Above photo: US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019. File photo: AP.
Across the centuries, Europe propagated anti-Chinese stereotypes as a response to the perceived threats to European might.
In the US today, dehumanising myths about Chinese continue to drive the cultural belief that China is the enemy.
In the United States, if the right and left agree upon anything, it is that China is the enemy, at a deep, cultural level.
Liberals do not condone violence against Chinese people, but they may accept as fact the same dehumanising myths used to justify racist bullying: Chinese people have a collectivist mentality; are blindly obedient, and so on.
As a historian with years of research on China myths, I believe a deep history of China-bashing can help explain its tenacious hold on the American mind.
The China Threat
In his preface to the most influential 18th-century book on China, J.B. Du Halde said European explorers saw themselves as superior to everyone they encountered, but in China they found a populous nation with prosperous cities and a society so tolerant that religious wars were unknown.
At first, these reports were dismissed as fiction: “We could not believe that beyond so many half-barbarous nations, and at the extremity of Asia, a powerful nation was to be found scarce inferior to any of the best governed states of Europe.”
These accounts challenged traditional presumptions of European superiority, but they turned out to be largely true. Worse yet, global demand for Chinese commodities such as tea, porcelain and silk had created trade deficits all over Europe.
François Fénelon accused the Chinese of being sneaky on the assumption they could not have achieved all this on their own, but because Europeans also made fortunes trading those commodities, the threat was not so much to the economy as to European face.
Face, it turns out, was serious business. Louis le Comte openly admired China’s meritocratic society; his book was burned. In a Europe torn by religious wars, Christian Wolff admired China’s secular morality. He was ordered to leave town in 24 hours or be hanged.
Another threat was China’s post-aristocratic society. Anonymous civil service exams reduced social class, religion or ethnicity as factors in official selection. This made participation in government more egalitarian than in Europe.
Dutch, French and English reformers seized on this to attack aristocratic privilege, arguing that China’s economic success was a product of its meritocratic system. Montesquieu recognised this as threatening to aristocracy and launched an all-out offensive in The Spirit of the Laws .
Our textbooks tell us the Baron was a champion of “liberty”, but fail to mention that “liberties” back then meant aristocratic privileges. We also learn he was opposed to “despotism”, but are not informed that “despotism” referred to stripping the nobility of their “liberties”.
Certainly, China was guilty of that. In China, any educated man could hold office, but Montesquieu insisted that commoners should never hold office. Genuine reformers like Abbe Raynal continued to promote China-style equality right up to the American and French Revolutions, but Montesquieu’s disinformation persisted as well.
After the Revolutions, acknowledging China’s contributions to liberal thought only further threatened European face, so it became necessary to suppress China’s role in Enlightenment debate.
David Porter sees in the Western modernist narrative a “form of instrumental amnesia … What was deliberately and usefully forgotten in England over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the contemporaneity of global history, specifically that of the dauntingly advanced civilisation at the far end of the Eurasian landmass”.
Georg Wilhelm Hegel was influential in creating that amnesia, using racially-charged language to dehumanise Chinese people. Many of our current stereotypes can be traced to his Philosophy of History.
In China, anonymised civil service exams privileged individual talent, yet Hegel claimed the Chinese lacked individuality. China enjoyed a long tradition of political dissent, yet Hegel claimed the Chinese were mindlessly obedient, and sneaky as well. He could not read Chinese, and the record contradicts his claims, but his stereotypes persist.
Just recently, mainstream media (Time) informed readers that people in Asia do not wear masks from a sense of public responsibility; it is merely that personal identity is not as important for them as for us, a classic Hegelian smear.
Why It Matters
For centuries, China’s threat to the myth of Western superiority has made it an easy target for race-baiting. Now, its embrace of green energy once again threatens American face, not to mention petro-profits.
When the Trump administration began its anti-China campaign, its purpose was recognised as distracting from the president’s disastrous policy failures, yet even liberals jumped on the bandwagon.
But the attacks have backfired, further visiting damage on a nation suffering from malmanagement. It has been argued (Foreign Affairs) that the greater risk may lie in overreacting to China’s success, yet the administration’s response has been to intensify the attacks.
Blaming alien races is a core strategy in the White Nationalist playbook, and if Trump had blamed African-Americans or Muslims, liberals would have seen through the ruse.
With China, Hegel’s stereotypes continue to pass for insider knowledge. This is unfortunate, not merely because US farmers and auto workers could benefit from China markets, and not only because, as Foreign Affairs observed, China’s tech industry may be crucial for controlling climate change.
Whatever the differences between these two nations today – and that is getting harder to discriminate – China once provided Western liberals with a model of a less stratified society fostering rational policies for the public benefit.
A rational response to China today requires distinguishing between its beneficial policies and those we might reject, but in the heat of hysteria, that is difficult to do. This might be a good time for both sides to revisit that shared, cosmopolitan past.
Martin Powers has written three books on the history of social justice in China. Two of these won the Levenson Prize for best book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies. Formerly Sally Michelson Davidson Professor and Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies, he is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan.