Looking at the seemingly inscrutable actions of the men who rule Beijing, Washington often assumes many in the Chinese government to be anti-American, whereas the Chinese public is pro-American. The reality is almost exactly the opposite. Among the Chinese general public, there has always been a strong suspicion that the United States has a well-crafted, carefully thought-out, and coherent strategy to contain China. In the most extreme version of this conspiracy theory, everything is a part of the plot. Criticism of China's record on human rights? A bid to undermine the government in Beijing. Pressure on the central bank to revalue the yuan? Obviously part of an attempt to inflict a "Japan malaise" on China. Even private actors such as Goldman Sachs and Google are sometimes portrayed in popular books and publications as America's foot soldiers and loyal pawns in this grand strategy.
U.S. President Barack Obama's current trip to Asia -- to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, conspicuously skipping and encircling "one big red dot," as one reporter recently put it -- is likely to fan this conspiracy theory even further. One can blame China's official propaganda organs and tight information controls for fostering these outlandish views of the United States. No doubt there is some truth to that, but the United States has consistently failed to communicate its intentions and its actions to the broader Chinese public, which, despite the infamous Great Firewall, is enjoying newfound media freedom thanks to the Internet.
The health of the relationship between China and the United States no longer depends simply on handshakes and backroom deals between officials in the White House and in Zhongnanhai. Just look at the recent midterm elections in the United States: 29 candidates, either directly or indirectly used political ads that bashed political opponents over their positions on China, according to the New York Times. When it comes to China policy, increasingly, Main Street matters. Chinese public opinion is also beginning to loom large in a range of issues critical to Sino-U.S. relations, such as the exchange rate, the role of domestic consumption in Chinese growth, and private-sector development. Yet the foreign-policy establishment in Washington has behaved as if Sino-U.S. relations were still the exclusive province of Nixon and Kissinger and of Mao and Zhou. The United States has not seriously tried to make its case and communicate its views directly to the Chinese public.
Of course, this isn't easy in a country that heavily restricts press freedom. But technology is beginning to crack a few holes in Beijing's system of media control. There are now more than 300 million Internet users in China, about the same size as the entire population of the United States. On top of that, China has 700 million mobile-phone subscribers -- and both categories are expanding by tens of millions of people each year.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, U.S. administrations have always chosen the most censored, tightly controlled medium to communicate with the Chinese public. In 2009 Obama's town-hall meeting in front of a live TV audience completely failed to resonate with most Chinese because the censors made sure that only the most banal questions were posed for discussion. (Sample: "Shanghai will hold the World Exposition next year. Will you bring your family to visit the Expo?") Contrary to how it was interpreted in the Western media, the Chinese censors also limited those questions critical of the United States. They did not want to embarrass Obama.