Commentary: A Problem Of Perception

Why China and the U.S. aren't on the same page

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Seattle next week for his first state visit to the U.S. During meetings with the likes of William H. Gates III, Yale University students, and finally President George W. Bush, there will be plenty of talking. Given the huge geopolitical and economic stakes riding on that dialogue, it's appropriate to ask: Why do China and America have such difficulty communicating?

Sure, the two nations are half a world apart, geographically, historically, and politically. But the cause of their at times cacophonous discourse could lie in something less obvious: the strikingly different academic training of their political leaders.

The majority of American senators and congressmen were schooled as lawyers. But each of China's senior leaders -- all nine members of the Politburo's Standing Committee -- was trained as an engineer: President Hu in hydropower, Premier Wen Jiabao in geological structure, for instance. Perhaps the difficulties between China and the U.S. lie less with dissimilar languages, cultures, and histories, and more with the divergent ways of thinking between lawyers and engineers.

This is no small difference. Engineers strive for "better," while lawyers prepare for the worst. Failing to appreciate the implications of these different approaches (and the relating styles they engender) can lead to missed signals.

Such miscommunication occurred when a U.S. plane accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1999. When the Chinese government bused students from college campuses across Beijing to the U.S. Embassy to protest, American politicians assumed that Chinese leaders orchestrated the demonstrations to whip up nationalistic fervor. (To lawyers, the evidence was prima facie.) In truth, the Chinese leaders -- the engineers -- worried that if protesting students were allowed to march through the city, their ranks would swell with workers and ordinary citizens, creating an even larger, less manageable problem. So busing them contained, rather than exacerbated, the volatile situation.

Another dichotomy: More than 90% of Chinese, including professionals often critical of their government, saw the bombing as deliberate. But most Americans believed the bombing had been, as U.S. officials claimed, an accident due to the use of "old maps."

Why such disparity? The Chinese have an idealized picture of the U.S. as so technologically advanced that it would have been impossible for it to make such a stupid mistake. Americans, on the other hand, are quite used to their government's stupid mistakes.

More worrisome, most Americans perceive China as an economic predator concerned solely about its own welfare. Beijing does not deny its policies benefit its own people, as any legitimate government's would. But it asserts that in a global economy, China's stability and development are essential for world peace and prosperity. Disturb the former, it warns, and you disrupt the latter. Given that consequence, it's time the lawyers and engineers began communicating better.

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn

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