KISHORE MAHBUBANI. A ‘yellow peril’ revival fuelling Western fears of China’s rise (East Asia Forum)

Do we arrive at geopolitical judgements from only cool, hard-headed, rational analysis? If emotions influence our judgements, are these conscious emotions or do they operate at the level of our subterranean subconscious? Any honest answer to these questions would admit that non-rational factors always play a role. This is why it was wrong for Western media to vilify Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the US State Department, for naming racial discomfort as a factor at play in the emerging geopolitical contest between the United States and China.

Skinner was correct in saying that ‘the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family’. Referring to the contest with China, she said: ‘it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian’. That China is not Caucasian is a factor in the geopolitical contest and it may also explain strong emotional reactions in Western countries to China’s rise.

Take the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China as an example. Critics of China are rational and correct when they state that China has stolen intellectual property and occasionally bullied US firms into sharing their technology. But a calm, rational description of China’s behaviour would also add that such behaviour is normal for an emerging economy.

The United States also stole intellectual property, especially from the British, at a similar stage of its economic development. Equally important, when the United States agreed to admit China into the WTO as a ‘developing country’, it agreed that ‘under the WTO’s agreements on intellectual property, developed countries are under “the obligation” to provide incentives to their companies to transfer technology to less developed countries’. This is a point that Yukon Huang, a former World Bank economist, has pointed out.

Most Western portrayals of China’s emergence as a great power lack balance. They tend to highlight negative dimensions of China’s rise but omit the positive dimensions. When US Vice President Mike Pence gave a comprehensive speech on China on 4 October 2018, he said: ‘Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown nine-fold; it’s become the second-largest economy in the world. Much of this success was driven by American investment in China’. This is a factually incorrect statement. China’s economic success has been primarily driven by the rejuvenation of the Chinese people, not US investment.

Though Washington prides itself as a centre of calm and rational strategic thinking, such an unbalanced speech was not attacked in the liberal media. Instead, many cheered the US Vice President for attacking China.

This virulent anti-China atmosphere is reminiscent of the mid-1980s when Western media attacked Japan ferociously. The distrust of yellow-skinned people has resurfaced again. As former US ambassador Chas Freeman has observed: ‘In their views of China, many Americans now appear subconsciously to have combined images of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Japan’s unnerving 1980s challenge to US industrial and financial primacy, and a sense of existential threat analogous to the Sinophobia that inspired the Anti-Coolie and Chinese Exclusion Acts’.

The people of the United States need to question how much of their reactions to China’s rise result from hard-headed rational analysis and how much are a result of deep discomforts with a non-Caucasian civilisation. We may never know the real answer as these titanic struggles between reason and emotion are probably playing out in deep subconscious terrains. Still, we should thank Kiron Skinner for alluding to the fact that such subconscious dimensions are at play here. The time has come for an honest discussion of the ‘yellow peril’ dimension in US–China relations. As Freud taught us, the best way to deal with our subconscious fears is to surface them and deal with them.

Kishore Mahbubani is a Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the author of Has the West Lost It?’

This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 5th of June 2019. 

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5 Responses to KISHORE MAHBUBANI. A ‘yellow peril’ revival fuelling Western fears of China’s rise (East Asia Forum)

  1. Bruce George says:

    The Western Anglo/American Alliance has been bullying the rest of the world, and especially Africa, Asia and South America for a couple of centuries and are fearful that with the rise of China there will be retaliations for this treatment. This is a fear, not based on any reality, but a fear that is feed by fear. In order to learn true cooperation with others there is a need to honour and respect every people group as a legitimate expression of the the creative force. Honour and respect of other people’s and nations is the West’s great challenge.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Kishore Mahbubani’s view is not alone in Asia as they are Chinese writers in SCMP who shared his views on Dr Kiron Skinner’s statement.
    However, I hold a different view from Prof Mahbubani’s in that geopolitical decision should be objective and non-rational views have no place simply because the outcome of such a conflict can lead to war.
    Without going into the theory or philosophy of decision making, I submit that my view may be idealistic, and mostly influenced by training as a scientific researcher. However, I do admit that human emotions and other non-rational feelings do play a role in important decisions and such decisions, however, may not leave much room for reconciliation or peace.
    The statements of Dr Skinner are indeed controversial and introduced “racism”, as an irrational thought into the US-China conflict (trade war or US containment of China). Her statements were rebutted by critics from both China and US.
    The US critics slammed her for introducing racial politics into US foreign Affairs. President Xi reacted strongly against her statement by saying:
    “If someone thinks their own race and civilization is insists on remolding or replacing other civilizations, it would be a stupid idea and disastrous act”.
    “We should hold up equality and respect, abandon pride and prejudice, deepen our knowledge about the differences between our own and other civilisations, and promote harmonious dialogue and coexistence between civilisations.”
    He went on to say: “If countries retreat to secluded islands, human civilisation will die out because of a lack of exchanges.”
    The official CCP Global Times, claimed it belied a U.S. plan that “clearly cantered on Western civilization and discriminates against Chinese civilization.”
    If Dr Skinner is correct in her statements, then this could this be perceived globally that American policy makers view US-China conflict on a racial basis? (or do they imply that President Trump is a racist?) Her statements do not do justice to President Trump.
    Dr Skinner’s statement only serve to increase the credibility of China’s assertions that the trade war and containment is not based on rational economics hence, the arguments put forward by US can be perceived as irrational, ie. cancels any good arguments from the US side.
    The US critics are wise in rebutting Dr Skinner’s statements because it can be a barrier to the success of the trade talks.

  3. R. N. England says:

    The Washington Swamp is throwing everything it can onto the fires of xenophobia to stave-off recession in the arms industry. Racism was thrown in to keep the white trash on side. Trump’s great lesson for American democracy is that their support can turn defeat into victory.

  4. I’m currently writing a paper which includes this very serious element. The Wikipedia entry for yellow peril gives history, indicates how deep in the European psyche this anxiety is.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    I’m not sure that the ‘yellow peril’ is much of a factor in Aus at the moment.

    I’m thinking of the storm that blew up about the book Tiger Mother here. The hostility was mostly about the abusive attitude to kids, Chineseness didn’t feature much. And the racist right are mostly targetting Muslims. I’m pretty sure they’d target the Chinese if they felt they were widely disliked or feared by Australians.

    Is racism an element still. I think so, especially for those with a racist agenda.

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