Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – Recently the Brookings Institute held a panel on “The national security implications of anti-Asian racism.” Noting that Asian peoples worldwide tend to link U.S. China policy with anti-Asian violence, Brookings scholars explained how those policies can weaken U.S. influence abroad.
But those views are not mainstream. In the U.S. Congress, China-bashing is welcomed by Republicans and Democrats alike, not much different from 130 years ago. Two years before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act a Puck columnist wrote “What possible difference can it make to John Chinaman whether Democrats or Republicans have the upper hand? Both parties are his enemies.”
i>Where both platforms agree–no vote–no use to either party / J.A. Wales, Puck, July 14th, 1880. Image is from the Library of Congress and is in the public domain.
Unlike America in 1880, liberals these days pride themselves on sensitivity to racist memes. Calling black protestors criminals would be vigorously denounced; smearing all Muslims as terrorists likewise; labeling Hispanics rapists didn’t get far with liberals either, any more than Jew-baiting would, but China-bashing has a way of working its way into the most liberal habitats without detection.
Take the PBS series “Around the World in Eighty Days,” which displayed plenty of good, liberal credentials. Almost every episode was imbued with a keen sensitivity to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In the South Asian village episode, we met with many sympathetic characters, including a beautiful pair of young lovers and an intelligent Brahmin woman who deftly countered Mr. Fogg’s colonial biases.
But when it comes to the Hong Kong episode, there are no Chinese loving couples; no intelligent men or women; no one who comes across as “human just like me.” The only Chinese person we meet is a sneaky, ruthless gangster with an obsessive obedience to something I think was supposed to be “Confucian ritual.”
In India Ms. Fix was happy to eat with her hands, but in Hong Kong she shouts in disgust (paraphrase) “Thousands of years of civilization and they haven’t learned to use knives and forks!” Of course, what White people do is always better than what dark people do, and those dark folks had better catch up.
I don’t doubt that the screen writers meant well; possibly they had been misinformed.
Elsewhere I’ve explained how the sneaky Chinese stereotype began with Enlightenment figures like Fénelon, who was in disbelief that the Chinese could have been as advanced as Europeans. Racially inferior, they couldn’t have accomplished so much unless they had cheated!
Hegel’s Philosophy of History intensified that myth, which survives today as a center piece in the Trump/Biden campaign to paint Chinese officials, enterprises, and scientists as irrevocably dishonest.
Speaking of dishonesty, that is the central theme in the recent film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. The plot makes liberal use of China stereotypes, but likely no one will notice because the film is crammed with virtuous sentiments.
The heroine is wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh’s daughter in the film has a woman partner, but we soon learn that Yeoh and her father don’t approve, and verbally abuse their children to boot.
The central theme revolves around Michelle Yeoh’s attempt to cheat the IRS by claiming to own an impossibly large number of unrelated businesses so she can write off every mundane payment as a business expense.
This is the sneaky, double-dealing Chinese of the Trumpian imagination, but not everyone will see past the film’s laudable defense of personally chosen gender identities.
For those who aren’t liberal, what is likely to stick is this: here is a film made by Chinese people, and even they admit that the Chinese abuse their children and cheat on their taxes! So, what are they good for?
At a time when Asian people are being pushed in front of trains, you have to wonder how a film like that could help? Presumably the screen writers’ intentions were honest, but the result only reinforces stereotypes being pushed in Washington and across the media.
Ang Lee’s 1993 film Wedding Banquet addressed many of the same themes—gender intolerance; mendacity—but his film was suffused with warm humor and what in Chinese is called renqing, that sympathy for the human condition which comes from knowing that we all make mistakes. Like the term “liberal” in its original sense, renqing requires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
Wedding Banquet shows that life’s tragedies often are inflicted, not by inveterate villains, but by those who love us, and not because they are racially defective, but because of ignorance, misunderstanding, or misdirected kindness, all these being common features of the human condition.
In the “Everything” film, the children awaken their parents to what we are supposed to see as modern, Western virtues like tolerance and honesty (think “Trump”). In the Ang Lee film, we discover it isn’t only the children who have something to teach; it turns out the children have preconceptions too, because we’re all human.
I would like to see a film featuring Mencius’ core value, spontaneous empathy for the vulnerable. The Bourne Identity was all about that, but the heroes were all white, and in the Bourne Legacy, the one assassin who was described as completely lacking in empathy just happened to be cast as East Asian.
Ok, then how about the Confucian idea that everyone has dignity, irrespective of wealth or status? That notion was institutionalized in China a thousand years ago, and China’s histories are filled with film-worthy stories illustrating courageous defense of that principle.
Of course, the U.S. Constitution also defends that idea, imperfectly perhaps, but by 1880 even black men had acquired some rights—not the Chinese though. Astutely the Puck columnist observed that if people really want to rid the world of Chinese, we must “dispense with the luxury of tea, fans . . . and other things too numerous to particularize . . . But neither candidate for President would have the temerity to advocate the cause of these Mongolians.”
The same logic holds today, when our representatives willingly abandon reliable supply chains, control of inflation, and global stability just to inflict pain on a racial rival. Call it Racism over Reason.
Earlier this year Jack Zhang of the Kansas University Trade War Lab explained how “policy measures designed to hurt China also create collateral damage for American businesses and consumers that are linked to China by supply chains and vice versa.”
Back in 2020, China expert Kishore Mabhubani couldn’t believe how normally rational Americans could be so irrational when it comes to China. In his book Has China Won? he wrote: “Above all else, America is known to be a rational society, with many competing points of view debated all the time. Yet in Washington, DC, today, it is virtually impossible to make the case that China is not a military threat to America.”
In the Brookings panel Professor Jane Hong showed how “these legacies [of racist animosity] don’t just go away.” That is unfortunately true, which is why whenever “inferior” peoples manage to out compete the West there is always hell to pay. Remember what happened to Japan when it got too good at making automobiles?
And so, liberals in Congress don’t dare to call out China Bashing, when they would immediately call out Jew-baiting, Islamophobia, or any other variant of the racism virus. Unfortunately, the racism virus doesn’t play favorites. In the end, everyone gets hurt. In a Guardian op-ed last year Robert Reich explained why:
The greatest danger we face today is not coming from China. It is our drift toward proto-fascism. We must be careful not to demonize China so much that we encourage a new paranoia that further distorts our priorities, encourages nativism and xenophobia, and leads to larger military outlays . . .
Looking back from the present, it seems no one was listening. Maybe that’s because the function of racism is to make good people blind to what is really going down. Did de-regulation leave you with costly internet and bad service? Blame the immigrants. Is the trade war with China adding to inflation? Blame the Chinese.
Recent travesties in the Ukraine have brought some liberals over to the pro-war camp, and not without reason, but in a recent op-ed Robert Delaney warned that tolerance for xenophobia could backfire on American democracy. Raising the alarm on Steve Bannon’s machinations at home and abroad, he wrote:
While brave Ukrainians who are dying to protect the kind of democratic civil society that American Republicans broadly used to support, the rest of us in the Western world who support the cause need to realise that the fight [for such a society] is also at our doorsteps.
Xenophobia can destroy a democracy; it cannot build one. Maybe serious liberals should chuck the Hollywood “tough guy” image and try a little renqing?
Martin Powers has written three books on the history of social justice in China, two of which won the Levenson Prize for best book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies. His recent book, published by Routledge, traces the impact of Chinese political theory and practice on the English Enlightenment. He is currently professor emeritus at the University of Michigan