The timing of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit in September provided a golden opportunity for Asian Americans to contemplate our roles in an era often labeled “the Asian century” or “the China century.”
Asian Americans are, to state the obvious, at once Asian and American. We care about what happens here in America and over there in Asia and are affected by what happens here and there. During Xi’s visit, lots of Asian Americans showed up, many with banners and placards. Some cheered, others jeered. And that’s the way it should be—we’re in America, where speech is free and expressions encouraged. If we care about what happens in Asia, by all means voice it in America!
What about what happens in America? Especially what happens in America regarding Asia?
Xi landed in Seattle at the height of a contentious battle for presidential nominations, a period of candidate grandstanding spearheaded by one Donald Trump, whose China-bashing, troublesome though it was, had only been overshadowed by his Mexican-bashing.
China-bashing, of course, is a given in presidential elections, especially in the last few cycles. When a country differing in ideology from that of America becomes successful, politicians naturally take it upon themselves to demonize it.
Granted, China is easy to demonize. Authoritarian! Entrenched corruption! Rampant pollution! Civil rights violations! Free speech infringement! And, evil of all evils, Communist!
Yes, China is all those, except the Communist part. Communism is for all practical purposes no longer practiced in China, though lip service is paid to it by the ruling Communist Party. So it’s fair game that the Chinese government be ostracized by those who don’t like communism.
But is China-bashing right? At the risk of being dismissed as China apologist, I’ll go ahead and answer: a resounding no!
China-bashing is not right because it ignores the wide and complex, focusing instead on the narrow and simpleminded. China is full of problems and its government had indeed committed much atrocities that violate standards widely considered universal. Yet it must be noted that those standards are essentially western-defined and China is obviously different from the West. It also has a history of development much different from the West.
China has also done a lot of rights. The reduction of poverty, for example. World poverty had declined by more than half in the last 30 years and one key factor is the economic progress in China and India, two of the world’s most populous countries. The Chinese people are doing much better today and lifting the world up with it. Fair is fair, their government deserves credit.
But America had not been fair to China, largely because China doesn’t do it our way. Nations in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East had tried in various forms the economic and political systems favored by America and most had failed, often miserably. One reason is that those regions are different, and imposing our system on them, even if intentions are good, is at best foolhardy. China, by contrast, came up with a way all its own and succeeded. One only has to compare China of the last 30 years with Yeltsin Russia—with its disastrous measures to implement Western-style economics on the ill advice of heralded Harvard economists—to see the complexity of the situation.
Another right about China is that it got to where it is by being itself. Let’s not forget that China achieved its success today after standing up first to the U.S. and then to the Soviet Union. Mao Tse-tung may be a monster who launched the devastating Cultural Revolution and brutally purged dissents, but he had the gall and backbone to stand up to both superpowers then dominating the world. Such is history—figures and states are often many things in one.
Making things even more confusing is that China not only survived but went on to thrive. And thrive. And thrive. … It confounds me till no end to witness how Americans would not appreciate a David who stood up to not one, but two Goliaths. One major reason, obviously, is that one of the Goliaths is us. Yet I can’t help but believe there is also intolerance—a failure to accept practices different from ours.
But China-bashing makes Americans feel good. It appeals to our arrogance and our need to feel righteous over others while fostering the ignorance that has plagued America in recent decades, leading to questionable and sometimes downright atrocious activities overseas. That arrogance, that need and that ignorance had for years planted the seed for hatred of America all over the world, exploding into the terrorism that haunts America—and in turn the rest of the world—today. China-bashing exemplifies what’s wrong with political practices in America.
Due to space limitations, I won’t go into details of the American activities referred above, but only cite as illustration the Iran-Contra-cocaine scandal of the 1980s, remembrance of which rekindled in this film historian by the 2014 film Kill the Messenger, a fictional account of only some of the atrocities (to know more about the scandal, Google!). That the film spotlights the role of news media in that shameful page of our history underscores the unhealthy interplay of political and journalistic practices that led to our very problematic foreign policies.
Worse yet, China-bashing is fanning the fire under an already highly volatile global pot, with a New Cold War simmering under the surface. Alarmist though this sounds, tension in Asia and Eastern Europe, where China and Russia, respectively, and their neighbors had been escalating, with all-out war threatening to become reality. There are strong feelings in Asia that the U.S., in its recent Pivot to Asia initiative, is aggressively taunting China while also playing China against its neighbors to maintain American leadership and to enhance American interests. This is not unlike the way America, and European colonial powers before it, played the Sunnis against the Shiites in the Middle East. And we know how that had backfired on us—not to mention how appalling that strategy was in moral terms.
While in Seattle, Xi tried to dim the U.S.-China fire by downplaying the Thucydides Trap some American foreign-affairs experts had warned against, that of a rising power inevitably going to war with the existing power. Xi’s words may be lip service, but a service his counterpart President Obama didn’t bother to pay (at least not in all the news reports I read and the Google searches I made).
The Cold War had been extremely devastating to humankind. The Vietnam War, for example, was escalated by America on a dominoes theory proven to be utterly wrong, causing destruction of tragic proportions that Asian Americans knew only too well.
Asian American concerns had always been largely neglected in national matters. But in this century, when what happens in Asia will no doubt have impacts of immense dimensions, Asian Americans should play a more vital role. It is my compelling wish that we Asian Americans can play a part in preventing the launch of Cold War 2.0.
Sam Ho is a film historian who divides his time between Hong Kong and Bellingham.