In the Cold War's early days, Americans from all walks of life streamed into developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, on official business. They were the United States' public face, supposed to outclass the stiff rhetoric and official detachment of the Soviet Union through good old boy warmth.
But this narrative was fantasy. The Americans who turned up abroad were far too often incompetent, arrogant, and unwilling to learn about their new environs or the people who lived in them. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer's 1958 novel about U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia, The Ugly American, devastatingly lifted the lid on the bumbling arrogance and distance from local culture that characterized amateur American diplomacy.
The book's thesis is simple, and neatly summarized by one character: Ruth Jyoti, a Burmese journalist. “I regret having to say this, most of you don't make the effort,” she says to an oblivious State Department official, adding, “I could stand here all night and tell you stories about one American mistake after another.”
The Ugly American left a lasting impact. The term “ugly American” came to describe loud, disruptive American tourists (despite the book's titular ugly American actually being knowledgeable and committed to cultural adaptation). Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, was so enamored with the novel that he sent a copy to each of his Senate colleagues; in June 1959, he took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to promote the book. As president, Kennedy reorganized American engagement with the developing world by creating institutions such as the Peace Corps. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for its part, is very much a response to the book's call for a “small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals” who are experts in their host countries' problems.
The result? American officials overseas today are no longer isolated in their embassies and at their dinner parties. Instead, they are knowledgeable, committed to their work, and generally able to make a difference, despite occasional missteps.
Yet The Ugly American's lessons nonetheless remain pertinent, both for the United States and its greatest contemporary competitor: China. Indeed, China, for all its wealth and expertise, continues to repeat the United States' errors around the world—thus undermining Beijing's global ambitions by displacing the positive image of the economically successful Chinese with the ugly image of its counterparts abroad.
This ugliness was on display when I lived in Cambodia in 2018 and 2019. China is Cambodia's greatest economic and political patron; Cambodia is arguably China's most pliant partner. This relationship has brought Chinese officials, businesspeople affiliated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and, lamentably, a number of criminal actors into the country.
This Chinese presence has turned many Cambodians against China, despite the two countries' shared religious and cultural traditions. Indeed, throughout my time there—and throughout the country, from Phnom Penh's bustling markets to Svay Rieng's spartan villages—Cambodians complained about China, but more often about the Chinese themselves.
On a sweltering day just over two years ago, one Phnom Penh street vendor explained this frustration simply: “The barang (white foreigners) come here, they might get drunk and act stupid, but at least they spend money at our businesses. The Chinese? They get drunk, commit crimes, and spend money only at Chinese businesses.”
And while this might be hyperbolic, his point isn't wrong.
Chinese expats in Cambodia, like elsewhere in the developing world, do tend to self-segregate, meaning that the benefits of Chinese money are not shared with the local population. This only exacerbates longstanding tensions between local Southeast Asian communities and the Chinese diaspora there, historically already a target of discrimination.
To borrow a popular Cold War-era Asian description of American behavior (one used in The Ugly American), Chinese expats engage in “Social Incest in the Golden Ghetto”: They often cloister themselves off from broader society, going largely to Chinese businesses rather than mixing with locals or other foreigners. They, like yesterday's Americans, tend to meet only with local business and political leaders: a “special class” of “Asians who wear collars and ties,” as Jyoti, the fictional journalist, said. The Chinese today, like Americans then, have “have real difficulty meeting any other sort,” again per Jyoti.
Yet it is the plentiful stories of Chinese criminal behavior in Cambodia—kidnapping, sex trafficking, prostitution, and murder—that are most responsible for China's image problems.
This unattractive behavior stems mainly from China's inability to control the byproducts of the BRI. Beijing presents the initiative as highly centralized and coordinated, but it is, in reality, only a “highly centralized and coordinated marketing campaign” attached to the profit-driven motives of China's state-run and state-aligned companies. These firms—the ones actually building BRI projects—generally hire Chinese workers “who would otherwise be unemployed in China,” partially to tamp domestic unemployment concerns but also seemingly to save costs. The firms also frequently embark on ill-conceived projects beyond the BRI's bounds (sometimes even falsely claiming the BRI brand to attract business).
Abundant stories of Chinese racism also don't help.
In Cambodia, one Chinese businessman proudly told a visiting reporter: “Without us Chinese coming here and creating jobs for them, the Cambodians would only have a mango a day to eat. … They are so backward.” In Kenya, a Chinese boss called the country's people monkeys; another Chinese boss there beat his Kenyan employee on video. In Zambia, Chinese businesses defied Covid-19 lockdown measures but refused to serve local Black customers. Lusaka Mayor Miles Sampa later accused Chinese bosses in the capital of “slavery reloaded.”
Worries about cultural insensitivity used to be part of public discourse in China, with experts—and diplomats—calling for businesses and expatriates to be more sensitive to local needs. But as the Chinese government increasingly cast the BRI as a key point of ideological and geopolitical contest with the West, those criticisms stopped being public. In private, it's a concern China's diplomats still raise—especially those who have spent years learning the languages and politics of other nations.
But Chinese diplomats themselves are increasingly given to such blunders. In March 2021, Zhang Heqing, a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, tweeted a video of a belly-exposed woman dancing with the caption: “Off your hijab, let me see your eyes.” Scores of Pakistani Twitter users promptly slammed Zhang for insulting Islam. Pakistan is a deeply conservative Muslim country; for many Pakistanis, telling a woman to take off her hijab is a profound affront.
It is stunning that a Chinese diplomat did not know this. What's all the more remarkable is that Zhang is the Chinese embassy's cultural counselor—the one person there most expected to understand Pakistani culture, which he clearly did not.
Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping's preference for assertiveness on the global stage has only further tarnished his country's diplomatic face. His push for “wolf warrior diplomacy”—a reference to the 2017 film Wolf Warrior II, in which Rambo-like Chinese soldiers defeat American-led mercenaries in Africa—has prompted Chinese diplomats to exhibit an increasingly “stiff-jawed, macho confidence,” reminiscent of an earlier era of American diplomacy, that plays poorly abroad. Such posturing also evinces the most crucial way in which China is following in the United States' ill-trodden path: by treating seemingly every other country as a junior partner to be dictated to, rather than one to be worked with.
But other countries are “big boys,” not juniors, as Solomon Asch, one of The Ugly American's best American diplomats, says just over halfway into the book. “Don't kid yourself, gentlemen,” he tells his colleagues, “Unless you feel they're equals and act on that feeling, they'll never respond. Make someone feel inferior in a negotiating situation, and he'll be the toughest guy around the table.”
The United States has largely if inconsistently learned this lesson. American diplomats do try to approach smaller countries on more equal terms, rather than simply making demands of them—although there are notable exceptions
China, too, makes a real effort on this front: one of Beijing's biggest advantages is that it can and does roll out the red carpet for leaders of small countries, offering them high-level meetings and development funds without human rights demands, which many developing world governments see as a form of Western bullying.
China's international image poll numbers may be crashing the world over—reaching historic lows in upper-income countries and maintaining poor public opinion in some parts of the developing world (namely, the Philippines, Turkey, and India)—but Beijing is nonetheless diplomatically triumphant over the West with most developing countries in contexts such as the United Nations, because Chinese leaders work their counterparts abroad very successfully.
The Cambodian public, for its part, might have increasingly unfavorable views of China, but Xi has repeatedly cozied up to Prime Minister Hun Sen, treating him “as an equal,” in the Cambodian's own words.
Cambodia, accordingly, has over the last few years repeatedly prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from issuing statements critical of China or contesting Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea. And in late 2019, Cambodia joined 49 other countries to commend China's achievements in “protecting and promoting human rights through development” after 22 largely European democracies criticized Beijing's large-scale detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Among the 50 signatories of the commending letter were countries—such as the Philippines—whose citizens might not like China, but whose current leaders certainly do.
As I've written elsewhere, this divergence between public and government sentiment on China is increasingly evident, and dangerous, across the developing world. Recent months have seen anti-China protests in the Philippines and even violent anti-Chinese attacks in Pakistan. But developing world leaders, particularly those of non-democracies, will continue courting China, appreciating both Beijing's personal flattery and, more prosaically, its financial support.
Still, China's fiercely hierarchical worldview—its leaders believe that the world should accept a Sino-centric order organized around brute power, of which China will be the greatest holder—will likely continue backfiring in parts of the developing world, as it already has in the developed world. Indeed, this attitude is China's “most fundamental problem,” according to one former Japanese diplomat; it has already lost Beijing friends.
If the past is prologue, then, China will continue to run into trouble abroad, particularly among publics in the developing world, despite Beijing's seemingly endless flow of capital, and the West's inability to keep up financially.
But Cold War-era U.S. failures nonetheless teach us that money alone cannot buy victory. Great powers win only by spending the human price—by investing in top-quality diplomats and aid workers, for starters. Yet to China's detriment, this price is not yet one its top leaders consider worth paying, despite the diplomatic corps' decades-long effort to do just that. Until Xi and others in Beijing think otherwise, an ugly stereotype of Chinese abroad will persist, muddying the waters and perhaps dragging down China's global ambitions to a point of no return.