ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
President Hu's visit this week fueled a long-running debate 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 as NPR's John Ydstie reports, U.S. attitudes toward an emerging Asian competitor appear to have moderated.
JOHN YDSTIE: 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.
(Soundbite of film, "Rising Sun")
Mr. SEAN CONNERY (Actor): (as Captain John Connor): You ever negotiated with the Japanese before?
Mr. WESLEY SNIPES (Actor): (as Lieutenant Webster Smith) Well, this is hardly a negotiation.
Mr. CONNERY: (as Captain John Connor) What is it, then?
Mr. SNIPES: (as Lieutenant Webster Smith): It's a homicide.
YDSTIE: The movie was a murder mystery that stoked lots of fears about Japanese investment in U.S. industries. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says in the late 1980s and early '90s, Americans had a much darker view of Japan than the current view of China.
Mr. MICHAEL DIMOCK (Pew Research Center): Japan was more uniformly vilified, or at least a broader concern for Americans, in the late '80s and early '90s than China is today.
YDSTIE: 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.
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 to 55 percent who think that about China today. That's still a significant number, says Dimock, but he says the sentiment toward China is more nuanced.
Mr. DIMOCK: 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.
YDSTIE: 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?
Professor ELLIS KRAUSS (Asia Specialist, University of California, San Diego): Two reasons: One is that Japan came first.
YDSTIE: That's Professor Ellis Krauss, who's an Asia specialist at the University of California, San Diego.
Prof. KRAUSS: Japan really was the first big competitor to the U.S. after World War II. And that really shocked, I think, many Americans. But I think the more fundamental reason is that Japan and China's pattern of economic development has been very different.
YDSTIE: 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's 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.
Professor Krauss says Americans also felt threatened by Japanese purchases of iconic U.S. companies and real estate.
Prof. KRAUSS: You know, the buying of Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures, of course, were the most symbolic of those.
YDSTIE: 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.
Ellis 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.
Prof. KRAUSS: 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.
YDSTIE: 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.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
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