TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Why They Hate China

The path of the Olympic torch brought out large demonstrations, especially in London, Paris, and San Francisco. Various political agenda were in play, most prominently objections to Chinese policies on Tibet and on the Sudan, with regard to the genocide in Darfur. Each of these topics could be discussed in detail, and it is surely not unreasonable to develop a criticism of China on these and other issues. China has problems, which it is fair to scrutinize. Yet the sudden eruption of anti-Chinese sentiment is striking. Something has changed.

In recent years, only two other countries have attracted similarly hostile demonstrations: the United States and Israel. In those cases, ostensible objections to particular policies—the war in Iraq, for example, and the treatment of Palestinians—turn out to have been pretexts for underlying prejudicial structures: anti-Americanism and antisemitism. Let me be clear: one can logically object to this or that point in U.S. or Israeli policy and still be on firm, rational grounds. However, currents of affective hatred, with cultural and psychological roots, have frequently poisoned the policy discussions. Indeed, even the policy objections themselves can sometimes be just pretexts for darker sentiments.

It appears that China now has, at least in the psyche of the demonstrating public, joined the club of pariah nations. China, the United States, and Israel—enormously different societies and cultures—have suddenly become easy targets, attractive objects for vilification and derision. It is cool now to moralize about China in the same circles where hostility to Americans is a sign of sophistication and support for Israel would be in bad taste. Along with the perennial rituals of burning American flags and the desecration of Jewish symbols, we now are witnessing a campaign—or the convergence of several campaigns—to spoil a symbol, the Beijing Olympics, which many Chinese, in China and abroad, view with considerable national pride. What’s going on?

The Chinese criticism of its international critics tends to conflate them with government-level issues, as if western demonstrators could be easily explained as functions of their various political leaders. That is a surely a misperception (which may reflect elements of political culture in China, but that is another matter). The fact that Bush welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House is probably more of a source of embarrassment and consternation for the pro-Tibet demonstrators. There is a similar constellation with regard to Darfur: the Bush administration’s early condemnation of the killing (when the Europeans were still in full-fledged denial) has won it little credit in the world of journalism or on the street, which, to the contrary, only complains that it has not done enough. That is the world where Bush is the source-of-all-evil. So, the hypothesis that the demonstrators along the route of the Olympic torch merely parrot their western governments is not tenable: not in the United States, nor in the United Kingdom or France.

In fact, matters are much worse.

Subscribe to Telos

While Chinese policy (like any country’s policies) ought to be open to debate and criticism, the exaggerated focus on China and the often bitter and vicious manifestations depend on ideological distortions that reflect a deeper and highly problematic animosity. We are facing a new eruption of irrational hostility toward China, which goes far beyond policy disputes.

On Darfur: The genocide in Darfur is a tragedy of epic proportions. The international community, including China—but hardly limited to China—bears responsibility for countenancing the killing. There is a divestment campaign underway (in the United States, the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act was signed on Dec. 31, 2007), but it has yet to make much headway. The point, however, is that the genocide in Darfur is above all about the Sudan and the efforts by the Arab janjaweed to exterminate other ethnic groups. Primary blame should therefore be directed at the Sudan and at the Arab League, which the protest culture, however, refuses to address. Why does an Arab problem turn into a Chinese problem? It is certainly legitimate to ask whether Chinese foreign policy has been productive in this matter (the answer is no). But China is not the source of this problem. The misdirection of protests primarily at China, rather than at the Arab world, indicates ideological distortion and ulterior motives.

On Tibet: Not even the Dalai Lama calls for independence. What is at stake then is a problem of inequality for an ethnic minority, the Tibetans in China: that is wrong, but hardly rare in the world, and that is where legitimate policy discussions could take place. What economic development should take place in Tibet? Should other ethnic groups be permitted to settle there? (The Tibetans did not riot only against Han but also against Muslim minorities.) Unfortunately, it is too much to expect consistency or intellectual honesty, but, for the record: neither the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 nor the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 brought western protesters to the streets. Nor did Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Why is the Chinese presence in Tibet so much more offensive?

The answer has two sides. The first involves a western romantic sympathy with Tibetan Buddhism. No doubt, some in the West have devoted serious religious attention to Buddhism, and that deserves the same respect any sincere belief should receive. At the same time, the western fascination with some eastern religions also includes a component of trivialization and anti-modern escapism: the search for an exotic belief structure that provides the peace one cannot find in modernity, a kind of spiritualized anti-capitalism for the counterculture. This appeal of Tibetan religion has more to do with the cultural crisis of the West than with the reality of Tibetan traditions: it is certainly not about a principled liberal defense of religious freedom. On the contrary, it involves a flight from the conflicted world of liberal plurality into a tempting vision of meditative harmony.

The second aspect is, however, the crux of the matter. More important than sympathy for Tibet is an underlying hostility to China, which requires close scrutiny. This short piece can only scratch the surface. The angry and agitated anti-China protestors found easy pretexts, the Sudan and Tibet, but they were giving expression to some deeper fears and animosity. Is this a new “yellow peril,” a return of the western Sinophobia of the late nineteenth century? Yet, we live in an era in which explicit racism is intellectually and morally impossible. There is a more important difference from the age of the “yellow peril” scare: if China at 1900 could seem weak, China in 2008—despite its many problems linked to rapid development—appears strong, and precisely therefore, some in the West see it as a threat or even an object of jealousy. With an economy that is generating enormous wealth and a political system that is passing through a gradual if slow process of “post-totalitarianism,” Chinese accomplishments are remarkable—and that may be the genuine rationale of the demonstrations, a hostility to Chinese success. It is worthwhile to recall that in all the decades of starkly Communist China, there was nary a public protest in the West (except perhaps by the exile Chinese communities); the Western progressive community had no problem when the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1951, and the extremes of the Cultural Revolution were gleefully misunderstood and applauded. Only now that China is becoming a capitalist powerhouse, the protestors are ready to come out.

So: why do they hate China? The answer is complex. Arabs kill Africans and China is treated as the primary culprit. Westerners seek spiritual enlightenment and romanticize Tibetan poverty. China has become capitalist, which plenty find offensive: China-bashing is the new anti-capitalism. Inexpensive Chinese exports, which keep prices down for U.S. consumers, are strangely seen as harmful. And there must be some element of traditional racism in this too.

China is surely not perfect. It could stand for a healthy dose of liberalization, which, however, would only accelerate its economic progress. And that would be good. But in the meantime, if liberalization and free speech are the issue, let’s start the conversation with Silicon Valley and the collusion of the computer industry with censorship on the internet.

Comments are closed.