BEIJING – With more than 1.3 billion people, China has a plethora of views on the United States and its influence on the global stage.
Some see America as over-controlling, trying all the time to force its influence across the globe, while others see it as a beacon of individual freedom unheard of in China. And many are in between those views.
In an effort to check the pulse on the current Chinese take on the U.S., NBC News in Beijing spoke to two men with very different views on the country.
Rao Jin has made it his life’s work to channel Chinese patriotism in the face of what he sees as a Western media onslaught. On the other hand, fellow Beijinger Ye Nan can’t wait for his next trip back to Disneyland in the U.S. and thinks the Chinese and American public’s views aren’t that far apart.
Not happy with the ‘world police’
Rao first made a name for himself in China in the spring of 2008, when news of one of the biggest riots in Tibet spread around the world.
China’s official news outlets routinely blamed the exiled Dalai Lama and his refugee government as the “instigators,” while most of the Western media took a sympathetic stand and attributed the riots to long-term persecution and dominance by China.
During the peak of the riots, quite a few foreign broadcasters, including CNN and the BBC, became targets of intense Chinese criticism and threats for allegedly biased coverage of the protests in Tibet. CNN in particular came under fire for using inaccurate photos and for remarks made by commentator Jack Cafferty, who referred to China's leaders – not the Chinese people – as a "bunch of goons and thugs."
That outraged Rao, then a 24-year-old who had just graduated from the engineering physics department at Tsinghua University, one of the top educational institutions in China.
Rao, who already had his own IT company, created a website called ANTI-CNN that spread criticism of Western news reporting and soon gained wide support from Chinese citizens.
The website continued to draw millions of hits daily during the chaotic pre-Olympic torch relay when pro-Tibet protesters interrupted several legs of the torch run in America and some European countries. (One particularly egregious incident was when a Chinese Paralympian in a wheel chair was attacked by pro-Tibetan protesters while she bravely guarded the torch).
Originally from the southern coastal province of Fujian, Rao has since become a quasi-spokesman for those in China’s population who are unhappy about how China is viewed and reported in the West. He has been interviewed by many foreign media in China, as well as being invited to events by embassies and NGOs in Beijing.
“I don’t think we represent the whole young generation, but we do represent some,” said Rao at his office in a high-rise in northern Beijing, where 30 employees concentrated on their computers.
Rao’s original ANTI-CNN website became April Media in 2010, named after a month he likes for its symbolism of power and rejuvenation. He said the website “represents a generation of youth who are familiar with Western culture and have international views as well as a sense of patriotism.”
Aiming to become a cross between a Chinese Huffington Post and a think-tank, April Media now has about 200 columnists and almost one million registered members.
On the left side of the homepage, next to a small photo of the Statue of Liberty, there are a few U.S.-related articles, including “American truth: leader of wasting energy,” “Is property expensive in the U.S.?” “Do American minorities get preferential treatment?” “Americans really don’t wear long underwear?” “What is an American green card?”
Rao toured the United States from the West Coast to the East Coast in late 2010. He was impressed by the natural scenery, but didn’t find the real America to be too different from his pre-conceived notions and what he saw in Hollywood movies.
“In aspects of the economy, politics and culture, the U.S. has shown an admirable spirit of innovation,” Rao told NBC News in his office, but he argued that America is “a world leader that failed to perform well.”
“The U.S. has always imposed its own values on others and acted as a hegemonic state and as the world police,” he said. “It has fought too many wars it shouldn’t have fought.”
America ‘fights for justice’
A short drive from Rao’s office, 42-year-old Ye Nan, a business director of another influential news portal, has a completely different view of the U.S.
“The U.S. is just like a strong, robust, but brusque, next-door neighbor,” said Ye in a garden next to his office. “He fights for justice and gets himself involved when there’s a problem. He gives everyone else the impression of being warm-hearted, and having a sense of justice. Some people are afraid of him, but most like him.”
Ye’s family story is like a condensed version of China’s own tumultuous history.
His grandfather was one of the earliest Chinese students to study in the United States, graduating from Johns Hopkins University in the 1920s and being trained at the West Point Military Academy. After he went back to China, he fought shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in Burma and India during World War II.
But by the time Ye’s father came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution, Chinese-U.S. relations had changed. During Chairman Mao’s “Young Intellectuals Go Down to the Countryside” campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he and other privileged youth were forced to learn from workers and farmers. He was forced to leave Beijing and died in an accident in Tibet when Ye Nan was only five.
“I’m sure he was told to write those communist posters criticizing America since he was educated,” said Ye in looking back at his father’s life during the Cultural Revolution.
Ye first set his foot on American soil last year to visit his wife, who was a visiting psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley.
His impressions were positive, “The air was much better, people were friendly, cars would wait for pedestrians,” he said. He was also happy to be able to surf any websites – quite a different from his experience in China, where many sites are blocked, including Twitter and Facebook.
What really amazed Ye, though, was the prompt reply from Johns Hopkins University when his wife emailed them and asked if they could help find Ye’s grandfather’s files. The university sent a 10-page file, including letters and academic documents. Such free and quick service is almost impossible in China, he said.
“Freedom is in American people’s blood,” Ye said. “Individual freedom is the basis of everything, while China values collectivism that stresses personal sacrifice for the group.”
He thinks, though, that the differences are narrowing.
“In my grandfather’s generation, America and China were friends who fought together in World War II. In my father’s generation, they were enemies. The young generation now is greatly influenced by America. They all drink Coca-Cola and watch Hollywood movies. They agree more than they disagree. The world is flat and the two countries will gradually come to a consensus on many matters.”
Ye said his next trip to the U.S. will probably include a visit to Disneyland that he promised his 8-year-old son. And like many Chinese parents, Ye and his wife hope to send their son to study in the U.S. one day.
This story is part of a series by msnbc.com and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day. Share your thoughts about this story and our series on Twitter using #AmericaMeans
Stories in the series: What the World Thinks of US