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Welcoming China to Modernity: US Fantasies of Chinese Automobility

Cotten Seiler

A touch of automobiliousness makes the whole world kin. —Winthrop Scarritt, 1906

In the early 1990s, China embarked on a road-building program that will, by 2020, put fifty-three thousand miles of superhighways across the landscape (there are twenty-five thousand currently), surpassing the United States’ forty-seven thousand-mile Interstate Highway System. The state’s monumental initiative is the official manifestation of the car culture currently being constructed by and for the expanding middle class, for whom car ownership is a mark of membership. Government statistics for 2008 counted 19.47 million privately owned cars, a 28 percent increase from the previous year, and China overtook the United States in car sales volume in 2009.1 Nonstate institutions attending to automobiles and drivers, such as car dealerships, insurance and rental agencies, mechanic shops, driving schools, and car clubs, are proliferating. So, too, are instances of roadside vernacular architecture, such as gas stations, fast-food outlets, car-dependent residential and shopping districts, and car-themed popular culture.2 China is, in other words, installing the apparatus of automobility. This term describes the interlocking set of economic, social, philosophical, legal, political, and aesthetic structures and psychological dispositions that facilitates automobile use on a grand scale. Given the potential effects of China’s automobility on its economy, politics, and environment, and on those of the entire world, it is not surprising that its growth has been marveled at and fretted over around the world. Where, asks a chorus of voices, will China’s automobility lead?

This essay investigates how recent US media accounts of automobility in China answer this question. It positions these accounts against the dual backdrop of the long tradition of American knowledge production about China and the United States’ own commitment to automobility as a built environment and maker of political subjects. Over the past decade, mainstream US news and general-interest media, from the New York Times to CNN to the Christian Science Monitor, have construed China’s automobility as evidence of its long-delayed attainment of modernity; that is, they have celebrated driving and car ownership in China as key resources for the renovation of its political culture according to a United States – Western blueprint. By this fantastic logic, automobility performs a sort of missionary work. In conjunction with other politically significant novel everyday practices and institutions, it fosters a postsocialist subjectivity anchored in individual autonomy, agency, and freedom.3 This optimistic scenario is challenged, however, by a parallel depiction of an automobilized China growing thirstier for global resources — petroleum most critically — and in its increasing acquisitiveness poised to impair US hegemony and bring about environmental catastrophe.

As we consider the enthralled, anxious US chroniclers of Chinese automobility, we might ask, as the political scientist Harold Isaacs did in 1958, “Insofar as they [Americans] have had to react [to Asia’s impact on the United States], what did they have from their past to react with? . . . What are [the] ideas that reach them, where do they come from, what do they feed upon?”4 Recent reports of Chinese automobility both recapitulate and revise narratives that have been shaped and reshaped in changing historical contexts of political, economic, and spiritual interest in China. From the first published accounts and artifact exhibitions in the eighteenth century to the 2008 Discovery Channel series The People’s Republic of Capitalism, US missionaries, merchants, artists, journalists, and scholars have created and consumed knowledge about China. This knowledge has been positioned within multiple, often overlapping rhetorical frames of admiration, bemusement, disdain, pity, eroticism, paternalism, romance, and dread.

The accounts of Chinese automobility described below both draw on and challenge this body of narratives and images, which has long helped maintain particular arrangements of social, political, and economic power, generally, though not always, to the advantage of dominant groups.5 The exigencies of specific historical moments have occasioned shifts from the generally derisive characterizations of China (and of Chinese and Chinese American people) to more favorable ones, or vice versa. For example, when Chinese sojourning and immigration to the United States increased over the economically volatile decades of the late nineteenth century, popular representations that emphasized the industriousness of the Chinese and their role in building the agricultural and transport infrastructure of the continental West gave way to those that conveyed Chinese servility, sensualism, treachery, and violence. By the 1870s, the belief that the Chinese were lesser creatures by virtue of their cultural inheritance or biological makeup became codified in laws that classified them as unfit for citizenship in the republic (as in the 1878 Supreme Court case In re Ah Yup and the numerous federal acts of exclusion from 1882 forward) and in foreign policy that flouted the sovereignty of China (as in the 1858 Tientsin and 1868 Burlingame treaties).6 By contrast, World War II and the immediate postwar years tempered the most egregious representations of the Chinese and led to the repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, as China was both wartime ally and early Cold War prize. After the victory of the Communists in 1949, however, popular images of the Chinese in US media tended once again toward the grotesque.7 Frequently, during the Cold War, seemingly contradictory representations worked in tandem to justify a status quo arrangement of national and racial power. Menacing depictions of “Red China” that shored up support for Cold War objectives shared the cultural stage with images of Chinese Americans as an assimilationist “model minority.”

I survey this history as a reminder that “China” and “Chinese” are products of ongoing discursive construction by powerful institutions and that therefore their accuracy has often been at odds with their role in justifying a variety of domestic and international objectives.8 These objectives have included shoring up white supremacy, legitimating expeditionary war and empire, and facilitating American self-definition as a pluralist democracy. The end of the Cold War, the global entry and expansion of the Chinese economy since 1989, and the waning of US political and economic hegemony form the context for the revised US image of China this essay investigates. I argue that the recent US depictions of the automobilizing Chinese landscape and population convey a new ideal of congruence between China and the United States, one that posits individual autonomy and mobility (the etymological building blocks of automobility) as emblematic of liberalcapitalist modernity.

This re-presentation of China as increasingly identical to the United States partakes in what we might call late orientalism; it simultaneously praises and condemns the other for losing its otherness and retains positional superiority even when faced with the decline of US hegemony. This register rings clearly in discussions of automobility’s politically transformational character, but it also surfaces in regard to its environmental consequences. The latter-day automobility of the global South (China and India especially) has entered into many Americans’ consciousness, especially as they confront their own landscapes of sprawl and environmental degradation wrought by a century of compulsory automobility. The discourse on Chinese automobility thus features a good deal of hand-wringing, tinged with moralism, over the construction boom, auto-related fatalities, greenhouse gas output, and the petroleum consumption of China’s “masses.” Ultimately, both “takes” on China’s automobility — as democracy’s helpmeet and as harbinger of climate apocalypse — encourage US audiences to retain a sense of their nation as benevolent hegemon, guiding other nations to maturity.

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I thank James Watson-Krips, Weng Zuji, David Strand, Claire Bowen, the reviewers for this journal, and the participants in the “Producing Knowledge about China” symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, May 2010.



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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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