Political Behavior

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 247–263 | Cite as

Consistency and change in American perceptions of China

  • Matthew S. Hirshberg


The cold war dominated American perceptions of the People's Republic of China during the 1950s and 1960s, and opinions of China were correspondingly negative. Improved Sino-American relations, accompanied by domestic reforms in China, led to a gradual improvement in American attitudes toward China during the 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s, Americans held positive perceptions of China and its relations with the United States, but continued to view the People's Republic as communist and undemocratic. This sort of inconsistency is characteristic of periods of cognitive transition: some established perceptions are slower to change than others, and this results in structural imbalance. The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 interrupted this transitional process and sent perceptions of China shooting back toward balanced, cold war stereotypes. The massacre set the Chinese government in a clear symbolic struggle against freedom and democracy. This rekindled latent cold war images of China and elicited disapproving rhetoric from American leaders. The result was a quick reversion to negative perceptions of China, structured by a lingering cold war schema. These processes are demonstrated through the presentation of a study that explores the cognitive structure of perceptions of China both before and after the massacre.


Chinese Government Positive Perception Cognitive Structure Gradual Improvement Cognitive Transition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew S. Hirshberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of CanterburyChrist-churchNew Zealand

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