By Jian Junbo
LONDON – The “China threat theory” is re-emerging in Western narratives, seemingly buoyed by the pace of modernization within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a recent focus on the chances of military confrontation with the United States in China’s backyard. More often than not, however, Western perceptions of the threat take an ill-informed trajectory that spins from the orbit of reality.
A rising China is a natural competitor for the United States in the Pacific, according to a recent study by public policy think-tank the RAND Corporation, which states that although the prospects for war are limited, they are real and may prove difficult to minimize. As an objective assessment of the study in the Atlantic Sentinel puts it:
… RAND … examines not so much the likelihood of a direct confrontation with China, but rather how and where a crisis could develop and then escalate into war.
If it chose, RAND observes, China could become a more formidable threat to the US than Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were at the height of their power. China doesn’t appear to seek territorial expansion or ideological aggrandizement at the expense of other countries and the United States is likely to remain militarily superior. But in its immediate neighborhood, China could achieve hegemony. “In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible,” according to the RAND Corporation. 
In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Aaron Friedberg, former deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning for former vice president Dick Cheney, sees a clear and present danger in China’s point of view, saying:
Although they are careful not to say so, I believe that China’s present leaders seek eventually to displace the United States as the preponderant power in East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party believes that the United States and its allies aim to encircle China, to constrict its growth and to transform it eventually into a liberal democracy. They regard the U.S. presence in Asia, its network of bases, alliances, and forward deployed military forces, as an unnatural, temporary intrusion and a potential threat. With the United States gone, China should be able to resume its traditional position as the dominant regional power. 
The issue is one of perceptions. For the view of China from an American perspective, we can turn to the latest survey by Rasmussen Reports, an electronic media company, which described its assessment as the most negative in three years of surveying public opinion.
The poll shows 62% of American adults now see China as an emerging, long-term danger to the US. Only 9% of Americans now describe the Asian powerhouse as a US ally. Fifty-eight percent say China is somewhere between being an ally and being an enemy. And 27% see China as an outright enemy, compared with 16% when the same question was asked in April. 
Perceptions of the China threat took on a distinct air of unreality last week when a Japanese online news report said that according to “a latest survey” by the Telegraph, a British newspaper, many British people saw China as a threat and the PLA was so powerful that it could take over London overnight and conquer the whole of United Kingdom in three months. Without checking their facts, some Chinese-language media in Hong Kong picked this up, spinning the threat with headlines such as “The PLA can take over London overnight”.
As a matter of fact, the Telegraph started the online survey on March 4, 2008, and invited public comments on such questions as “Is the US – and the West as a whole – right to fear China’s increasing military might? Do you believe China’s official line that its investments are ’defensive’ in nature? Is it hypocritical of the US – or Britain – to worry about China’s military aggression?” Up to date, 120 comments have been posted, and the latest was dated on March 23, 2010. 
From the perspective of objective news reporting, the Telegraph survey has little value. However, it allows respondents to give their views on the issue – a step more revealing of perceptions and attitudes than the presentation of statistical figures in a survey. The range of expressions enables readers, especial Chinese readers, to better understand how Westerners think and argue over the “China threat”, and as set apart from charges by Western politician and media. As such, it is still worth some reflection from a Chinese point of view.
In general, the 120 comments can be categorized into two schools of thought. One holds that the West is right to fear China’s aggression, though most characterize the sense of aggression as deriving more from China’s increasing economic might than its military modernization. Another school sees China as no substantial threat to the West in coming decades, and sees that as a function of the many internal problems faced by the Middle Kingdom.
Those who believe China is a threat give various reasons: China is so big that it will swallow the rest of the world; China is a non-democratic state; and China takes an imperialist external policy.
For instance, a comment said: “The real world problem is overpopulation and there are simply not enough resources to meet China’s growing economic ambition. If the Chinese are to enjoy the same standard of living as we do in the West … it’s likely to be messy”.
Another accurately calculated that for “China to achieve the ’Western’ standard of living [it] will require 6x [six times] the resources and commodities the world now produces” … “The Chinese government wishes to increase military spending … possibly because China recognizes the scarcity of the world’s resources. Wars have often been fought over resources.”
Some others argued that “China is governed by evil communism, they’re using slavery methods in they’re own country”; or “China is not a democracy. It is not threatened by any other country.” China “is now a superpower with no democracy. This means it can build the world’s largest airport terminal within 4 years; Heathrow’s T5 will take about 15 [years to build].”
Still others thought that China is like an imperialist country. One comment said China is “taking advantages of Indian democracy, by using Indian communists as their agents, to further their movement, as Russia was using its neighboring-countries in 1950s and 1960s. China is on the same path”.
Some others talked about “China’s aggressive external policy” toward Taiwan and Tibet. “For the past 10 to 15 years China has been saying they are going to attack Taiwan and fight a war with the US. They are currently trying to prevent ships from other nations from sailing across the South China Sea. Do these sound like the actions of a peaceful nation?”
All in all, as a comment summed up: “Well, from the comments I have read, it is not about fear. It’s hatred. It surprises me that so many of them hate China so much”. One may add that apart from hatred, there are also expressions of prejudice and ignorance.
But what does this toe-dip into a small sea of Western perceptions mean for the West, for China and for the world?
Western people may fully agree that he who hates others will blind to others. If the minds of ordinary Western people are full of hatred for China, it’s regrettable yet carries some truth that they are totally blind to China. There is still quite a big gap to be filled between China’s reality and Western people’s knowledge of China’s reality.
Ironically, it can be said most people who are blind to China’s reality would not admit their blindness – and may even lack the will or courage to listen to opposite opinions.
In this regard, a joke in China is perhaps revealing. It has it that a Falungong follower preaches to a person on street, telling him not to listen to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda about the cult. The person asks, “Have you read any of those articles that criticize Falungong?” … “No,’’ says the Falungong devotee, ’’we never read articles that are incorrect.”
How can one conclude an article is false without reading it? Unfortunately, Westerners blind to China’s reality are just like the Falungong follower in the joke. Obstinacy and prejudice give them every excuse to show no interest in getting to know about the real China.
Western-centralism is perhaps the basic reason behind some ignorance and prejudice on China’s reality. A long history of Western-centric views influences the prism through which the West looks at and understand the rest of the world, including China.
Western-centric thinking has led Western people to look much more inward than outward. For instance, Americans are notorious for their poor knowledge of world geography; many of them unable to spot any difference between Singapore and Shanghai.
By contrast, in the drive to modernize their country, the Chinese have been eagerly learning about the West. Today, many ordinary Chinese know the name of the US president, the capitals of Britain, France and Germany, and take a great interest in major international affairs. But how many Western people know that Hu Jintao is the Chinese leader or that the nation’s capital is Beijing, not Shanghai?
The West considers itself the lighthouse of world economy, freedom and democracy. With ideals that embolden a sense of superiority, Western thinking goes that other nations in the world ought to learn everything about the West, and that only the West has the right to “lecture” other nations. That means the West in general doesn’t have typical interest to learn more about foreign cultures or realities.
Furthermore, a Western-centric viewpoint has led the West to develop an aggressive or offensive culture that always asks non-Western nations to accept the values based on Western and Christian cultures. As such, Western people have no interest to learn or know much about others’ cultures, values and ideas. They only want to pragmatically learn something when doing business with other nations.
Meanwhile, those views are based on dichotomy which sees the world only as black or white, right and wrong, good or evil – and nothing in between. Since they think they’re right, standing on a God-supported and -selected side, others like Chinese must be wrong if they don’t take to Western suggestions or models. Because of this, when China takes a different approach from the West, then China is labeled as an autocratic state with ignorant mass under evil communist party’s ruling.
Ironically, ignorant as some Westerners may be about China, they think they know more and better about the country than Chinese. Typical examples are their views on Taiwan and Tibet. Even though their governments solemnly recognize Taiwan and Tibet as parts of China, many Westerners still insist that they are independent countries.
Apart from a Western-centric ideology, governments and media organizations in the West should also be held responsible for people’s prejudice and hostility toward China.
Western governments tend to intervene in China’s internal affairs as one part of their policies toward China, and particularly, powers like the US, France or Britain are interested in changing China in terms with the Western model and values. Under this strategy, it’s easy for them to consider China as a competitor, challenger and even threat at a time when China’s rise economically and militarily is not based on the Western road map.
Western governments are inclined through their media to expose bad images of China or to publicly criticize China, and even try to shape wrong ideas about the country. In this sense, the Western media is an indispensable government assistant in efforts of Western governments to demonize China and make their public more blind to China’s reality.
As long as the Western mainstream median like CNN or BBC prefers to reports negative news of China or report China with prejudices, the picture of China remains distorted in the minds of Western publics.
According to statistics by China’s Press and Publication Administration, in the last century China translated into Chinese and published 1,068,000 books from their original English, German, Italian, Spain and Russian. By comparison, only 800 Chinese books had been translated and published in the West over the same century.
More and more Westerners are coming to study in Chinese universities for Mandarin training or to earn degrees, or are traveling as tourists, and an increasing number of Western academic institutions offer courses in China Studies. But that is still not sufficient when, for instance, many Western Sinologists don’t even understand Chinese language.
To some degree, Western blindness to China has nothing to do with China, except it impresses upon Chinese people that most Western publics have so little knowledge and a great deal of ignorance about a country with 5,000 years of history that has undergone huge changes in its reality.
For the Chinese, they don’t have any interest in asking other nations to understand China or even teach others to learn from Chinese people. Doing their own best is best for the world, and as Confucius said “If Barbarians don’t follow us, we should just enhance our own education and cultivate our morality to attract them to come”.
However, if Western countries’ policy toward China is mostly based on blindness, damage will continue to be done to relations between China and the West, and Western interests inevitably will be hurt too.
So it seems there is a chasm for the West to fill between itself and China. The gap can be narrowed if Western people have the will and sincerity to respect China and understand this country with a more modest attitude.
1. War With China: How It Could Happen, Atlantic Sentinel, Oct 14, 2011.
2. Interview with Aaron Friedberg: Is China going to displace the U.S.?, Washington Post, Oct 16, 2011.
3. Rasmussen: 62% See China as Threat to US, Newsmax, Oct 3, 2011.
4. Is the West right to fear China?, Telegraph, Mar 4, 2008.
Dr Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, is currently an academic visitor at London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.
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