Over the past several decades, the U.S.-China relationship has evolved significantly. During this period, both countries have come to better understand each other’s perspectives and view of the world. And both countries have come to realize that only by working closely together can we successfully address a number of pressing issues that affect us all.

However, from time to time, the U.S.-China relationship has become strained—and not due to issues of substance, but due to a lack of cultural awareness. For example, in the past both the United States and China have exchanged public comments that have had unintended consequences: the language used created the opposite response than was hoped or intended.

Words Matter

In most circumstances, publicly challenging or embarrassing Chinese leaders will backfire. In response, they likely will take a more hardened position both publicly and privately leading to a breakdown of cooperation.

Although scapegoating China may play well to American audiences, it strokes anti-American sentiments in China—and not just by its leadership. U.S. comments that appear to disrespect China or push it around only ramp up feelings of national pride by its citizenry. And negative comments usually are immediately disseminated via the media, blogs and websites throughout China. This makes it more difficult for Chinese leaders to find common ground with the United States.

Understanding China 101

From the Chinese leadership’s perspective, being soft in the face of anti-Chinese rhetoric is tantamount to being weak. The reasons for this have deep historical roots.

For example, Chinese citizens and their textbooks often refer to the “hundred years of shame” when referring to foreign invasions and manipulation. Although various events occurred well into China’s past, the sensitivity nevertheless remains.

As a result, statements or actions that harken to China’s days of being the “sick man of Asia” or the “hundred years of shame” likely will be greeted with anger and may even lead to riots. But that’s not all. Negative comments also destroy or damage day to day business exchanges, contacts, negotiations and opportunities.

Disagree With Respect

U.S. policymakers need not avoid all negative comments when dealing with China. However, when disagreeing, it’s important not to demonstrate a lack of respect for China’s position in the world or to insinuate that China in a less-than-equal partner.

As Americans and as the world’s sole superpower, our words are magnified over and over again. If we want to generate goodwill and establish a sincere partnership with China, it’s far better to magnify our good intentions and desire to work together. In the end, the United States and China must cooperate to tackle pressing issues, like the global financial crisis, that will greatly affect both countries now and well into the 21st Century.

Shawn Mahoney, Director of EP Consulting Group, has 15 years of China-related experience and is fluent in Chinese. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  This article appeared in Impact Analysis, March-April 2009.

Shawn Mahoney
About The Author Shawn Mahoney [Full Bio]
Shawn Mahoney is the Managing Director of EP Consulting Group and Board President of EMC2 the World. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Shawn is focused on China business consulting, China trade compliance and global competence development and training.

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