China Threat: Different words, same message

There are certain things have changed little over the passage of time. The “yellow peril” theme is one of these things, according to English born writer Geoffrey Murray.

By Geoffrey Murray
China.org.cn,  December 27, 2011

As part of consultancy work for Chinese publishing houses, I recently did an Internet search for books on the ‘China Threat’ theme.

Amazon.com, for example, offers at least a dozen current titles, such as Red Dragon Rising: Communist China’s Military Threat to America, Trade Secret Theft, Industrial Espionage and The China Threat, The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America, and Is China A Threat to the US Economy?

A review of Red Dragon Rising says it ‘is a riveting clarion call to understand the peril we face and the need to rebuild America’s military and counter-intelligence systems.’

Meanwhile, The Economist in the UK trumpets ‘The dangers of a rising China’ while the Financial Times exposes the threat of Chinese state-owned companies allegedly ‘appropriating’ (stealing) other countries cutting-edge technology.

Quite a booming industry, it would seem. However, I wonder if the people issuing these warnings realize how much they duplicate practices begun in the 19th century? The words are different (formerly, it was the ‘Yellow Peril’), but the message is unchanged – as I show in frequent lectures on such stereotyping to audiences in Beijing.

From the middle ages to the 19th century, the West regarded China as a highly cultured land; attitudes changed as the country retreated into backwardness under the decaying Qing Dynasty, and bullying Western nations took advantage to snatch bits of Chinese territory.

A perception of Chinese spinelessness in the face of these depredations heightened contempt. To this must be added the poor impression created by Chinese peasants, impoverished and largely illiterate, who became indentured laborers in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Although these workers had a vital function in the hard, dangerous and dirty jobs associated with California gold mines and building the trans-continental American railways, for example, their presence eventually was perceived as a threat to local jobs.

The next step was outright racial discrimination. The US banned further immigration while other countries imposed heavy entry taxes. Today, it’s still hard for Chinese to travel freely in the West.

It was around the 1870’s that the phrase ‘Yellow Peril’ became popular in both the US and Europe. Novelists and filmmakers then took up the theme in fictional depictions that penetrated deep into the Western psyche.

In this regard, I am struck by the strong similarities between the attitudes then and now.

For instance, a 1907 newspaper cartoon from a New Zealand newspaper shows an octopus with a Chinese face wrapping its tentacles around a young girl representing the nation – the tentacles carrying captions such as greed, licentiousness, brutality, opium trade and evil habits. In 2011, an Australian newspaper carried an anti-Asian cartoon showing an octopus with Australia in its grip, again highlighting the threat to white wellbeing.

The first fictional Yellow Peril figure was in a novel published in 1892 about a Chinese warlord and pirate named Kiang Ho, prowling the seas with a fleet of fast ships and a super-submarine to capture and sink all Western shipping.

Fast-forward to today and we find the United States, Japan and some other Asian countries fretting about the threat to their strategic interests in the Western Pacific posed by China’s growing naval strength – not just submarines and fast ships, but also aircraft carriers. That 1892 author knew a thing or two!

The archetype Yellow Peril figure in fiction surely was “Fu Manchu”, created in 1913 by an English writer as an evil criminal genius plotting to destroy the world.

Personally, I see an expression of this in the way the Western media and politicians demonized Chairman Mao Zedong at the height of the cold war, depicting him as a madman quite willing to unleash nuclear warfare to achieve his revolutionary aims. To be fair, though, China was demonizing Western leaders in the same way.

In 1950, the well-known American news magazine Time carried a cover showing Chairman Mao surrounded by swarms of locusts that can strip bare a field of crops in moments. The implication was clear: Mao overseeing the Chinese hordes terrorizing and stripping the world of its resources.

It surfaced again in 1995, when American environmentalist Lester Brown wrote Who Will Feed China? concerning pressure on global resources imposed by China’s huge and growing population.

The ‘China Threat’ is frequently evoked by others regarding its insatiable appetite for foreign investment, and when it has gone onto the world market to purchase large amounts of wheat to offset domestic shortages and, again, with its huge imports of crude oil, iron ore and other crucial minerals.

Every time the West considers the challenge of modern China, the message tends to echo the basic theme begun two centuries ago. It brings to mind the old saying that there is ‘nothing new under the sun.’

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/geoffreymurray.htm

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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