Martin Powers – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 04 Jun 2022 03:25:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How the Media Sugar-coats Anti-Chinese Racism Sat, 04 Jun 2022 04:08:38 +0000 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

Americans may think they have nothing to learn about Justice from the old Empires like China’s: They’re Wrong Tue, 11 Jan 2022 05:06:19 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – A year ago, last September Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post:

“The wanton disregard for the lives of helpless citizens, for the fair application of the law and for our democracy is what we would expect in dictatorships around the world where might makes right.”

She was referring to the travesty of Breonna Taylor’s death and the failure of the justice system to recognize the value of citizens’ lives equally. In dictatorships legal justice is a privilege disbursed according to rank, with rank pegged to things like wealth, race, and religion.

Although unintended, Rubin’s description comes close to our current stereotype for a dictatorial China, both past and present, a nation where despots and their cronies lord it over the servile masses. But that is just a stereotype. In reality some laws in China were more egalitarian than those in America today.

How Imperial China Evened the Odds

For example, legal services were paid for by the state. From the 11th century onward, legal services were free for all taxpayers, so long as you weren’t gaming the system. That included farm women, who paid taxes, and so any rural woman could sue her neighbor, or a rich merchant, or even the magistrate himself.

European aristocrats knew better than to put legal power into the hands of commoners. In the 17th century, the Jesuit Louis Le Comte recalled how French litigants were required to pay “fees” to the judge, ensuring that the wealthier litigant would generally prevail.

He noticed that in China, by contrast “No fees are paid for the administration of justice . . . which empowers every poor man to prosecute his own rights and frees him from being oppressed by the opulence of his adversary.”

That is an odd sort of system for an empire bent exploiting the masses to prop up wealthy parasites.

In America today we might not pay judges directly, but the outcome is often determined by wealth. Think about it: what middle-class American could afford taking on the tech giants who daily violate their Fourth Amendment rights?

“That’s why we have elections” you might say, but a 2014 Princeton study showed that, in America, the electoral process more often results in legislation benefitting the wealthy, ignoring the wishes of the electorate as revealed in surveys.

That makes legal process the more effective method for seeking justice, but most citizens can’t afford the kind of legal muscle needed to challenge corporate opulence. Organizations like Common Cause or ACLU may help, but they can take on only the most egregious cases. For most, it’s pay-to-play.

A Battered Chinese Wife and Trayvon Martin

Another imperial Chinese practice was the assumption that legal precedent should apply equally in all cases. In theory our legal system works that way, but often precedents are applied differently depending on the racial, religious, or gender biases of juries.

Take a murder case from the 9th century. In that case, an ordinary taxpayer got into a fight with his wife and beat her to death. Her body was bruised all over and his wasn’t, so based on that and other evidence, the lower court argued it was murder and requested capital punishment.

Capital cases had to be reviewed by a higher court because “people’s lives are valuable”, another odd rule for an empire bent on exploiting the masses. In this case the higher court argued it was manslaughter: the two got into a fight, he hit too hard, but didn’t mean to kill her (details here).

Fortunately, there was another layer of checks, the anti-corruption department, and the relevant document survives. That officer supported the lower court’s decision. He argued that, if the higher court reading was allowed, in the future anyone could commit murder just by starting a fight, pulling out a weapon, and then killing the rival.

This might remind you of the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman confronted the 17 year old Martin, and when Martin allegedly fought back, Zimmerman pulled a gun and killed him. Zimmerman was acquitted, but the jury doesn’t seem to have considered that their decision would serve as a precedent permitting a Black person to start a fight, pull a gun, and kill a white guy.

Equal application of the law was a major consideration in the Chinese case. Why didn’t the Martin Jury think of that?

I don’t know, but perhaps they understood that if a Black man picked a fight, pulled a gun, and killed a white man, his odds of being acquitted would differ from Zimmerman’s.

What about the Chinese case? The deadlock between the higher court and the anti-corruption department meant that the case had to go to the chief executive, the emperor. He sided with the officer’s argument, pronouncing against the male defendant, and providing justice for an ordinary woman taxpayer.

Wu Bin, “The Sixteen Luohans,” 1591, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who Owns Justice?

All this might sound strange if you believe that the very notion of equality is a Western invention, but after 1615 Europeans were amazed to learn about egalitarian institutions in China. That was when Matteo Ricci’s description of China was published. In the same way they learned about religious toleration from European descriptions of Muslim practice.

Europe back then was far from democratic. According to Jonathan Israel, “The late eighteenth-century ancien regime world . . . was one ruled by princes and nobilities, and characterized by huge inequalities of wealth and legally buttressed privilege”.

It was a system bent on exploiting subjects to empower a privileged class of wealthy parasites.

Ricci explained that China didn’t have an aristocracy. Officers were expected to be competent and to work for the public interest. They took qualifying examinations anonymously to reduce the influence of race, religion, or family connections on the selection process.

Once appointed, performance was reviewed periodically. If caught, those guilty of corruption were barred from ever serving in government again. Ricci notes that corruption existed, but also described the elaborate system of checks, a novelty for his European readership. Period documents back up his claims.

Ricci’s letters went through sixteen editions in multiple languages in the space of a few decades. Towards the end of that century European thinkers began talking seriously about equality and toleration, often in direct reference to China and the Muslim world, straight through to the late 18th century.

After that, equality and toleration were dubbed Western concepts. China’s role in the rise of egalitarian practice, like Islam’s role in the rise of toleration, became victims of systemic racism in the Academy and in the media.

That is not to argue that equality is a Chinese idea. Frans de Waal showed that even monkeys have a sense of fairness, and every parent knows that children resent favoritism.

What China introduced was the notion that public benefit is the best standard of just government. Once that is in place, formal checks become a requirement.

What would checks check for? Competence and dedication to the public interest, but that is best determined by the facts of official performance. Facts are the ultimate check, without which three branches, five branches, or a hundred would be useless. That’s the reality standard, what Chinese political theory called shi.

That standard is one of China’s gifts to modern political theory. Without it, elections and litigation alike devolve into game shows.

But even a proper system of checks can fail. China’s first post-feudal dynasty collapsed within forty years. A Chinese historian, and friend of the anti-corruption officer we just met, blamed that collapse on the personalization of power.

So how do you prevent that? He recommended situating power in an office and holding the officer to his charge. Whether your political system has a parliament, a president, or a couple of Roman consuls, placing the powers of office in the office is the best way to prevent officers from treating their charge like a personal prerogative.

No One Has a Monopoly on Justice

What about China today? There was a time when legal pronouncements were made by radical mobs in thrall to the Great Leader Syndrome, the same syndrome that afflicts some Americans today. For those mobs, it was Mao that mattered, not the facts. You could call it populist, but you could hardly call it just.

More recently China has revived public benefit as the standard for just government, in part by rejecting those austerity policies so popular in the West. As a result China has done more to reduce poverty than any nation in memory.

China has also revived the anti-corruption department. Thousands of officials and CEO’s, high and low, have been jailed for corrupt practices, though the system sometimes fails dramatically, as happened recently.

China’s success in the future will depend on how consistently it can maintain egalitarian standards benefitting the general population rather than highly placed cronies. It’s anyone’s guess how that will play out.

Of course America has serious corruption problems too, and controlling them will be a challenge in a nation that the Centre for Systemic Peace classifies as an “anocracy”, part democratic, part autocratic.

As Adam Schiff explained during the Trump impeachment trial, some Congress persons think that being elected confers authority directly on the candidate, not the office. If you believe that, power becomes personalized in the officer. When that happens, officers feel free to rank personal interest over public benefit, leading to a political system “characterized by huge inequalities of wealth and legally buttressed privilege”.

So, no one has a monopoly on justice. Labeling America democratic because we hold elections or have juries doesn’t make the system just or fair. It might be someday, if legal services are equally accessible to all, if elections are determined by facts instead of emotions, and if officers are held to their charge.

President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda and infrastructure law would in fact benefit the population as a whole—not to mention the planet—and his administration typically follows procedure and the law. Only one thing is missing.

Biden’s success, and America’s survival, may well depend on how effectively our officials are held accountable to their charge, and to the law.

Featured photo: Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Beijing. Taken March 2015. © Juan Cole.

On China, Biden is continuing Trump’s Zero-Sum Vision of the World when our Crises demand a Win-Win Approach Sat, 07 Aug 2021 04:04:22 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – Regarding China, Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Team has embraced the zero-sum rhetoric of the Trump administration. That approach could bifurcate the globe politically and technologically along racial lines, but instead of race, the project has been marketed as a contest of values.

Zero-sum rhetoric didn’t begin with Trump. It became popular among the Washington elite during the nineties following the publication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Huntington argued that liberal values like equality and justice are unique to the West. Although untrained in Asian languages or history, he declared that, with few exceptions, the “Muslim,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist” and “Confucian” traditions would never accept our values. This, he argued, would inevitably lead to a clash of civilizations.

Experts writing in venues like Foreign Affairs have repeatedly exposed the theory’s shortcomings, such as its self-serving accounts of non-Western traditions, but there remain plenty of supporters, including China hawks in the policy establishment.

The most dangerous upshot of the theory is the assumption that non-European peoples are somehow incapable of embracing those values Huntington identified as Western. Small wonder that White Nationalists also favor Huntington-style rhetoric, justifying attacks on Asians and other minorities as a defense of “Western Civilization.”

The puzzling part is, why should a man like Joe Biden adopt the idea? Recently the Economist recognized the contradiction between Biden’s professed values and his foreign policy, suggesting that “Because politics in Washington is broken, [Biden] seems to feel that he needs the spirit of Pearl Harbor to help rekindle a sense of national purpose,” but the article added, “That is a miscalculation.”

That contradiction is especially evident in one of Trump’s core programs, “The China Initiative.” In a letter to Joe Biden, community and civil rights groups charged that under this program Chinese scientists were being prosecuted for activities that “are not normally treated as crimes except under the pretext of combating economic espionage.”

The U.S. Department of Justice denies that race is a factor, but the letter noted that “naming only China in a DOJ initiative ignores threats of economic espionage by other nations.” Extensive Israeli spying on the U.S. for instance, didn’t concern Trump, and the Biden administration tolerates it, yet alleged China spying is labelled a major threat.

Guilt by Association

The APA refers to the China Initiative’s often failed cases against Asians as racial profiling, and it is, but that term fails to capture the true nature of the problem. Non-Chinese academics also have been charged under the program, if they can be associated in any way with China or things Chinese.

The legal principle at stake then is not just racial profiling, but guilt by association. That principle appears commonly throughout European history, because aristocracies routinely assign innocence and guilt according to race, religion, or social class. In direct contradiction to Huntington’s thesis, that idea was rejected as tyrannical in China early on and for much of later imperial history.

Some two-thousand years ago the Han empire disbanded the feudal lords and issued a law repealing the old practice of guilt by association. Why? In feudal societies what really counts is your group (noble, common, Christian, Hindu, Muslim), while in post-feudal societies, like the Han empire, it’s the individual that counts.

“The purpose of law is not only to punish crime,” the law read, “but to protect the innocent.” Noting that under the previous law, innocent people could be punished for crimes they didn’t commit, the edict rejected that principle because “Any law that inflicts harm on (innocent) people is tyrannical!”

This was a landmark decision because it acknowledged that ordinary taxpayers enjoyed certain rights, like the right to remain unmolested by the state unless you, as an individual, had actually committed a crime. That law was enshrined as exemplary from the 11th century until the end of the imperial age.

According to the Huntington thesis, Chinese people should have been incapable of embracing values like that—though they did—while those same values should come naturally to people in the West. Yet guilt by association has become increasingly normative in the U.S. of late.

Donald Trump’s ban on visitors from Muslim nations is a well-known case, but a recent Congressional report shows that the practice goes back to the Obama years and continued until just recently.

According to the New York Times, under President Obama’s watch a “rogue” official in the Commerce Department created a special unit targeting career officials of Asian descent on suspicion that they were colluding with China. Although the targets often were “employees renowned in their professional fields,” investigations could be prompted with scant evidence and involve unauthorized intrusions into the target’s private life.

Today, most would call that racial profiling, but that fails to convey how guilt by association confuses individuals in a group, with the group. In an article recommending an end to the China Initiative, Margaret K. Lewis showed how, in the eyes of the DOJ, all Chinese individuals get compounded into an abstraction called “China”:

“‘China’ as used in the DOJ’s ‘China Initiative’ conflates government, party, national origin, and ethnicity into an amorphous threat. ‘China’ itself is anthropomorphized into a villain that steals and cheats.”

Fact-free Values

The China Initiative violates another liberal, Western value, namely that punishment should be commensurate with the facts of the crime. The Trump/Biden China Initiative abandons that view.

That may be why a body of scientific and civil rights groups petitioned the House of Representatives to hold a hearing examining DOJ investigations “based on misguided fears of economic espionage and intellectual property theft.”

The document maintained that too often the charges are wildly incommensurate with the transgression. The government in essence is trying to “transform what is at best a garden-variety employment dispute … into a string of federal fraud offenses” that carry sentences of up to 50 years in prison.

Margaret Lewis’ op-ed also noted that now “What counts as a national security concern has expanded from trade secret theft (with a foreign government as the intended beneficiary, i.e., economic espionage) to broader connections with foreign governments (and entities linked thereto), even if no actual or attempted transmission of intellectual property occurs.”

Possibly the most alarming outcome of the investigations is that, according to the civil rights groups who appealed to Congress, “DoJ officials have cited common academic activities, such as reviewing grant proposals for Chinese funding agencies and advising Chinese students”, to allege academics “sided with China in a global competition for scientific supremacy that imperils US national security.”

Once that is allowed, any action can be framed as criminal simply by moving the hysteria scale up or down to suit your prejudices.

If a scientist writes a letter evaluating a colleague’s research, that can be treated as collusion with an enemy that is not, in fact, at war with the U.S., unless one equivocates on the war metaphor, treating it as literal. Although Trump/Biden rhetoric associates predominantly white nations with “rule of law,” what we have here is a freely sliding scale that makes an absolute mockery of law.

To its credit, the DoJ has dropped charges in some high-profile cases such as that of Gang Chen at MIT, and more recently that of Tang Juan at the University of California. But many more remain under indictment or in prison for dubious reasons.

Most egregious among these may be the case of Anming Hu, which “fell apart and ended in a mistrial after FBI revealed serious misconduct, including falsifying information and fabricating facts in its failure to find a non-existent spy in Knoxville, Tennessee.”

According to The Intercept, the FBI followed Hu for 21 months looking for evidence to use against him, rather than working from a specific crime and then seeking the perpetrator. The Intercept noted that “Hu’s case follows a long history of FBI surveillance of ethnic Chinese scientists in the U.S., some of it with disastrous results” going back to the 1960s.

None of that matters to the FBI, which wants to reopen the case, provoking outrage from civil rights groups and some members of Congress.

Forerunners of Fascism?

It would appear that Huntington and the FBI share the same MO: both ignore the facts, drawing conclusions from foundational beliefs about racial hierarchy; and both routinely confuse individuals in a group, with the group. This renders both projects baseless: you can’t ground your democratic values on theories of racial superiority, especially when those theories contradict the historical record.
The fact is, neither monstrous actions nor noble aspirations can be uniquely assigned to East, West, North or South. China, Russia, and scores of other nations could be accused of having adopted guilt by association, at one time or another. But other nations don’t claim to be unique guardians of justice. The abuses of the China Initiative are shocking precisely because of Biden’s sanctimonious claims for the U.S. and “like-minded” nations.

The very use of the term “like-minded” should set off alarms for U.S. citizens, because it’s a thinly veiled appeal to racial purity. Just as when the DOJ turns an entire nation of individuals into an “anthropomorphized . . . villain that steals and cheats,” that phrase promotes xenophobia as a political tool. Far from advancing democratic values, it sanctions political tactics historically favored by fascist regimes.

When a democratic president does that, should we wonder why justice—that core, “Modern, Western,” value—should be the first victim to fall?

This revised version of an article published in the South China Morning Post appears here by the author’s permission.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNBC: “Biden administration sees China as a ‘strategic threat,’ says TCW Group”

Yes, Anti-China invective in Foreign Policy puts a Target on Asian-Americans’ Backs Tue, 30 Mar 2021 04:04:26 +0000 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.

Oriental Despotism

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.


Bonus Video:

Guardian News: “US and China officials publicly rebuke each other in first in-person talks of Biden era”

Presidents are Paid Public Servants, Not Aristocrats above the Law: Lessons from Rousseau, Jefferson and Tang China Mon, 23 Nov 2020 05:03:27 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – “Let the constitution of a government be what it will, if there is but one man in it exempt from the laws, all the other members must necessarily be at his discretion.”

Perhaps we should thank Donald Trump for demonstrating the truth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s insight. No sooner did the Beltway accept “presidential immunity” as normative than Trump demonstrated how easily a reality television star could render the world’s leading democracy powerless to check even the most blatant abuses.

Following the election and Trump’s refusal to concede, the reality of this fact finally hit home in America, and the pundits are puzzled. After all, every American child learns that Game of Thrones-type intrigues could never occur on our soil because we have checks and balances. Yet after the election, in the normally reserved Atlantic, the conservative columnist David Frum pronounced the American political system broken. “The US system depends on compromise and cooperation” he said, in order to produce legislation for the people’s benefit, but he notes that, for more than a decade, Republicans have refused to cooperate even when the nation’s welfare was on the line.

This wasn’t partisan griping. The Washington Post cited multi-year data from an international team of political scientists showing that today’s Republican Party belongs on the far right end of the spectrum, alongside notorious authoritarian factions such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party.

Just like them, but unlike liberal democratic parties, today’s Republicans demonize political rivals and their supporters, punish rivals by withholding vital resources – medical supplies for instance – and incite violence against them.

Donald Trump is the spokesman for that party and, with few exceptions, Republican members of Congress faithfully obey the leader’s commands, no matter the cost to their constituents.

Because Republicans control the Senate, checks and balances neither check nor balance. The president now is the sole decision maker for most details of government. He assigns relatives and donors to tasks belonging to cabinet secretaries, enhancing personal control while cutting off congressional input. By appointing temps as department heads, he further blocks Congress from the political process.

He takes funds legislated for one program and shifts them to others, violating the separation of powers. He ignores subpoenas from Congress and orders from the courts, placing his person above the branches of government. The only check on his term remaining is elections, but now he claims ownership over the results, even if he lost.

None of this was ever supposed to happen, but it isn’t all that surprising for a historian. Throughout most of Western history, aristocrats treated state resources as their own and assigned incompetent relatives to crucial tasks, to the detriment of the people. Just Google “Trump+Hobbes” and you’ll find multiple articles linking Trumpian politics with the 17th-century absolutism promoted by Thomas Hobbes. Recent warnings of monarchical or aristocratic tendencies under Trump’s tenure can be found here, here, and here.

But the US has not conducted business that way for 200 years. What happened? It might help to consider what it was that made the difference. What really put the brakes on aristocratic excess? If you’re thinking “elections”, think again.

England held elections from the 17th century onwards, but aristocrats controlled parliament (most MPs were nobility), and dominated the press. The king appointed yes-men to major ministries while the chancellor assigned posts to relatives and cronies, all of this being perfectly legal.

Resistance to cronyism increased during the 18th century when English reformers called out nepotism as corruption, and proposed institutions empowered to impeach dishonest ministers. The government rejected the idea.

After reading about China’s political system, the French Enlightenment reformer Etienne de Silhouette realised that an officer is easier to check than a nobleman. Nobility retain authority no matter what they do, but an officer can only discharge the duties of his office. In other words, an officer is supposed to serve the taxpayers, not soak them, and can be fired if he does.

The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, embraced both ideas. He declared that all men who serve in government should be qualified and devoted to the public welfare. Those who aren’t should be dismissed. Every other check depends on this one. If you cannot remove corrupt officers, your checks have no teeth.

Jefferson made this clear in a letter to Thomas McKean: “Interferences with elections, whether of the State or General government by officers of the latter, should be deemed cause of removal; because the constitutional remedy by the elective principle becomes nothing” if the man remains in office where he can rig the elections.

Reformers in China came to similar conclusions, only centuries earlier. Authority resided in the office, not the man, so as early as the 10th century the law declared that any officer who overstepped his authority, harmed the citizens, or enriched himself, should be removed and punished. Special departments impeached those who abused their powers, and we have records of high officials going down under this system.

Why? The Tang reformer Liu Zongyuan put it very simply: people pay the officer’s salary with taxes, and so “an officer’s duty is to serve the people, not to make the people serve him!” English reformers echoed that sentiment because, like the French, they had been reading Chinese essays on government.

Few are aware that the first essay published on formal checks in England was a treatise on China’s administration, some 15 years before French Enlightenment political philosopher Baron De Montesquieu published his views on the matter.

Here we are 300 years later, and politicians seem to have forgotten who pays their salaries. Months ago, The Washington Post found that Trump’s “special advisers” were using their offices to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense, yet Congress barely noticed. If elected officials cannot serve as a check, then who?

During Trump’s tenure, the most effective push-back has come from career professionals in government, the modern counterparts of those Chinese bureaucrats who knew the rules and could be cashiered for breaking them.

Repeatedly, professionals in the intelligence agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, and more recently election officials, have fought to hold the line. Just this week, 16 assistant US attorneys wrote a letter reported in The Washington Post, challenging Attorney General William Barr’s attempt to thrust “career prosecutors into partisan politics” so as to buttress the president’s fantasies.

Trump seems to grasp that it’s the career administrators he needs to worry about. Maybe that is why his administration is frantically replacing professionals with loyal yes-men and Trump donors. Recent purges include a senior climate scientist, two top Homeland Security officials and a senior cybersecurity official whose agency refuted Trump’s claims of election fraud. If he continues in this vein, he will have compromised the last, and most effective check we have, bringing us that much closer to the 17th century.

Not a few have been alarmed that, though Trump lost the election, voter support for Republican candidates was impressive. Democrats pondering what to do next have focused, rightly, on addressing rampant disinformation and other threats to fair elections; but elections will not be enough.

If the Republican Party can destroy the very meaning of “office” with its built-in checks, it is not only the president who will remain above the law. The entire party, and only that party, will enjoy that privilege. The West will have returned to what The Atlantic calls “quasi-monarchical” rule, leaving others to remember what it means to govern for public benefit.

This revised version of an article published in the South China Morning Post appears here by the author’s permission.

Featured illustration: “Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China,” Found in “Recueil historique des principaux traits de la vie des empereurs de la Chine” from the 17th or 18th century. h/t Wikipedia.

Covid Lies: Why Your life Hangs on the Deranged Whims of One Man Sat, 12 Sep 2020 04:34:00 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – The Declaration of Independence lists multiple attacks on American lives by the tyrant king George III, but some items on the list could just as well describe Donald Trump’s crimes, including his Covid 19 lies. Maybe it’s because both men share the same authoritarian political vision? Let’s take a look, working from the 1884 edition by order of Congress:

· “He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Trump’s obstruction of any national program for controlling the pandemic and, together with Mitch McConnell, his obstruction of a responsible second Cares Act, fits the bill.

· “He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance.”

Trump pressured Republican governors to open their economies before it was safe to do so, and to actively suppress the implementation of sensible safety measures such as wearing masks. Many dutifully obeyed, some going so far as to overrule mayors who were acting responsibly. The results were both tragic, and preventable.

· “He has erected a multitude of new offices, [by a self-assumed power] and sent hither swarms of new officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

The president does not have the power to create and fund new offices at the level of the Secretary of State. Even if he did, those offices would need to have a specific charge and requirements for eligibility. “Special Advisor” to the president has neither, not to mention that nepotism, in modern times, is the acme of corruption.

Conspiring to appoint men loyal to himself—not the nation—he has assigned incompetent temporary officers to key positions so as to get around Congressional checks. Because these officers are unqualified, partisan, and corrupt, they harass the people when necessary to benefit their master.

· “He has kept among us in times of peace standing armies without the consent of our legislatures.”

In both Washington D.C. and in Portland, not only was the legislature not informed, but even the military had not been consulted.

· “He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power.”

Trump refuses to seek permission from civil officers before sending military personnel into a region, and when civil officers object, he pays no attention.

· “. . . cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.”

His petulant trade wars against China, Canada, and Europe have cost tens of thousands of American jobs, with losses in market value for American companies over a trillion dollars.

· “He has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens.”

When, what Jefferson called the “chief magistrate” incites an armed body of ordinary citizens to occupy government buildings by force, that pretty much fits the description.

After completing a list, the Declaration went on to connect the dots. It declared that George III’s actions “all have in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” A little background on Georgian English terms will help us appreciate the despotic vision of authority uniting Trump’s actions with those of George III.

1. “Chief magistrate.” 18th century progressives used this term to refer to the top administrative officer, whether a king, prime minister, or president. This was useful because Jefferson understood that both kings and presidents could aspire to tyrannical powers. He referred to the latter situation as “masked monarchy,” a system that outwardly resembled government by rules and procedures, but where authority flowed from the top, as in a monarchy.

2. “Tyranny.” In the 18th century “tyranny” meant the arbitrary use of power. “Arbitrary” referred to unilateral, self-interested actions, in defiance of procedures or rules. Violations of procedure in George III’s actions were highlighted in several items from the list.

Example: Jefferson took it for granted that the powers of government resided in offices. Offices come with demands for eligibility meant to ensure that their powers will be used for the public good. Power doesn’t flow from the top, because every qualified officer has the degree of authority needed to fulfill her charge. When expertise is ignored, the checks inherent in the nature of office evaporate.

If expertise isn’t required, the power of office reverts to the “chief magistrate.” Now he can appoint unqualified officers dependent on him alone, so the power flows to whomever he pleases: cronies, donors, relatives, whatever.

Under that configuration, offices no longer serve the people because now they are merely extensions of the chief magistrate’s will. The people forfeit all rights that the political system previously provided. They cease to be citizens and become subjects instead.

That more draconian understanding of peoplehood goes back to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose notion of “the people” was decidedly pre-modern:

“For even in monarchies the people commands; for the people wills by the will of ONE man (emphasis added); but the multitude are citizens, that is to say, subjects.”

In other words, “people” refers to the king. “Citizens” are merely subjects subsumed into the monarch and therefore belonging to him.

Frontispiece to Leviathan, 1651, detail. Photo by author, permission courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

That authoritarian ideal was nicely visualized in the frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the people are shown as a mass without individual identity. If the King moves, they have to move; if he doesn’t, they can’t. Sounds just like Donald’s vision for America.

If you think that comparison is stretched, just review the Washington Post summary of his lawyer’s arguments:

    “[The position taken by] his and his administration’s lawyers, is that law enforcement at all levels of government may not investigate or prosecute him and that the president gets to decide when impeachment proceedings against him are constitutional. In other words, there are no checks on presidential behavior between elections every four years.”

Hobbes put it only a little differently:

“He [the monarch] cannot be Accused by any of his Subjects, of Injury: He cannot be Punished by them: He is Judge of what is necessary for Peace; and Judge of Doctrines: He is Sole Legislator; and Supreme Judge of Controversies; and of the Times . . .”

The Hobbsian understanding of authority explains many of Trump’s otherwise nonsensical policies, like why he apparently believes that the lives of citizens belong to him. Though the Constitution forbids it, he thinks he can withhold vital aid from Blue States, knowing full well it will lead to thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.

He is Supreme Judge of controversies, and that explains why he can declare the International Criminal Court, criminal.

He is sole legislator, and so he can take funding Congress appropriated for one program, and use it for his own program.

Nowadays he even legislates what private individuals and companies can do with their own money. Apple, Starbucks and Walmart all rely on the WeChat app to process payments from clients in China, but they will no longer enjoy that advantage because Trump says all things Chinese suck, including those that profit U.S. companies. If you’re an American executive in a Chinese company, you might even have to find another job because Trump’s zero-sum logic says whatever is good for China must bad for us.

Your purchasing preferences, your favorite services, your business, your career, your very life—they all hang on the deranged whims of ONE man.

Unless we connect the dots and do something about it.

When is China-Bashing Racist? Sat, 29 Aug 2020 04:02:06 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – On the left, there is widespread agreement that Trump’s immigration policies are informed by white supremacist doctrines. His travel ban on Middle Eastern nations was racially charged, not to mention restricting aid to Puerto Ricans ravaged by a hurricane. Combined with the utter absence of sympathy for families of murdered Americans, it would appear that race connects the dots in this administration’s policy puzzle, yet Trump-team’s hysterical China-bashing is often accepted as a legitimate response to an existential threat. Can we be certain that race plays no part in that drama?

Many recognize crude name-calling, like “Kung-flu,” as racist, but apart from that, a common give-away is contempt for outstanding performance by members of supposedly inferior groups. Kamala Harris is too “ambitious” (for a woman of color), and a former waitress like AOC has no business in the Senate.

What these remarks really entail is that Kamala’s formidable intelligence, and AOC’s rapier wit, are an affront to those who regard women and people of color as inferior. As sociologist Herbert Blumer put it, the group to which each belongs “is not keeping to its place but threatens to claim the opportunities and privileges from which it has been excluded.”

As it happens Blumer was talking about Asians, who are just as likely to arouse indignation should they step out of place. If high-performance women are smeared as “ambitious,” high-performance China is labeled “aggressive,” because it has no business achieving things we were meant to achieve.

A respected, liberal statesperson recently wrote: “China has aggressively pushed the message that it responded decisively and responsibly to the mounting death toll while the United States dithered.” In other words, China had the effrontery to state the facts, facts that undermine U.S. claims for cultural superiority. How could the Chinese government show greater concern for its people when we are a Democracy, and they are Communists?

The administration regularly insinuates that Chinese are “untrustworthy,” even though America lied about Three-Mile Island, WMD’s, Abu Ghraib, and mass surveillance, and we elected a leader who has lied more than 20,000 times. Even so statements from China are routinely dismissed without fact-checking, for no other reason than that a Chinese person said it. Could race be a factor here?

We fail to recognize racism directed at China or its people because certain code words allow a speaker to rationalize bigotry as due to something other than race. In recent months the most common codes for China include “aggressive,” “Communist,” “totalitarian,” and “Hong Kong.” The mere mention of any of these can justify open hostility toward all things Chinese.

“Communist” is the current term for the centuries-old “Despotic Oriental” meme. During the Cold War, those of us in Chinese Studies were taught that the Chinese emperor had absolute authority over all aspects of government and people’s lives, except that this turns out to be false. Unlike European monarchs, China’s emperor had little to say about who was appointed to office, and even less to say about any individual’s chosen religion, artistic taste, or choice of job.

Despite the facts, the Despotic Oriental theme returns zombie-like in essays on contemporary China, where we learn that all enterprises are state-owned and controlled by an all-powerful, “totalitarian” center determining every aspect of people’s lives. Admittedly, many Chinese firms are state-owned, but according to the Economist, the reality of private “Chinese entrepreneurship is broad as well as deep.”

Back in 2014 the media began reporting that Huawei phones were spying on their users. In response Huawei, which is employee-owned, has repeatedly requested hard evidence to back those claims. They are still waiting.

Then Edward Snowden released documents showing that “while U.S. government officials openly suspected [meaning “accused”] Huawei of collaborating with Chinese intelligence, the NSA was covertly infiltrating the company’s servers.” More recently it appears that U.S. anxiety around China’s 5G technology might have more to do with the fact that, on Huawei phones, the U.S. “will no longer be able to require ‘back doors’ that the NSA can use to spy on us all.”

When it comes to China, the press might even repeat cringeworthy sentiments as if they were perfectly sound: “The Trump administration has long alleged TikTok may pose a national security threat, in large part due to its Chinese ownership.” We are meant to assume that ownership by a Chinese person is sufficient cause for concern, ignoring the fact that Trump has a personal grudge against TikTok, since it was credited with reducing the turnout in Tulsa. But let’s imagine if the Washington Post were to write: “The administration has always regarded Company X with suspicion, in large part due to its Black ownership.” Would we accept that argument as well?

Since pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong began tossing petrol bombs into the underground last year, the word “Hong Kong” has become a magic bullet justifying multiple actions against the PRC. As the July issue of the Economist wrote “Any remaining illusions that China’s leaders respect rule of law when it really matters have been shattered by events in Hong Kong.” Those events, however, were not specified.

There is good reason to believe that, during clashes between Hong Kong police and protesters, egregious acts of brutality took place, and all such acts should be condemned, whether they occur in Hong Kong, Portland, Kenosha, or anywhere else.

What isn’t clear is, how did the author of that article convince herself that the U.S. still retains the standing to stand for “rule of law”? Can s/he have forgotten Trump’s impeachment trial where crucial evidence and witnesses were barred from court, and where jurors declared their decision before reviewing any evidence?

That spectacle, together with the administration’s criminally negligent handling of the pandemic, has inspired a spate of essays in the Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate, and elsewhere on the demise of American leadership. Granted, all those essays were critical of specific Chinese policies, but they agreed on the expiration of any grounds for American exceptionalism.

Perhaps most poignant was Mishra Pankaj’s essay showing why the U.S. and Britain are no longer qualified to “claim moral superiority over China, Russia and Iran. The early winners of modern history now seem to be its biggest losers, with their delegitimised political systems, grotesquely distorted economies and shattered social contracts.”

China Racism Hurts Americans

Knee-jerk assumptions about collectivist Orientals may have contributed to the mask wars and a good many lives lost. From experience, authorities in China determined that extensive use of masks, testing, and tracing could help to reduce the spread of the disease, but in March, media outlets suggested that Asians wear masks because they are fundamentally different from individualistic Westerners, for whom “facial expression is very important.” The idea that Asians might wear masks out of concern for others was not considered.

As recently as April American medical scientists remained skeptical of China’s methods, concluding that ordinary masks were basically useless because they did not block a high percentage of airborne pathogens. Claims like these only helped to bolster Trump’s culture wars, further sabotaging sane pandemic policy based on China’s earlier practice. Eventually of course, experts here conceded that less-than-perfect masks, testing, and tracing in fact offered our best chance to control the pandemic, but in the meantime how many Americans died needlessly?

Few would doubt that China poses challenges for America, but we can no longer pretend that American policies are always just, or that China is the evil empire. China used to provide a major market for American agriculture and the auto industry; now it doesn’t. President Trump determined that. China used to work closely with WHO sharing their massive data on Covid-19; now they don’t. President Trump determined that. China could offer critical help in mounting an effective response to climate disaster, but that would make no sense to Trump, who sees the world as a collection of races not keeping their places. Connect the dots.

At a time when no one can escape pandemic or global heating, policy may matter more than ideology. If a “Democratic” nation revokes emission standards, everyone will suffer. If a “Communist” country develops effective pandemic responses, everyone benefits so long as nations share ideas and data. Traditionally, liberals tend to embrace these kinds of common-sense strategies. Why should anyone opt for race over reason just because someone uttered the word “China”?


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

6abc : “‘She punched me on my face’: Asian-American pregnant mother says attack was targeted”

Colonizing Portland: How Trump’s tactics Recall Worst Excesses of British Empire in places like Hong Kong Tue, 28 Jul 2020 04:01:44 +0000 Ann Arbor (Special to Informed Comment) – When Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in1997, the Western press loudly bemoaned the death of Democracy, but those of us who had lived there knew better. In times of stress colonial rule more closely resembled Trump’s Portland than a citadel of law, with the use of militarized police and extra-judicial abductions as common tools of racialist state policies. The resemblance is not fortuitous.

In the year of the handover, Richard Klein published a heavily-documented article in the Boston University International Law Journal detailing the systematic suppression of dissent in Hong Kong throughout the previous century. Americans reading that record will find the tactics and rhetoric reminiscent of Trump’s dystopian America (if you don’t, I’ve provided helpful links). The reason for the resemblance is that both are informed by an archaic political ideology founded on sharp class divisions between white and non-white, rich and poor, or privileged and punished social groups.

Let’s begin with some little-known facts:

• Democracy? The Chinese in Hong Kong were not permitted to vote under British rule.

• Justice? Criminal cases for Chinese were tried in the District courts, without jury or legal representation.

• Fair trials? Translators were not provided for Chinese defendants. Drawing on a Hegelian stereotype, the British were convinced that Chinese testimony is not credible (they’re sneaky!).

• Rule of law? For much of the British century in Hong Kong, almost any gathering of Chinese people could be construed as criminal and punished at the whim of the authorities.

What we now call austerity policies were standard in colonial Hong Kong. By mid-century, hundreds of thousands of homeless were living in makeshift shanties. For those lucky enough to work, the normal working week was 60 hours, including for women and children, and the pay was low. Under America’s austerity regime, almost half the workers have low-wage jobs, and many have to work multiple jobs, which means longer-hours.

In Hong Kong, this notion of “prosperity” was the product of low taxes and minimal social services. Klein noted that the “shockingly-low tax rate . . . did not provide funds for social welfare.” Even after admitting that rank poverty was stoking social protest, the British declined to enact any minimum wage law, social security plan, unemployment benefits, or guaranteed medical insurance for the working poor. This was de-regulation of Trumpian ambition.

It should come as no surprise that, from the late 19th century through to the 1990’s, protests and strikes repeatedly broke out due to systemic inequality. Many of the protests were peaceful, but increased military presence often provoked violence.

In response, the colonial government passed sedition laws permitting mass arrests, random, warrantless searches, censorship of newspapers and schools, police surveillance, the use of military weapons, flogging, and arrest for expressions of discontent with the government. Early on such practices were justified as a necessary response to attacks by “anarchists.” Police brutality was not uncommon but routinely dismissed by British courts.

Laws against free speech were draconian. The “Emergency Prevention of Inflammatory Speeches Ordinance,” 1967, could get a Chinese man ten years for saying anything offensive to the sensibilities of British policemen or officials. Anyone who owned a building in which “inflammatory speech” had been uttered was equally culpable, and ignorance of what others were saying was no excuse.

Journalists were subject to arrest along with demonstrators. Nor were children safe from violence. Police and military raids on schools could occur at the government’s pleasure, arresting and sometimes beating both teachers and students.

Most of these actions violated the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Inexplicably, during all that time, no serious objections were raised by Western Democracies. No one imposed sanctions on Hong Kong’s colonial government, and no one accused it formally of human rights violations, though there were many.

Some of these actions and the laws informing them hark back to 18th century British practice. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), in an attempt to suppress political opposition, invoked the archaic English statute of treasons of 1351, which cleverly criminalized thought itself: “When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king,” he commits treason. Clearly, palpable evidence was not required under that statute.

Likewise, the colonial government invoked the English Justices of the Peace Act (1361), enabling authorities to criminalize just about anything, even school children cutting Chinese characters out of cardboard.

What links British colonial rule to Trumpian tactics is that both follow a common strategy of social organization and control common in Western history:

1. society is imagined as naturally divided into hereditary groups ranked according to race, religion, language, and wealth. Privileges or punishments are doled out according to rank.

2. In the courts, facts are unimportant. Members of low-ranking groups are always potentially guilty, and members of high-ranking groups are innocent.

3. The system is supported by education and propaganda portraying high-ranking groups as intrinsically noble and low-ranking groups as intrinsically dangerous. This provides the necessary excuse for the entire system of structural inequality.

Hereditary social ranking describes traditional English society as well as White Nationalist fantasies for the future. As for the courts, Klein’s history of colonial Hong Kong is rife with relevant examples of a legal double-standard, as is the history of Great Britain itself.

Propaganda was a crucial feature of colonial rule. The Kotewell report on workers’ strikes (1925) recommended instilling “the conservative ideas of the Chinese race in the minds of the young.” In other words, Western stereotypes of compliant Orientals were to be force-fed to students. Chinese children would not learn about the 2,000-year history of student demonstrations in China, institutionalized channels for criticizing or impeaching officials, the right of everyone–including women–to sue, or the fact that China’s most admired poets were among the most outspoken critics of government.

Instead, England and the West would be portrayed as, basically, Democratic from ancient times onward. Yet when workers or students petitioned for equal treatment in court, or the right to demonstrate or petition—all of these rights normative in imperial China—they often as not ended up in jail, victims of the logic of racial ranking.

For Trump, the White Nationalist myth of “Western Civilization” and the “Clash of Cultures” serve the same end. As soon as we accept these narratives, it becomes impossible to apply a common standard, to recognize that both China and the U.S. have skeletons in their closets, and that some of them bear an eerie resemblance to one another.

Instead, following the stereotype that only Chinese are sneaky, the orthodox view recognizes just one side of the story, presuming that America’s obscene polarization of wealth, Trump’s negligence leading to some 80,000 deaths, and the use of military tactics on civilians do nothing to tarnish American claims for freedom and Democracy.

Recently several, cogent essays have proposed that we will not get China or America right until we adopt a more rational, fact-based approach to U.S.-China relations. Needless to say, this will require us to set aside old habits, like the black and white polarity between Blacks and Whites, or East and West.

When we do so, we should remember that what made the systemic suppression of the Chinese in Hong Kong look normal to Western Democracies was the logic of ranked races; what justifies calling peaceful protesters anarchists—in Hong Kong or the U.S.—is the logic of ranked races; and what creates a double standard in assessments of the U.S. and China is the logic of ranked races. We need to get past that standard, but that will require a hard look at where we came from, and what we have become.


Richard Klein, “The empire stikes back: Britain’s use of the law to suppress

political dissent in hong kong.” Boston University International Law Journal, 15(1), (1997),


Martin Powers, China and England: the preindustrial struggle for justice in word and image. London: Routledge, 2019.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Invicta: “History of Hong Kong – From British Colony to Special Administrative Region of China”

Trump vs Fauci? Undermining Science for Cult of Personality Politics is Taking America Down Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:03:36 +0000 The Washington Post reports that Trump team is focused on undermining Dr. Fauci’s credibility, leading me to wonder how that should even be possible? The Post took it seriously though, suggesting to me that Americans have a serious problem with authority. No, I don’t mean Americans have a problem taking orders. Countless anti-maskers are very good at taking orders via tweet. What I mean is that Americans seem to be confused about where authority comes from.

This was tactfully illustrated on NBCLX last week when the team reviewed expert medical opinion about Covid 19, then cited the President’s views. Immediately they asked how does one know who to believe, implying for a moment that the two sources were equally valid. The question turned out to be rhetorical, but it exposed a contradiction between two, very different notions of authority.

When past presidents made recommendations about health or safety, they were conveying to Americans the advice they had received from officers with expertise in those areas. Naturally citizens took seriously pronouncements from the president. After all, he had access to real experts.

When President Trump addresses the pandemic, he doesn’t speak as an ex officio member of the CDC. He offers his own, private, ill-educated opinion. Without an office or expertise, there is no authority, so it should be obvious to any American that the President’s views are about as valuable as a used face mask.

Some might ask “Well then where do experts get their authority? Doesn’t the president outrank them?” Expert authority actually comes from the value we place on the lives of citizens. The Constitution declares that governments are instituted to secure life, liberty, and safety for citizens. To accomplish that, you need experts, which is why Rousseau, Jefferson and other notables repeatedly declared that officers should be selected for their “genius and virtue.” Back in the 18th century “genius” meant knowledge and ability, while “virtue” meant dedication to the public good.

Presidents rely on departmental appointees and career bureaucrats to promote policies beneficial to the people. When those officers lack expertise, there is no authority, because there is no benefit to the people.

This was illustrated dramatically in a report on Sharpiegate last Thursday. Most of us recall that NOAAA map showing how Hurricane Dorian would not hit Alabama. The President insisted that it would, and to prove it used a sharpie to extend the borderline of hurricane damage to include parts of Alabama. Apparently, he believed that his rank gave him the power to overrule the experts even if that meant misinforming Americans about imminent danger. This would suggest he believed his authority extended over the lives of American citizens, a notion his actions have repeatedly reinforced over the past year.

That view of authority was not shared by the Commerce Department inspector general. According to the Washington Post, the inspector general“issued a delayed and harshly critical report laying out how political pressure originating from the White House resulted in the issuance of a poorly crafted and unsigned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) statement . . .”

Why was that a problem? Because that statement “damaged NOAA’s reputation for issuing apolitical guidance and eroded public trust in an agency tasked with protecting life and property.”

This understanding of authority is consistent with the aims of the founding generation of Americans, who held that protecting life and safety required “genius and virtue.” Mick Mulvaney, however, Director of OMB, shared the President’s understanding. He ordered that the Commerce Secretary “have the public record corrected in favor of the president,” resulting in that “poorly crafted” statement.

The President and Mick Mulvaney drew upon a notion of authority that has deep roots in premodern European history: authority as title. Where a modern office has a charge requiring expertise to fulfill, premodern titles only signified privilege. Privilege meant authority without limiting conditions such as a charge or the need for expertise. Expertise wasn’t required because the ultimate value was the title itself, not the lives of the citizens, who were merely subjects. Sound familiar?

How would an arcane notion like that get into the U.S. system of governance, which takes the life and liberty of citizens as its purpose? In her book The Divine Right of Capital, Margorie Kelly argues that feudal notions of authority survive in the modern corporation. Her comparisons are by no means arbitrary:

“Like a feudal estate, a corporation is considered a piece of property-not a human community,” so not only the physical plant and equipment, but the workers’ labor can be bought and sold “like cattle” as Voltaire would say.

“Corporations function with an aristocratic governance structure,” where only members of the propertied class have the privilege of a vote.

“Corporate capitalism embraces a predemocratic concept of liberty reserved for property holders.” For the framers of the Constitution, liberties and freedoms were to be enjoyed by all citizens, but the pre-Revolutionary meaning of these terms was “privileges” restricted to the wealthy. When corporate apologists today speak of “freedom,” what they have in mind is the pre-Revolutionary sense of the word.

“Corporations assert that they are private and the free market will self-regulate, much as feudal barons asserted a sovereignty independent of the Crown.” Corporations remain independent of the state to the degree that a CEO’s decisions are uninhibited by concern for the body politic and its people.

During Trump’s election campaign we often heard the meme that he was qualified to be president because, after all, he was a successful business man! Indeed, he had been the CEO of numerous failed enterprises. Perhaps this explains his understanding of authority: he simply transferred the feudal idea from the corporate world into the world of governance.

The confusion of these two, radically different notions of authority affects the way Americans understand elections. The feudal idea is that elections confer the authority of the people directly onto a candidate to use however s/he pleases. There is no obligation to the office’s charge, much less to the lives of citizens. The authority conferred by election becomes a privilege, and so facts become irrelevant.

The Constitution suggests otherwise: officers have authority to carry out their charge for the betterment of the lives of the citizens. When expertise is compromised, the people’s lives suffer, and the officer’s authority evaporates.

Gina McCarthy, former director of the EPA, explained the difference when commenting on her successor Scott Pruitt: “Scientific research provides factual support for policies that reduce exposure to pollution and protect the American people from costly and dangerous illnesses and premature deaths. Under Mr. Pruitt’s approach to science, the E.P.A. would be turning its back on its mandate to ‘protect human health and the environment’.”

In this view, elections do not directly confer privileges on a candidate or her appointed officers. Instead, elections appoint candidates to key offices. Their authority still comes from the office, not from their title. The office obligates them to appoint subordinates with the expertise necessary to help them carry out their obligation to foster the people’s life, liberty, and safety. When they fail to do that, they turn their backs on their mandate. When that happens, they replace a modern understanding of authority with an arcane, feudal sense of privilege.

The sooner Americans understand the difference between these two kinds of authority, the sooner we can boot those would-be aristocrats out of office.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBS This Morning: “Trump and advisers attempt to discredit Fauci amid top doctor’s blunt warnings about coronavirus”