Recent articles in Pearls and Irritations, such as those by Paul Malone, James Curran, Ramesh Thakur and Mike Scrafton, have highlighted the nonsensical nature of much analysis, reporting and opinion, particularly in relation to a trenchant and sustained bias against China. A fascinating question is to ask what is behind this trend.
Several answers on different levels are possible. One is outlined here.
As in many instances of prejudice, three interrelated underlying forces can be identified: fear, ignorance and projection. Each are briefly discussed below, in turn, although with the word constraints of this article, the discussion must remain somewhat general.
Fear seems to be one of the most enduring drivers of media coverage. Just sticking to ethnicities, I am old enough to remember the sequential threats posed by Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese and Lebanese, all these involving knife attacks, for some strange reason. Then there were African gangs, then Muslims, who usually seemed to be of Middle-Eastern background, all alongside the perennial focus on Indigenous people. I apologise to any maligned minority group that I may have forgotten to mention, there are probably many more. That’s not to mention so many other fears, either political, economic, health-related, crime-related or environmental.
The point is not that there aren’t things at times to be afraid of but that a continual discourse of fear, most of it irrational, is not helpful for sensible approaches to social issues. It fuels irrational responses, including racism. The anti-China trend is straight from this playbook.
Whilst ignorance is not a direct cause of fear, it certainly feeds it. We all know people vehemently against some group, who abruptly change tack when they come to know more about members of that group, through sharing the workplace for example. It is simply human nature. In the case of China, Chris Bowen estimated that only 130 Australians of non-Chinese background could speak Mandarin proficiently enough to do business. This claim was deemed an ‘educated guess’ by the ABC’s Fact Check. Probably few of those 130 can also read Chinese and even fewer of those are in leadership or other influential positions.
Dispelling ignorance about China is a major problem, not the least because Chinese culture is so different from Western culture. What hope is there for enlightened opinion if there are so few people who are even able to pick up a Chinese newspaper, read it and interpret it accurately in context, nor even able to have a conversation with ordinary Chinese people in their own language?
When people are ignorant, there is a tendency towards projection. If we don’t know about others’ motives, in the absence of alternative information we tend to assume that they must be similar to ours. In relation to anti-China, there are now commentators questioning why we automatically assume certain things. We may ask ourselves certain questions. For example, why does China’s positioning of its naval forces directly off its own coast imply aggression or military posturing and not simply securing safety of shipping lanes or defence? Why is a warning from a Chinese ambassador about possible consumer backlashes in China a threat and not a piece of friendly advice?
The Guardian reported a few years back that America dropped more than 25,000 bombs in 2016, mostly in Syria and Iraq, and had special operators in 70% of the world’s nations. If that’s how powerful countries operate, then surely China must operate that way as well, right? For people projecting their own values, the answer must surely be yes.
It is tempting to think that these personal factors could not be so dominant in professional commentators, such as personnel in the mass media, academia, bureaucracies or public policy advisory circles. In my opinion, there is no reason to assume that fear, ignorance and projection aren’t equally prominent there, especially when they are swept along through public discourse.
So what can be done to counter fear-based narratives based in ignorance and projection? It is positive to note that there are commentators attempting to disrupt these narratives, but by definition they are outside the dynamics pointed out above, and thus may be perceived of as out of touch by the general public. Perhaps ignorance is the central factor in the above argument, but it is hard to see how such a deficit of understanding could be broached. The cycle of fear dominates: because we are afraid, we read the worst into every event, which raises our fear further, and so on.
One heartening observation is that the cycle of fear moves through target after target and seldom seems to consolidate into anything meaningful in the long run. On the other hand, the targets in the past have not typically been extremely powerful, wealthy entities, as is China, even though at the time they may have been portrayed as far more dangerous than they actually turned out to be. Furthermore, it is not too hard to find evidence that the anti-China focus of the media may not accurately represent how the average Australian or powerful elite really feels about things, when push comes to shove.
Of course, the above is not the only possible interpretation. Some may also point to the decline of journalistic resources and the strategies of grandstanding and self-promotion to stay afloat regardless of content quality, for example. Or some may claim that this is all just an irrelevant public sideshow for the benefit of entertainment, Trump-style, designed to garner public support for various vested interests. Nevertheless, if fear, ignorance and projection are strong factors, then they should be openly called out and resisted. It is encouraging that this is regularly occurring in Pearls and Irritations.