if you view it from a historic perspective, I would...

INSKEEP: Right.

DA: ...Say this is a successful and a stable political system. And the U.S. is very open. So U.S. attracted a lot of immigrants and have also quite sophisticated economic regulation system. I mean - let the capitalism to grow.

INSKEEP: Thanks to stable politics and immigrant labor, he says the U.S. took advantage of its natural resources and its history of innovation. He also credits American universities.

DA: So I think this is a strength of the U.S.

INSKEEP: You said the United States had a better image in China in the 1990s than it does today?

DA: Yes.

INSKEEP: What has happened?

DA: I think the U.S. is facing a series of domestic issues, like the racial problems, like social disparity, like gun violence. You know, in this century, the U.S. launched at least two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think most people in the world, not only Chinese, believe at least the war in Iraq was a mistake. And when you saw the U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, when you see what happened in the airport - so the image of the U.S., of course, is bad. But more importantly, the U.S. policy to China has changed.

I mean, the popular view is the U.S. try to slow China's development or keep China down. The mainstream perspective here is the reason why this bilateral relation deteriorated is because China is catching up, and the U.S. want to be number one forever.

INSKEEP: After meeting this Chinese observer of America, we returned home and looked up an American observer of China. Robert Daly once worked for the U.S. Foreign Service at the embassy in Beijing. He was so skilled with the language that he later had an acting role on Chinese TV.

ROBERT DALY: I was a soap opera star in the early '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASKING MYSELF A THOUSAND TIMES FOR THAT")

LIU HUAN: (Singing) Time and time again, you asked me.

INSKEEP: He played an American on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEIJINGER IN NEW YORK")

DALY: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: Today, he works for a U.S. government think tank in Washington. And we played Daly some of what the Chinese scholar had said.

What do you make of what you just heard?

DALY: Well, I think that Da Wei is a very experienced and quite subtle observer of the United States. I noticed that when he described what China admires about the United States, he mentioned strength, prosperity and what he called vibrancy, which is a slightly dodgy word. He didn't mention freedoms, and that was, to me, the gap in what he said. But I think that he came as close to laying it out as anyone in China could.

INSKEEP: So Da Wei gave us some strengths of America as he saw them and some weaknesses of America as he saw them. What is the strength and a weakness of China, as you observe it from abroad?

DALY: One of its greatest strengths is what they call da yi tung (ph), the ability to pull together, the very strong sense of national project - a national project for which you will sacrifice, work very hard, delay gratification, and that project has been development. They have a common culture, common history, which the party builds up through propaganda, but it's nevertheless real. And there's a real sense that this country must develop and must have more global influence.

INSKEEP: So that's a strength. What's a weakness?

DALY: The biggest weakness that China has now is its idea about governance and the relationship between the individual and the state - the tradition of an all-powerful state which is paternalistic, which sets the moral framework for society, which defines truths for society. And they're moving toward a surveillance state, a form of techno-totalitarianism, which, again, is interested in development. It wants its people to thrive but to be complacent. I think it's hard for Westerners to conceive this because when we read about the surveillance state, we have a very Orwellian image - right? - gray people in gray cities hunkered down and moving from doorway to doorway. You go to China, that's not what you find at all. You find what Da Wei called vibrancy.

INSKEEP: Yeah, lots happening, but it's all happening within the range of a camera somewhere...

DALY: That's correct.

INSKEEP: ...Cameras everywhere. When you rack up the various strengths and weaknesses of the two countries, if, in fact, we're in a long-term rivalry, do you have much confidence?

DALY: I think that both countries have a large blind spot. China has never really accommodated to modernity. This has been its problem since 1840. It remains very self-obsessed, very closed off, fairly blind to the attractiveness of the Enlightenment.

INSKEEP: In spite of all the skyscrapers and...

DALY: It's got nothing to do with skyscrapers. It's all about individual agency, autonomy. It really does come down to freedom in the relationships of people to government. The United States has difficulty with a multipolar world, with the fact that America's global influence is bound to decline and has been for a long time. So am I confident? I think that we can get to a new balance that works for the United States. But the way that we prosecute this New Cold War with China is also going to change us. So we need to think about that very carefully at the outset and have long-term strategies of the sort that China tends to form and that we tend not to.

INSKEEP: Robert Daly, the American observer of China, warns that Americans will do well to keep an eye on ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. He doesn't know I'm going to say this, but today is the last day for NPR's Philip Reeves. He's stepping away after two decades of amazing storytelling from Iraq and India, South America, the U.K. and other places. I first met him in Baghdad during the Iraq War in a house that NPR reporters shared that had sandbags stacked up against the windows. He was always cool, always professional. Philip, thanks for your elegant writing. And best wishes on what's next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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