Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Chrissy Teigen is right. Anti-China invectives “put a target on Asian people’s backs,” yet the rhetoric gets more hysterical by the day, spanning the full spectrum from QAnon to the Democratic Party, and from city streets to the halls of state. What’s going on?
The earliest Asia-bashing in the West was China-bashing, and history shows it was periodically deployed to defend the privileged classes in Europe. We are living through one of those moments now, so it might help if we understood how the practice originated.
The earliest anti-Asian mudslinging was aimed at China because its very existence threatened Europe’s race and class-based hierarchies. This isn’t to say that imperial China didn’t have its own inequities, but Western ire toward China erupted at the very moment that China’s example exposed institutionalized privilege in the West. China today offers an alternative to austerity independent of ideology, and the mudslinging has started again.
In Ancien Regime France, you had to be French, Catholic, and noble to exercise power. Louis Le Comte’s 1697 Memoires explained how any educated man in China could serve in government. His book was banned, then burned.
Christian Wolff admired China’s secular moral system and the religious tolerance it enabled. He was told to leave town in 24 hours or be hanged.
Such dire threats to aristocracy called for a smear campaign. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) thereupon invented the two most toxic anti-Asian stereotypes in history: The Despotic Oriental and the untrustworthy, or Sneaky Oriental. To this day these stereotypes infect our hate speech, our history textbooks, and our foreign policy.
Western Civilization textbooks tell us that Baron Montesquieu was a champion of liberty and a critic of despotism. What they don’t mention is that “liberty” back then referred to the privileges of the nobility. Europe’s feudal notion of “liberty” in fact, was one reason why China seemed so strange to men like Montesquieu.
Late Imperial China had no aristocracy. Its government administration welcomed men of all races and class backgrounds. So long as they could demonstrate competence in blind civil service exams, the Ministry of Personnel (not the emperor) would assign them an office.
Montesquieu dubbed that system “despotism” because it would deprive men like himself of their liberties: “Abolish the privileges of the lords, of the clergy, and of the cities in a monarchy; and you will soon have a popular state, or else a despotic government.”
Your textbook also didn’t mention those liberties that people in China enjoyed, but Europeans didn’t. One was that men and women, rich and poor, could utilize the justice system because the state paid the cost of legal services. Grievance Offices allowed anyone to blow the whistle, anonymously. Innocence was presumptive, and capital cases required review by a higher court.
In addition to positive liberties such as blowing whistles, we now recognize “negative” liberties, such as freedom from obstacles to living. Mencius maintained that all people should be free to make a living, and “live their lives happily with full bellies.” As a result, Imperial China adopted statist policies on a large scale.
These included a progressive tax system; state administered disaster relief, and no-interest loans of grain and tools for needy farmers, among others. All that social spending was justified on the principle of promoting the people’s happiness.
Finally, as in the Muslim World stretching from the Middle East to South Asia, religious toleration in China was standard.
Why should Western Civilization textbooks mention all that? Because when news of those policies made its way to Europe, progressive thinkers like Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, and many more began calling for an end to hereditary privilege, seeking a government more responsive to people’s needs.
In the opening pages of Common Sense (1770), Thomas Paine’s remedy for aristocratic abuse included: 1. abolish hereditary privilege; 2. take the power of appointment away from the monarch, and 3. establish the people’s happiness as the legitimate end of government.
All three made their way into the American political system, and all three were standard practice in China, but this only further energized the Despotic Oriental myth.
The New China Threat
China’s merit-based government, along with its statist policies, constituted an existential threat to Western aristocracy.
The fact that some of Europe’s leading intellectuals embraced those policies constituted a threat to European face.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a solution for both. Though familiar with the Enlightenment literature on China, he chose to ignore it, declaring in Philosophy of History that “The Emperor is the Patriarch—the supreme authority in matters of religion and science as well as government.”
By resurrecting the Despotic Oriental, Hegel created a totalizing fantasy portraying all individual perspectives as extinguished within the singular consciousness of an all-powerful despot. That fantasy served as an apt foil for the “liberty” Hegel would attribute to European tradition.
But totalizing fantasies about ethnic others are, by definition, racist.
Hegel’s reductive racism reappears almost verbatim in John King Fairbank’s Cold War textbooks from the 60s, the main source of China knowledge for generations of China hands.
It resurfaced again in Samuel Huntington’sClash of Civilizations. That theory divides the entire world into democratic and authoritarian camps, The West and The Rest. Huntington’s zero-sum framework cajoles readers into believing that those Western aristocracies Tom Paine detested must have been democratic all along.
As Foreign Affairs described it, “any of the Huntington civilizations can be summoned in a moment to ratify whatever action the West and its remaining superpower deem rightful.” Nowadays we might call it just so much “malarky,” so how did it acquire that much influence?
Western Civilization textbooks conduct ethnic cleansing on non-European sources for Western history. Whether it’s the Islamic world or Imperial China, key discoveries from across the globe get systematically erased, leaving the impression that every noble concept in human history was the spawn of Western genius.
It is, of course, that textbook account of the West that erases the humanity of the Rest. In place of “Asian genius,” we are left with stereotypes like the Sneaky Oriental.
The Sneaky Oriental
Montesquieu maintained that “honor” was a characteristic feature of aristocracies but China, as you’ll recall, didn’t have one. On this foundation, Hegel expanded his totalizing account of China’s national character:
“As no honor exists, and no one has an individual right in respect of others, the consciousness of debasement predominates, and this easily passes into that of utter abandonment. With this abandonment is connected the great immorality of the Chinese. They are notorious for deceiving wherever they can.”
The 19th century literally went to town with Hegel’s stereotype. Witch trials were not a feature of late imperial Chinese culture, yet period theater fantasized about white men accused of witchcraft by the sneaky Chinese.
In the 20th century, John King Fairbank made the Sneaky Oriental the Cold War gold standard for academic rigor. From his books, sinologists like myself learned how to dismiss as false any impressive achievement in China’s history. Since anything a Chinese person might say was suspect, scholars could dismiss whatever they pleased, putting their own words into Chinese mouths.
Washington’s China hawks deploy a similar method to good effect.
Anti-Asian Dog whistles and Foreign Policy
When the Trump administration first started its anti-China campaign, it was quickly recognized as an attempt to scapegoat China for Trump’s disastrous policies. Unabashed, Trump Team persisted, and before long a fixed set of dog whistles appeared in the media ranging from Breitbart to mainstream venues.
Mike Pompeo called for a “clean” network, with Chinese tech products being smeared as “untrusted,” Although no credible evidence of government tampering had been documented, Trump’s base certainly took on board the racial slurs masquerading as policy.
After the election, Joe Biden and his team set about reversing many of Trump’s racist policies, but not when it came to China. The recent China Economic and Security Review Commission report comes straight out of the Trump Team playbook.
In the report, actions applauded in Western nations—such as building prosperity or developing new technologies—were demonized as “aggressive” for China. The report in fact, used the term “aggressive” 39 times because, if you say it often enough, it must be true.
The commission’s co-chair declared “The story the Chinese Communist Party ‘is telling around the world is one that is often based on lies and half-truths.” Not surprisingly, her committee proposed a Huntingtonian front by the West against the Rest.
To appreciate the subtle racism informing the report’s rhetoric, consider how the press responded to a genuine threat from white people. Back in December when Russian hackers compromised key U.S. agencies, the Washington Post and its sources responded as follows:
“The Russians used a variety of sophisticated tricks to penetrate the networks in last year’s attack . . . ‘We are not going to keep a nation-state attacker who has targeted you out,’ said Williams, president of Rendition Infosec. ‘They are going to outfox you.’”
The China threat remains pure speculation, while the Russians have ruptured our national security, yet the first is a “threat”, and the latter “sophisticated”. It would be naive to imagine race was not a factor here.
White Nationalism Goes Left
The New Republic recently published a piece on White Nationalist Steve Bannon’s anti-Chinese campaign as well as his collusion with the Republican Party and their media enablers like the lunatic Epoch Times. Fox News retains its anti-China fever, and a rebranded QAnon is now conflating Chinese and Jewish people as existential threats.
There are in fact good reasons why White Nationalists vilify all things Chinese. Apart from serving as scapegoat, China’s political system stands as a living refutation of two propositions White Nationalists hold dear: 1. The intrinsic superiority of the White Race; 2. The confusion of austerity economics with Freedom.
The former requires no elaboration, but the latter is in fact the key. During the past forty years, austerity economics has become a core feature of American-style democracy. Our free-market electoral system is the product of that transformation.
The problem is that austerity generates rampant inequality. Privilege is empowered by inequality, and that invites populist movements on the right, and a credibility gap on the left. Both lead to instability, but right-wing ideologues fear that less than social spending.
To justify this new “democracy,” authorities claim that a corporation’s liberty to manipulate elections is necessary to protect free speech. The pandemic exposed the lie in that theory. Such measures may protect liberty in Montesquieu’s sense, but they do nothing to promote liberties such as the right to carry on your life free from poverty, violence, or disease.
In contrast, if you look at China’s major policy initiatives, most have been beneficial to the populace (and others not), which is why our Republican Party would reject every last one:
• Republicans invest in green energy? No way, and so China is the world leader in green technology.
• Invest in high-speed rail? No way, yet China’s rail network has energized economic growth.
• Invest big-time in the poor? No way, yet China has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle class.
• Finally, despite that never-to-be-forgiven hesitation at the beginning of the pandemic, China acted effectively to prevent the virus from ravaging the population. That required concerted action from the central government in cooperation with local governments. Again, Republicans flatly reject that approach.
All these efforts yielded palpable gains for China’s people, which is why the risk of far-right populist movements in China is low. Whether you’re talking feudalism or proto-fascism, inequality is the precondition for privilege, so it’s natural that Republican apostles of austerity see China as a threat.
What remains puzzling is why the Biden administration should see those same policies as requiring a crusade by White Nations united against the Yellow Peril? This race-based agenda makes even less sense when you consider that Biden’s professed goals argue strongly for cooperation with China.
• Biden supports a scientific response to climate crisis, and there is widespread agreement that the human race will not survive unless the U.S. and China work together.
• Biden’s solutions to the pandemic echo closely those pioneered in China.
• Like the Chinese government, Biden plans to invest in underdeveloped regions of the country, is sympathetic to high-speed rail, and wants to expand the middle class.
Biden’s progressive vision reassures the left, yet his foreign policy remains as ill-considered and as biased as Trump’s. The hallmark of China-bias, as always, is the double standard, so when Biden seeks to expand the middle class, his team calls it Democracy; when China achieves that goal, it’s Authoritarian.
In fact, there is no apocalyptic divide here except in the racist imagination. The Republican Party’s austerity addiction shares more with Erdogan’s AKP than with the old Republican Party, while Biden’s statist reforms share more with China than with Tea Party Republicans.
In today’s world no nation–East or West–fits the stereotypes anymore. If we are to survive this chapter in human history, the left needs to acknowledge that its alliance with right-wing sociopaths is corroding its own, core values. It is those values that will permit the nation to survive climate disaster, not the nation per se, and certainly not the race.