Last week, United States Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo attended a press conference of the second round of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Beijing, China. At the conference, China and the United States agreed to enhance mutual trust through more intensive dialogue for a stable and mature relationship. According to a press release issued by the Chinese, “The relationship of China and the United States, respectively as the world’s largest developing and developed countries, is immensely important to the world, and the key to sound relations is strengthening mutual trust.”
The relationship between the United States and China is inarguably one of the most – if not the most – important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. The two countries are often considered to be neither allies nor enemies, and the relationship is considered by analysts of Sino-American relations to be both complex and multi-faceted.
Cross-cultural psychologists have grown famous for uncovering East-West differences in just about every domain of social psychology, but there are fewer studies that take real-life political events happening at that moment and attempt to build theories of Sino-American relations around those events. Recently, social psychologists from both the United States and Asia came together in a special section of the Asian Journal of Social Psychology to discuss the psychosocial ramifications of one such major political event – the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In one paper within this section, researchers discuss the irony that although the Beijing Olympic Games were intended to elicit feelings of international unity (hence the slogan “One World, One Dream”), once participants were reminded of the Beijing Games via subtle and indirect exposure to the Beijing Olympic icon, both Chinese and Americans high in nationalism and patriotism perceived greater differences between Chinese and American cultures, compared to those low in nationalism and patriotism. On a more explicit level, however, the two groups seemed to differ: whereas Chinese associated the Games with the “One World, One Dream” slogan, Americans associated the Games with a burgeoning Chinese competitiveness. Authors explain the findings as a cognitive contrast effect such that as long as the Olympic Games symbolize a co-presence of the U.S. and China simultaneously – whether the intergroup relationship is perceived to be friendly or competitive – the Games will lead to a psychological contrast between the ingroup and the outgroup and, in so doing, heightened perceived cultural differences. The authors further emphasize that although Chinese participants might be acutely aware of the differences between the U.S. and China, they do not necessarily associate these differences with hostility, but instead understand them as an opportunity to learn from the U.S. in order to eventually realize the “One World, One Dream” ideal. Americans, however, apparently associate the Games with competition between China and themselves and this same awareness of how they are different from China might only serve to intensify any adversarial feelings.
Like the conclusions drawn from the recent dialogue between the U.S. and China, psychologists stress that it is increasingly vital for research to inform strategies that might, at the very least, help make both countries cognizant of how they are perceived by each other. They claim that awareness of our differences, understanding how those differences come about and what they mean to the outgroup, and being ready to reconcile discrepant motivations are essential to preemptively assuage any potential discord caused by different expectations and different hopes for the future world order.