Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley visit the Walter Payton College Preparatory school in Chicago.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley visit the Walter Payton College Preparatory school in Chicago. Chris Walker/AP
The visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States this week fueled discussion among Americans about whether China's economic rise is a threat or an opportunity.
It's not the first time America has faced an Asian challenge to its economic dominance. But U.S. attitudes toward an emerging Asian competitor appear to have moderated.
A generation ago it was Japan's powerful economic rise that was troubling Americans. A movie based on Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun captured the mood. The murder mystery stoked lots of fears about Japanese investment in U.S. industries.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Americans had a much darker view of Japan than the current view of China, says Michael Dimock, associate director of research at The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
"Japan was more uniformly vilified, or at least a broader concern for Americans, in the late '80s and early '90s than China is today," he says.
Comparisons of polling data support that conclusion. For instance, back in the early 1990s more than 30 percent of Americans said Japan posed the biggest threat to the United States of any country. Only 20 percent say that about China today.
Views Of Unfair Trade Practices
In purely economic terms, almost 70 percent of Americans thought Japan was taking advantage of the U.S. through unfair trade 20 years ago. That compares with 55 percent who think that about China today.
Dimock says that's still a significant number, but the sentiment toward China is more nuanced: "There is a sense that China's trade policies are unfair. But at the same time, a majority tells us that they want us to build a stronger relationship with China — that China seems essential to America's economic future."
Nearly 60 percent of Americans hold that view. So, why do Americans take a more relaxed view toward China's emergence as an economic power?
"Japan really was the first big competitor to the U.S. after World War II, and that really shocked, I think, many Americans," says professor Ellis Krauss, an Asia specialist at the University of California, San Diego. "But I think the more fundamental reason is that Japan and China's pattern of economic development has been very different."
Japan grew largely on its own by keeping out foreign direct investment and building a powerful export machine. China has built an export machine, too, but it has welcomed outside investment and the participation of foreign companies in its economy. In fact, much of what it exports is produced for those companies.
Also, the products Japan exported were very visible and important to Americans, including much better cars and televisions than America was producing back then.
Krauss says Americans also felt threatened by Japanese purchases of iconic U.S. companies and real estate.
"You know the buying of Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures were the most symbolic of those," he says.
Memories of World War II also added to negative views of Japan. After all, there were still many Americans alive who had fought Japan or lost loved ones in the war.
A Shifting Of The World's Largest Economy
Krauss says military issues will likely sour American views toward China, too, as that nation expands its navy and adds muscle to its air power.
"Americans are beginning to wake up to the fact that China is not democratic and China is not a military ally of the U.S., both of which Japan was," he says.
While predictions that Japan would overtake the U.S. never materialized, virtually everyone believes China will eventually surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy.