SHANGHAI — I wore red underpants for much of last year.
It was the Year of the Tiger, my Chinese zodiac sign, when tradition says that ill fortune will seek you out. Red underwear is supposed to keep you safe because Chinese demons supposedly fear the color red.
It didn’t work.
It was a rough year. For most of 2022, we remained sealed off from the world by China’s strict pandemic policy. Shanghai, my home for the past decade, endured a particularly traumatic Covid lockdown that kept us confined at home for two months starting in late March, scrambling to obtain groceries. While locked down, we found out that my wife, who is Chinese, was pregnant. It took a combination of bluster and desperate pleas to local officials to get us to a hospital for a prenatal checkup.
When the lockdown ended last June, I emerged, blinking into the sunlight, to find that China had been transformed into America’s enemy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was calling China a threat to “universal values” in language that made me think of the U.S. containment policy toward the former Soviet Union. The rhetoric has only hardened since then. Today China is labeled an “existential” threat to the United States; there is talk of a new cold war.
Really? Must we wage a new cold war?
From Shanghai, the idea seems absurd. The city’s people are immersed in American culture, having grown up using iPhones, sipping Starbucks coffee, following the N.B.A. and polishing their colloquial English by watching “Friends” (there’s even a “Friends”-themed cafe in Shanghai, designed to look like the sitcom’s coffee shop, Central Perk).
Chinese friends of mine studied in the United States and listen to American pop music. My wife watched YouTube videos about child-rearing by U.S. influencers. Vintage clothing shops, a music lounge called Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai, the N.Y.U. Shanghai campus — the city incessantly, self-consciously, compares itself to New York. Many urban Chinese are closer to American lifestyles and sensibilities than they are to those of their parents (and many young Americans likewise have more favorable views of China than the generation before).
My work sits at the intersection of these worlds. I edit books by Chinese writers about their country’s politics and economy, publishing them in English so that the West can understand their view. We must try to understand what they are thinking, the inherited fears, traumas, resentments and intergenerational conflicts that shape how they interact with us.
Just underneath the paint on Shanghai’s trendy new restaurant facades are slogans from the Cultural Revolution, still faintly visible in some places, like scars in the psychology of an older generation that make for a paranoid conservatism. This trauma is barely understood by younger Chinese, who are shielded by censorship and a code of silence from knowing in detail the horrors of China’s recent past. China is a diverse society with contesting visions of the future, a nation constantly remaking itself.
The influential Chinese scholars who I work with still hold a deep respect for the United States, its values and its civil society. In fact, many of the Chinese who I know have more confidence in America’s durability than some of my anxious friends in the United States, who fret about Trumpism and what they see as other threats to democracy and liberal values.
Zheng Yongnian, a professor who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and expert on China’s changing place in the world, told me that the Chinese nationalist view of a rising China and a declining United States is far from universally accepted here, and that “many people, including me, continue to be positive on the U.S.” Yao Yang, an economist who advocates for a strengthened social security and welfare system in China, was inspired by the ideas of the progressive politician Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, where Mr. Yao studied for his doctorate.
Some leading intellectuals tell me that they resent Chinese online influencers and social-media nationalists for the same reason that I dislike Fox News: They’re opportunists, weakening their country with lies.
Chinese nationalists, leftists, economic liberals — it’s hard to find a Chinese thinker alive today who hasn’t been profoundly influenced by American society and culture. The United States has been a lodestar for China throughout its reform era, which began in the late 1970s and continues to transform the country. For those who visited the United States, often to study, it was typically the learning experience of a lifetime, nourishing a drive to make their own country more modern, stronger, better.
The revisionist history wielded by conservatives in both China and the United States threatens to bring back the fearful militarism of the original Cold War, with its coups and proxy conflicts. Americans tell ourselves that we won because we were the good guys, simplistic language that is being revived in Congress.
But we can only hope to remain the good guys by sticking to values like free speech, generosity and the confidence that our culture can withstand challenge. Sadly, those values are threatened when the Chinese American Representative Judy Chu’s loyalty to the United States is questioned by one of her Congressional colleagues. They’re threatened when a bill is introduced to the Texas legislature that would ban Chinese students from the state’s universities. And they’re threatened when we deepen ties with dubious leaders like President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines — son of the corrupt and brutal former dictator — and increase our military presence there.
We could win a cold war with China yet still lose some of what makes us great. We toppled Saddam Hussein and crippled Al Qaeda, but at the cost of reduced freedom in the United States through extended powers for the N.S.A., the Patriot Act and the festering sore of Guantánamo Bay.
The United States can badger China about its flaws all it wants. But is our ultimate goal to score political points or to live in a peaceful world where we cooperate on real problems like climate change? America is strongest when it leads by example, by remaining open, generous and free.
My son, a product of these two great nations, was born in Shanghai in November. When I hold him, I wonder whether a war or other troubles might lead to our deportation or force painful choices on his American father and Chinese mother. China’s people are still welcoming; strangers sometimes approach me to say that they appreciate having foreigners in their country or to say things like “U.S.A., number one!”
Those sweet and encouraging moments needn’t disappear. But we must make smart choices. Canceling an important diplomatic visit to China over a balloon was our choice; moving past that could be our choice, too.
I just returned to Shanghai from my first trip home to Virginia in three years. To my relief, I didn’t sense belligerence toward China. Many people agreed with me that our policies and political rhetoric didn’t make sense.
Maybe we’ll figure out a better way forward. But I’m keeping the red underpants handy just in case.
Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor who has lived in Shanghai for most of the past 15 years.
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