By Day, Students Rebuke US; at Night, Apply to US Schools
Beijing's angry criticisms of "American imperialism" in everything from human rights to pop culture often mask a huge gap between ordinary Chinese and their rulers.
Beyond a wall of communist values - and the portrayal of the US as an arrogant power in the state-run press - are much more varied perceptions of America by Chinese people.
"China actually contains two cultures, and two ways of looking at the United States," says a student at Beijing's Foreign Studies University.
"On the surface, in the papers, is the official culture. Beneath that are the culture and the outlooks of real people," adds the student, who preferred to identified herself only as Ms. Jiang.
"Students who want to join the [Communist] Party denounce the US in class for acting like a colonial power by trying to impose its model of basic rights on China," she says. "But some of the same figures spend every night cramming for entrance exams to American universities," she adds.
Jiang says that she and some classmates in foreign studies privately agree with the US position that human rights are universal values that should not be blocked at China's borders.
But not even the most liberal-minded Chinese university students want to see the US become a "world policeman," she says.
"Many Chinese dislike it when the US seems to dictate to the rest of the world," she says, citing as an example Washington's opposition to Beijing's bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2000.
Yet meiguo, the Chinese term for America that means "beautiful country," is for many Chinese a prosperous land of opportunity and a global beacon of hedonistic fun.
Despite Beijing's efforts to place cultural screens on its opening to the West, Hollywood's influence is rolling through China like a juggernaut.
"Although China officially allows only 10 Western films to enter the country each year, pirated copies of American videos are sold in most Chinese cities," says Jiang.
"The endless remakes of films about revolutionary heroes ... here cannot compete with the lure and excitement of American movies for most young people," she adds. She says that many Chinese youths believe the US resembles Hollywood's silver-screen portraits rather than the distorted snapshot images produced by China's tightly controlled press.
Yet she adds that while "the US seems very exciting and rich, some Chinese are frightened by the excesses of freedom that plague America."
"From the movies, it seems that Americans are very privileged, but also very casual about sex, guns, and drugs," she says.
Chinese who study the West or who have relatives in the US have a deeper understanding of its balances between individual freedom and social order, Jiang says.
"But the less-educated and the naive tend to believe everything they see in American movies, just as they reject much of the party's propaganda," she adds.
While America's pop culture or promise of prosperity still acts as a Pied Piper for the adventurous, "some Chinese, raised with Confucian ideas of social conservatism, are both fascinated with and shocked by the Wild West attitudes of Americans," she says.
"Ironically, that has helped the Communist Party," she says.
"Some Chinese, especially in the older generations, say if democracy means anyone can freely buy a gun or take drugs, then China does not need democracy."