The “China Threat”: an Undying Figment of the Western Imagination

Hong Kong.

Ever since it became clear — about 2.5 decades ago — that Deng Xiaoping’s epic reforms were going to succeed, the West has been relentlessly harping on “the Chinese threat.” That description long ago became a staple of Western mainstream media coverage of the world. The latest example of such brouhaha is the chorus of apparent anxiety that greeted the news that China had launched its first home-made aircraft carrier.

This ill-willed and dangerous obsession with “the China threat” not only flies in the face of actual developments during the period of the country’s contemporary renascence, but also against the historical record. Throughout its long history, there were many occasions during which China could have “taken over” the known world, but didn’t. A particularly notable example was during the early Ming Dynasty, in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Admiral Zheng He sailed all the way to Africa with ships dwarfing Columbus’s and a fleet many times the size of whatever the European power of the day, Spain, could muster. But China didn’t do colonialism. Plain not interested. At the height of its power, the Qing Dynasty spurned the pleas of Britain’s Lord McCartney to open China to international trade and contacts. Not interested. China just wanted to be left alone.

In the 21st century, of course, splendid isolation is no longer possible. China’s interests and contacts worldwide, mostly trade-driven, are expanding rapidly. That has led to ever-louder bleatings about “the Chinese threat” from the Western imperium. Yes, China is a challenge to the Empire’s longstanding, predatory domination of the world, if only by reducing the breadth and depth of the hegemony. But this, as Beijing has been both saying and doing, is largely through peaceful, economics-related means.

When it yells “China threat” and takes countervailing action, however, the Empire essentially means MILITARY threat. Could it be that those who run the Western imperium only understand force as the final arbiter of all things? (The storylines of Hollywood blockbusters would suggest so.) Is it a 21st-century version of the “Yellow Peril” scare last century that saw China and the Chinese denigrated and persecuted by and in the West?

Or is it that because all self-respecting Western powers had built empires during their ascendancy by pillaging, looting and colonizing other nations, they assume China would do the same in its own (re)ascendancy — despite the latter’s vastly different mindset, values and history? Simply a case of solipsism gone amuck, with potentially perilous consequences to all humanity? Is that the root of the West’s persistent and too-evident inability to understand China — and get along with it on a basis of equality?

The answers matter, because war and peace in our increasingly perilous times could depend on them.