Excerpt: Who’s Afraid of China?

If China suddenly democratized, would it cease being labeled as a threat? In his forthcoming book, Who’s Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power (Zed Books), Michael Barr argues that fears of China often say as much about those who hold them as they do about the rising power itself. Using examples from film, education, media, politics, and art, Barr proposes that much of the reaction to Chinese soft power fails to spot the meaningful connections between the country’s domestic politics and its attempts to brand itself internationally. Here, in an excerpt from the Introduction, Barr outlines the self referential nature of fear and how it relates to Sino-Western relations.

On the Fear of China

The idea for this book came from a BBC Radio 4 interview. In it, the commentator asked his guest, an executive from the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), whether or not ‘we’ should be ‘worried’ that China was investing so heavily in oil and gas fields in Russia and Latin America. Of course the Sinopec representative gave the expected reply: there was no reason to worry. China was on the path of peaceful development and needed the energy resources to fuel its growing economy, which benefited the entire world. The interviewer accepted the response and moved on. But what struck me about the exchange was why the interviewer felt the need to ask this question in the first place.

No doubt part of the reasoning behind the question was a general concern over a finite supply of natural resources. Would a hungry rising China leave ‘us’ cold and ‘our’ cars running on fumes? But it seemed to me that this was only part of the picture. Other countries are also rushing into the energy market, albeit with much less impact than China. Would he have asked this question if Poland or India were buying energy supplies and raw materials at the same rate? Could the fear of China be tied to its sheer size? 1.4 billion people means that nearly one out of every five people on the planet are Chinese. Yet India’s population is estimated to overtake China’s by 2030. And clearly, for all the talk of India’s emergence, there is not the same level of worry as there is around China.

The interviewer was not just expressing a personal concern: the same question was, and is, being asked across dozens of other countries. Should ‘we’ be worried about China? Did the concern stem from the fact that many Chinese oil companies, whilst increasingly publicly traded, are still largely state controlled? If so, was there a subtle subconscious desire for ‘us’ not to want to see a non-democratic regime succeed? Was there a sense in some of the discourse about the rise of China that somehow the country was morally inferior to other, democratic states – meaning, of course, the states that ‘we’ live in and come from? And if so, then what does that say about the role China plays in ‘our’ imagination?

The interviewer’s question as to whether or not we should be worried about China begs another key question: who are ‘we’? Who’s afraid of China? The only plausible answer, in my view, is that it depends on the issue. Being afraid or not of China is not an either/or proposition. It is both/and. In some cases, the same person, family, community or country stands to win and lose at the same time, depending on what criterion is used. Foreign companies’ ability to source products from China leads to cheaper goods. Chinese technological innovation leads to new ideas and options – lightweight supercomputers or clean-energy technologies. Chinese students studying abroad contribute to local economies, and so on. At the same time, these trends can have negative consequences for the very same people they benefit. Cheaper products are produced in places where the enforcement of safety regulations often lags behind, creating toys with lead paint or toothpaste with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in engine coolant. As universities accept more Chinese, who often pay higher fees as international students, fewer places are available for others, making entrance more competitive.

China is changing the world in significant ways, but it would be a mistake to assume that China’s rise is simply that of a self-contained economy. Rather, one reason for China’s success has been its embrace of de-verticalized and multinational networked production. This means that it has embraced the trend to separate functions and services from a single integrated model to a variety of foreign partners who are able to produce more efficiently. So when the Chinese government builds a high-speed rail network or nuclear power station it not only increases the number of contracts for their state-owned companies; it also increases the business for Siemens or Westinghouse or any number of other international firms. These new modes of production also make it easier and cheaper for innovators in developed economies to translate their ideas into products since they avoid working through huge vertically integrated companies.

But it is not only economic goods that are co-produced. The way China is represented is always conditioned by the way the West is representing itself, and the two representations subsequently reinforce each other. In exploring the BBC interviewer’s question further, I began to see that fears of a rising China could not simply be tied to the traditional ‘hard power’ issues of economic growth, natural resource access and military might. To be sure, these are important. Yet, underlying them is a deeper set of questions concerning identity. Having a job or having a sense of security are not ends in themselves. Rather, they provide the means to an end, what many would call a ‘good life’. In other words, the rise of China isn’t only an economic event; it’s a cultural one which impacts ‘our’ very identity. Thus, focusing on the traditional structures of international relations misses the way that culture shapes how people think, behave and perceive others.

I do not mean to suggest that fears of China are not real for some. But too often such fears are expressed and analysed without exploring what lies beneath them. There are good reasons for this: it is often easier to recognize nationalism in others than in oneself. But fear is in some sense subjective – it is an emotional response to a perceived threat, whether that threat is real or not. So reaction to China is not necessarily dependent on events in China. In this way, fears of China can often say as much about those who hold the emotion as they do about China itself. ‘Tell me what you are afraid of and I will tell you who you are’, writes the philosopher Dominique Moisi, who has done as much as anyone to illustrate the role emotion plays in international politics.

Yet it is also the case that perception is conditioned by the context in which people find themselves. For something to be frightening, the situation in which it is encountered must have a corresponding emotional potential. Such is the case with the fear of China – for its rise comes at a time when the West is deeply mired in philosophical and political questioning over the strength of its own institutions and long-held beliefs about the universality of its values and systems of government. Progress, after all, is less a quality of history than a self-confidence of the present. And as China rises, it is seemingly – unlike the Middle East, the other great Other – full of hope and confidence for its future.

But fear is not merely about the object in question; it is also fundamentally about the self who is in fear. Emotions can reveal much about oneself, since often what disturbs us is not things in themselves but our opinions about them. However, self-reflection is hardest during moments of fear. Heidegger reminds us of this when he writes that ‘he who fears and is afraid is captive to the mood in which he finds himself. Striving to rescue himself from this particular thing, he becomes unsure of everything else and completely “loses his head”.’ Fear reflects this moment of fragility in a person, a culture or even an entire country. It involves something that is impending; thus it expresses uncertainty and legitimizes (sometimes unsubstantiated) speculation.

In this context, fear actually helps to re-establish a sense of community and group identification in the face of the external threat. For political fear does not develop in a vacuum. It is framed and maintained. Politicians will say again and again that a state’s foremost duty is the protection of its people. Thus a government must make it clear when it is combating something that is causing fear – a flood, a disease or an oil spill. But in so doing, this can cause the fear to escalate, since the state legitimizes its acts by referring to the danger that creates the fear in the first place. In order to boost its legitimacy, the dangers are sometimes exaggerated. As we shall see, this is sometimes the case with China.

Of course China is not feared by everyone. Nor, when it is feared, are the reasons always the same. Reaction to China’s rise differs in Southeast Asia compared to India, and in India compared to Europe. But there tends to be a common connection between fear of China and a weakening of the democratic ideal. In fact, a culture of fear can even reduce the gap between democracy and authoritarianism, since in the name of fear governments push for measures which violate their own commitments to the rule of law and due process. One need only consider the West’s reaction to Islam, a fear deepened but not solely created by the 11 September attacks.

Historically, views of China have been as diverse as they are today. In the case of the West at least, they have also been shaped as much by circumstances ‘at home’ as they have been by those in China. Eighteenth-century Jesuit descriptions of China emphasized its good government, examination system and codification of laws. Less than a hundred years later, as Europe underwent the Industrial Revolution, China looked increasingly backward for its failure to modernize economically. Here, shifting views of China had more to do with changes in Europe itself than with changes in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In the eighteenth century, for example, Voltaire and Leibniz used China’s supposed ‘philosopher-king’ model to attack corrupt French and Prussian monarchs. In the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals became Maoists while dreaming of a revolution at home. This trend continues, as we will see.

China similarly views the West through its own preoccupations, and in the process helps construct the very meaning of the term ‘Western’. Both official policy and popular culture in China view the West through a narrative of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ – that is, China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, its forced opening up to traders and loss of territory to European powers and, most humiliating of all, Japan. China specialist William Callahan perceptively calls China the ‘pessoptimist nation’, given how contradictory emotions are used in the formation of China’s changing national identity. Nationalism is continually produced and consumed in a circular process that knits together both urban and rural, rich and poor, mainland and overseas Chinese. In this way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boosts its own legitimacy through a form of anti-Western nationalism. But this policy both feeds into and grows out of the emotions of ordinary Chinese. Patriotic education and popular opinion are intertwined, just as the pride of a once great civilization and humiliation over its subjugation are interwoven. In this way, China’s domestic politics are inseparable from its foreign relations. They are bound together, linking national security with nationalist insecurities. Easy labels (China is authoritarian, the West is free) not only miss areas in which freedom exists in China or is under threat in the West, but more importantly they limit any ability to acknowledge the inherent fluidity of identity – both Chinese and Western.

Michael Barr is Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University. He has published on issues pertaining to Chinese soft power, biosecurity, the history of medical ethics and dual-use bioethics.

Excerpt from Who’s Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power, © Zed Books 2011. Reproduced with permission.

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