The demonisation of China in the US goes on and onAug 14, 2022
In a recent exchange in the comments section of a United States media publication that is dedicated to a civil exchange of views and to abjuring the demonisation of differing views that is so common in the US, I found nonetheless a deeply entrenched demonisation of China.
Americans can be parochial, perhaps because the United States is separated by expansive oceans from most other countries of the world. When Sarah Palin was nominated as US presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate in 2008 it came as a surprise to many that she didn’t have a passport – and therefore, although she came from one of the most remote regions of the United States, Alaska, she had never been out of the country. Historically, few Americans traveled abroad, though this has changed somewhat of late. Only three percent of Americans held passports 23 years ago while 44 percent do now. This contrasts to 57 percent of Australians, a country that is even more separated by oceans from other countries than the US, and 76 percent of the population of England and Wales.
This insularity can lead to impressions of people in other countries – and their societies and governments – that are little more than caricatures. Many people in the US now have an impression of China that is a caricature, a negative one. This may be one of the causes of the recent deterioration in the US-China relationship.
I have just had an experience that makes me despair of that relationship. I subscribe to an excellent source of news, fact-checking, opinion, debate, and discussion in the United States called The Dispatch. It provides, as its website says, “Fact-based reporting and commentary on politics, policy and culture – informed by conservative principles.” Its founders are “never-Trump” conservatives – Republicans, ex-Republicans or independents who believe Trumpism has been a terrible departure. Although Dispatch writers each have their own political views, they are not advocates but admirably objective reporters and commentators.
And yet in one of its latest publications, on August 5, there is a statement that is like others I have seen in The Dispatch: “China is perpetrating a genocide of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, oppressing the people of Tibet, and systematically dismantling freedom in Hong Kong”. I have written to The Dispatch and commented before that I think the evidence of genocide is extremely weak and the term shouldn’t be used, and that freedom is not being dismantled in Hong Kong – but to no effect.
I decided once again to comment on this latest publication. I find the response to my comments appalling, indeed frightening. Some or all of the responders are obviously intelligent, as, I believe, are most of The Dispatch’s subscribers. But the bottom line is that anti-China beliefs in the US appear to be virtually unshakable. In the following, I will recount a shortened version of the exchange of views.
My initial comment was this:
I almost always think The Dispatch’s positions are great, but I’m afraid I’ll have to express some disappointment. Domestically, The Dispatch takes the admirable position of fighting against the demonisation of “the other side” that is so rampant between factions in the United States – exacerbated by extreme and exaggerated views on the part of each side of how bad the other side is. But when it’s a China issue, The Dispatch jumps right onto the demonisation bandwagon, for example buying into the ill-defined and ill-proven exaggerated allegations of genocide and forced labor.
The first response, from a commenter using the moniker CatoTheElder, was, in part:
What, exactly, causes you disappointment with regards the position(s) of TD regarding US interactions with China? My guess, based on your comment here, is that your disappointment centers on the “demonisation” of China because of its despicable treatment of the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Are you sure that the allegations you bemoan are exaggerated, ill-defined, etc.? Are you unbothered by the goals of the Chinese government regarding the Uyghurs, Tibet, and the like, and their favoured methods of working to achieve those goals? If it’s reasonable to be bothered by same, just what should the US government be doing to address these issues? Perhaps a firm stamp of the foot and a harsh look?
Following the thread with CatoTheElder, I responded:
If we really had evidence that there is a Holocaust going on in Xinjiang we should do more than stamp our feet, short of starting World War III, but we have no such evidence… Try examining the purported evidence yourself with a detached eye and see what you think. I see demonisation feeding on itself.
To this another commenter named Richard responded in part:
I see satellite imaging showing “re-education” camps. Which is a nice 21st century euphemism for something far uglier.
I see articles in the Atlantic and plenty of other places where Uyghur survivors/escapees are coming forward to tell of their horrifying treatment.
I see REAL Jim Crow treatment of ethnic minorities in China by the ruling Han.
I see the destruction of the freedoms enjoyed by those in Hong Kong. The destruction of Tibet. The destruction of the memory of Tiananmen Square.
My response to this was:
I live in Hong Kong and I know first hand that you’re wrong about “the destruction of the freedoms enjoyed by those in Hong Kong.” But I’ve found it’s very difficult to discuss this with those with immovable predetermined convictions.
Richard then responded to this:
So wait, you mean all those articles I’ve read over the last couple of years have been Fake News? LOL. Xi taking notes from Trump I suppose. Interesting also how you glossed right over all the rest of what I mentioned. Please miss me with any further CCP apologist propaganda.
Richard referenced two other articles as well, but I read only the one in The New York Times, and responded this way:
That NYT article you link to is not fake news, it is interpretation of the news with a slant. It’s rather short on facts and long on interpretation. There’s another side of the story, with more of the facts: https://www.advisorperspectives.com/articles/2022/01/11/the-other-side-of-the-story-in-hong-kong
CatoTheElder then weighed in with:
It needn’t be a Holocaust, with a capital H, in order to be reprehensible, even evil. I’ve read a fair bit of reporting, from various sources, and have concluded that the most likely scenario being described is one of a slow-motion destruction of a people and their way of life, in the cases both of the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. No, there’s no evidence that the Chinese are sending ‘em all to take Zyklon B showers, but if that’s the bar that must be cleared, it just means we’re forfeiting the game as no-contest. There’s abundant evidence of inhumanitarian treatment of various types, with the end being the eradication of non-conformities. I don’t see blunt statement of this as “demonisation” in the slightest. It seems to me the Chinese authorities carry their own demons with them.
To which I responded:
It seems to me you have conceded the point that we have no evidence of “genocide” as most people understand it, so I hope you’ll agree with me that we shouldn’t use the word. (Yes, there’s a UN and Holocaust Museum definition that is broader, but because the word is so inflammatory and most people associate it with Zyklon B or Rwanda, I think accusing China of genocide is an inappropriate exaggeration.) But you raise points worth debating. Like other Asian societies, the social contract of Chinese with their government and their society is more community-oriented than the US understanding of ours. This is often attributed to their Confucian heritage. By contrast ours comes from famous sayings we learned in school such as “Give me liberty or give me death.” It’s why they were able to organise quickly to beat COVID-19 in its very early stages while more individualistic Americans didn’t. You assume China eradicates non-conformities, but what evidence do you have that it does this to a greater degree than American society? I think we should accept the fact that Chinese society is different and not necessarily any more evil than our own. If pushed to whataboutism, it’s easy to find aspects of American society that China can claim are just as evil as theirs. I harp on this because there’s an increasing chance that these incendiary statements will ultimately provoke a war, which would be horrible, and would be at least as much the fault of the US’s increasingly hostile rhetoric as of China’s.
As of this writing I had not as yet received a response to this from CatoTheElder.
Another commenter named Stephanie contributed:
I never expected anyone to claim these allegations are not well founded. There’s been a flood of well researched articles.
My riposte was:
A flood of articles all based on the same reporting can become a bandwagon and groupthink, this is the case – I know this for sure since I live there – about Hong Kong. As to Xinjiang, I’ll repeat what I suggested elsewhere. Read yourself the voluminous source material on which those articles are based, exercise objectivity, and decide for yourself whether they provide conclusive evidence of “genocide” or “forced labor.”
Can you share what it is you are seeing in Hong Kong? What is your role there, if you don’t mind saying? (Just curious.)
Are you in any better a position than people stateside to know about conditions in mainland China, though? I’d think you’d be subjected to pro-China propaganda.
to which I wrote:
I’m an adjunct professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I am subjected to pro-China propaganda in the same measure that I am subjected to anti-China propaganda, if you want to call either of those sets of opinions propaganda. I saw how violent riots conducted by and condoned by “pro-democracy activists” took place every day for the last six months of 2019 destroying many features of the city and causing transportation shut-downs, huge damages, and injuries. And I saw how the Western press virtually never called these riots even though that is exactly what they were (including an invasion and vandalising of the Hong Kong legislature), even though the Western press called riots “riots” in many other places in the world including the US. As to any justification for the riots there was very little if any. I am not a victim of “pro-China propaganda” I am an objective observer. Imagine that.
Perhaps the last dig was unnecessary, but Stephanie’s implication appeared to be that you couldn’t hold these views unless you’d swallowed Chinese propaganda.
It is worth mentioning, sadly, that the other commenters’ posts received a total of 15 “likes”; mine received none. Nobody posted even a slight degree of agreement.
The constant repetition of the anti-China line in the United States obviously makes people believe there can be no other view, even the most intelligent people. And I hesitate to say to them that all the media are wrong, because that allegation is associated with the unhinged extreme right and indeed with Trumpism.
The first step toward war is demonisation of the other side. The Dispatch worries that such demonisation is happening domestically in the US, and even worries there could be very serious civil strife in the US because of it. It seeks, admirably, to be a force to help cool those domestic tensions.
But on the tensions with China – something of yet greater concern – it is exacerbating them. Perhaps it is the case that hatred must find a way, and if it is to be eliminated domestically it must be directed outward, as in Orwell’s novel 1984. This is not a soothing thought.