The China threat: turning myth into reality

We have been told that China poses a real and present danger to Australia and, regardless of the truth, it has become a ‘truth.’

The reading list promoting Chinese threat perceptions is vast. Well credentialed authors have produced such titles as, The China Threat, Deceiving the Sky. The Coming Conflict with China, Silent Invasion, China’s Vision of Victory, The Hundred Year Marathon, Stealth War, Has China Won?, Unrestricted Warfare, Destined for War, China: the Gathering Threat and When China Rules the World, a best seller boasting more than 250,000 sales. This barely scratches the surface. The list is a depressingly long one. Are they right? Is China a threat and if so, whom does it threaten?

China threatens the global economic hegemony of the USA. The threat comes from China’s successful shift to a fully operational capitalist economy. It might still wave the flag and proclaim that it is ‘building socialism with Chinese characteristics’, but it is a fiction that cannot be sustained. After all, 60 per cent of Chinese GDP, 80 per cent of urban employment and 90 per cent of all new jobs are the product of the private sector. Private capitalists account for 70 per cent of all investment and 90 per cent of exports, not to mention the 66 per cent of all economic growth in the country. Former leader Deng Xiaoping famously declared that ‘to get rich is glorious.’ It was a call that did not go unheeded. At last count there were 388 Chinese billionaires, making it second only to the USA as home to the mega-rich and yet there is this persistent rumour that China is in some way ‘socialist’ or ‘communist.’

China and its intensely authoritarian form of capitalism is also a threat to its own people and especially to its working people who campaign for better wages, conditions, or job security at their peril. The economic crisis that affects the west also affects China and the workers are generally the ones who are made to suffer. The west, however, is surprisingly quiet about this element of Chinese life. Possibly because it mirrors much of what we can see a lot closer to home.

While much can be argued or debated, a simple fact remains. China’s capitalist star is in the ascendancy. Does this warrant the denunciations, the finger pointing and fist shaking that is crowding our news and the bookshelves of the world?

The threat scenario surrounding China runs from military to trade to ‘soft power’ to investments and to ideology. Are we right to be fearful? If we look at each item on the charge sheet, then the answer is no.

Where is the Chinese military and its fleet? In China or on its borders. Can the same be said of our premiere ally, the USA?

 Yes, China engages in a deliberate use of ‘soft power’ or what might be better described as economic diplomacy. Interestingly we no longer speak of US cultural imperialism, but it is a phrase worth remembering. The reach of US culture has stretched to the farthest corners of the planet.

China invests heavily overseas, but even when Hong Kong’s investments in Australia are added to the mix, DFAT figures inform us that total Chinese investments make up just 5.7 per cent of all foreign investment in Australia. The strictly ‘Chinese’ component is just 2 per cent. The USA, on the other hand accounts for 25.6 per cent of the total. Should we be fearful of US investment? Should we be fearful of Luxembourg, whose investments make up 2.2 per cent? Absolutely not. An economy survives because other economies invest and yet so much fear is engendered about Chinese investments. Curious. But if some of the charges against China look a bit wobbly, then surely the fact that it is an authoritarian country ruled by a communist party is enough to damn it.

When China was on the way up, when the US had a policy of constructive engagement and saw China as a source of cheap labour for American multinational corporations, the party was in control. Nobody was concerned. Now that its economy is rivalling that of the USA, then the word communist is so eagerly bandied about. Curious.

China does not always behave as we might wish it to behave. The list of things to criticise is nearly as long as the list of books that expose the growing Chinese threat. Its internal affairs and the treatment of its working people, intellectuals and its handling of dissent are shameful. Yes, it spies on its neighbours and seeks to place its ‘interests’ ahead of other considerations, but who is without blame? The USA has a long and blemished record on all these counts. Australia is hardly a paragon of virtue. This country has been chastised by international institutions for its treatment of indigenous people and refugees, has engaged in every US-led war since the end of WWII, is engaged in a massive military build-up, and has been found guilty of spying on its neighbours.

China is no different, no better but certainly no worse than its major rival. This is of no interest to the growing army of observers and watchers who find a Chinese threat behind every bush and tree. As its star rises and the sun sets on the American century, then so too will China become an even bigger target and the myth of threat will become a reality because it will have been said enough times to make it so. The Great Wall might not be visible from space, but the ‘China threat’ well now that is something else!

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Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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