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American Sinophobia

Apr 05,2024 - Last updated at Apr 05,2024

NEW HAVEN — The current wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States has been building for years. It started in the early 2000s, when US policymakers first raised national-security concerns about Huawei. China’s national technology champion, the market leader in developing new 5G telecommunications equipment, was accused of deploying digital backdoors that could enable Chinese espionage and cyber-attacks. US-led sanctions in 2018-19 stopped Huawei dead in its tracks.

But Huawei was just the start. The US has since spiraled into a full-blown outbreak of Sinophobia — a strong word that I do not use lightly. The Oxford English Dictionary defines phobia as an “extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance”. 

Indeed, China threats now seem to be popping up everywhere. The US government has imposed export controls to cut off China’s access to advanced semiconductors — part of its concerted effort to stymie the country’s artificial-intelligence ambitions. The Department of Justice has just indicted a state-sponsored Chinese hacking group for allegedly taking aim at critical American infrastructure. Much has also been made of the purported risks of Chinese electric vehicles (EVs), construction and dock-loading cranes, and now TikTok.

Nor are the fears confined to technology. Several years ago, I wrote about America’s trade-deficit disorder, whereby the US government misdiagnosed a multilateral problem, a trade deficit with more than 100 countries, as a bilateral problem and punished China with tariffs. Others have warned that Washington’s exaggerated claims of the Chinese military threat have, at times, bordered on hysteria as tensions mount in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Of course, all this is only half the story. China is equally guilty of its own strain of “Ameri-phobia”, demonising the US for its accusations of Chinese economic espionage, unfair trading practices and human-rights violations. Both phobias are related to the profusion of false narratives that I address in my most recent book, “Accidental Conflict”. Notwithstanding this tit-for-tat blame game, my point now is different: There is good reason to worry about an increasingly virulent strain of this phobia spinning out of control in the US.

Not since the red-baiting of the early 1950s has America so vilified a foreign power. Back then, a two-pronged congressional approach, led by US senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), spearheaded an assault on alleged Communist sympathisers under the guise of protecting Americans from Soviet espionage and influence.

Today, another politician from Wisconsin, Representative Mike Gallagher, has led the charge as chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which, in an eerie parallel to the dark days of HUAC, has levelled a series of unsubstantiated charges against China. While Gallagher will retire from Congress in April, his legacy will live on, not just as co-sponsor of a bill that could lead to an outright ban of TikTok, but also as the leader of a congressional effort that has cast a long shadow over those who support almost any form of engagement with China.

The litany of US allegations is a manifestation of unproven fears wrapped in the impenetrable cloak of national security. Yet there is no “smoking gun” in any of these cases. Instead, it is all about circumstantial evidence of an increasingly aggressive China. At work is an unmistakable bipartisan politicisation of deductive reasoning.

For example, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, a leading Democrat, asks us to “imagine” what could happen if Chinese EVs were weaponised on American highways. FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Donald Trump appointee and member of the conservative Federalist Society, warns that Chinese malware could disable critical US infrastructure “if or when China decides the time has come to strike” (emphasis added). And a former US counterintelligence officer has compared sensors in Chinese-made cranes to a Trojan horse. There are many “what ifs” and mythical parallels, but no hard evidence on intent or verifiable action.

What is it about China that has generated this virulent US reaction? In Accidental Conflict, I stressed that the US has long been intolerant of competing ideologies and alternative systems of governance. The claim of “American exceptionalism” seemingly compels us to impose our views and values on others. That was true in the Cold War, and it is true again today.

I also argued that excessive fear of China conveniently masks many of America’s own self-inflicted problems. Bilateral trade deficits may well reflect the unfair trading practices of individual countries, China today, Japan 35 years ago, but broad multilateral trade deficits stem more from chronic US budget deficits that lead to a deficiency of domestic saving. Similarly, the technology threat is not only an outgrowth of the alleged Chinese theft of US intellectual property; it also represents, as I stressed in Accidental Conflict, America’s underinvestment in research and development and shortfalls in STEM-based higher education. Rather than taking a long, hard look in the mirror, it is politically expedient for US politicians to blame China.

As Sinophobia feeds on itself, fear starts to take on the aura of fact, and the dangers of accidental conflict with China intensify. By acting on these anxieties, America risks inciting the very outcome it wants to deter. Fears over Chinese aggression in Taiwan are a case in point.

The US can and must do better. Rather than excusing the excesses of Sinophobia as justifiable reactions to the China threat, US leaders need to avoid the low road and think more in terms of being the adult in the room. Global leadership requires nothing less.

In his first inaugural address in 1933, US president Franklin Roosevelt underscored the ultimate risk of this dangerous pathology with the memorable line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Amid today’s Sinophobic frenzy, that message is well worth remembering.

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of “Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China” (Yale University Press, 2014) and “Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives” (Yale University Press, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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