Chinese Perceptions of the U.S.: An Exploration of China’s Foreign Policy Motivations

Chinese Perception of the U.S.

Author(s):  Biwu Zhang

ISBN:           9780739170854

Publisher:  Lexington Books

Year:           2012

Price:           £57.95

Reviewed by Kai Chen, post-doctoral research fellow, Center for Non-Traditional Security and Peaceful Development Studies, College of Public Administration, Zhejiang University, China

The past decades witnessed the debates about “China Threat” and whether China is a status quo power (or revisionist country) The debates mainly focused on whether China has the capability to challenge the international system, while ignoring several critical questions: whether China has motivations to challenge the international system? How China’s perception of the United States affect China’s foreign policies? What extent China is a threat to the United States ?

Through the image approach, Chinese Perceptions of the U.S. reviews what China’s image of the United States is, and then explores whether China is a status quo country. It’s worth noting that, this book analyzes China’s motivations on the basis of China’s perceptions of the United States. In Zhang’s opinion, the more positive China’s image of the United States is, the more likely China would be a status quo country. And the more negative China’s image of the United States is, the more likely China would be a revisionist country.

As Zhang confesses, any sample could hardly represent comprehensively Chinese perceptions of the United States. Based on content analysis of the selected authoritative journals, which are affiliated with China’s well-known foreign policy research institutes, Zhang mainly focuses on Chinese scholars’ perception of threats and opportunities from the United States in the 1990s to 2000.

Except a foreword by Richard K. Herrmann, this book is divided into four thematic parts. Part 1 (chapters 1-2) briefly reviews the “China threat” debate and explains the research purposes, methodology and framework. Part 2 (chapters 3-5) examines the Chinese scholars’ perceptions of threats and opportunities from the United States, and balances the pros and cons, in order to explore whether the United States would offer more opportunities or more threats to China in the long run. In Zhang’s opinion, the United States “on the whole constituted more an opportunity than a threat to China” (p. 94), because the United States plays an unique role in maintaining a peaceful environment around China, and both countries would like to take each other’s strategic interests into account.

In Part 3 (chapters 6-7), Zhang addresses Chinese scholars’ perceptions of U.S. economy and politics, and analyzes the extent to which these perceptions would impact  China’s foreign policy toward the United States. As Zhang argues, the economy could be “a source of cooperation between the United States and China” (p. 148), though the two countries have different economic systems, because most Chinese scholars prefer a market-oriented economic system. With regard to the Chinese scholars holding opposite position, they often “regretted China’s not being in a position to adopt U.S. Practice than they rejected the U.S. Approach for its own sake” (pp. 143-144). In contrast with the positive attitudes toward the U.S. economy, only few Chinese scholars recommend that China should learn from the United States in terms of politics.

As the conclusion of this book, Part 4 (chapter 8) highlights that China is a status quo country, and explains the dominant Chinese images of the United States, that is, partner (i.e., mutual benefits in win-win term), model (i.e., learn from the United States in some ways) and imperialist (i.e., resentment to U.S. Intervention in China’s internal affairs) images. And then, Zhang suggests that China-U.S. relations could be defined as “neighbors in the global village”, “non-adversaries” and partners” (p.2 02).

If there is an omission in this book, it might be the conclusion on China-U.S. relations in the future, which seems a bit optimistic. For instance, as the author analyzes, due to “peaceful evolution initiated by American leaders in the 1950s” (p.202), China’s authoritative publications and grassroots have accepted democracy and elections. I’m afraid that the author ignores the other agencies promoting Chinese people to accept democracy (e.g., mutual communication and decline of misunderstanding).

If peaceful evolution did play the primary role, it’s necessary to highlight the negative tremendous cost of this strategy. Historically, peaceful evolution has been regarded as one of traditional interventions in China’s internal affairs. That’s why China’s perceptions were much more negative in the first half of 1990s and earlier.

If China’s perceptions of U.S. politics were impacted by “peaceful evolution” to a greater or lesser extent, this would raise China’s imperialist image of the United States sooner or later.Because China is a status quo country, in many Chinese eyes, the United States still exploit China’s weakness through “peaceful evolution”. If “the United States has been a live-and-let-live country” (p.198), why the United States do so ? Would the United States promote “peaceful evolution” in his allies or friends? Would “peaceful evolution” in China be interpreted as the United States’ commitment to peace? Will “peaceful evolution” lead to a significant change in Chinese perceptions of the United States in the coming future? The answers to these questions are critically needed.

In short, Chinese Perceptions of the U.S. clearly succeeded in stressing Chinese scholars’ perceptions of U.S., offering insightful implications for China’s foreign policy toward U.S., and demonstrating that China is a status quo country.  Now, this book should be regarded as one of the insightful volumes on “China threat” and China’s perceptions of the United States. Therefore, it deserves to be read by scholars, policy makers, analysts, students and concerned readers who are interested in the “China threat” and China-U.S. relations.

Suggested citation:

Chen, Kai (2014). Review of “Chinese Perceptions of the U.S.: An Exploration of China’s Foreign Policy Motivations”, by Biwu Zhang, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.22, Internet file: