Americans should question the ‘evil China’ narrative and tone down the fearmongering

Tom Plate says the recent controversy over how international airlines should list Taiwan’s airport demonstrates how the US stokes fear of China, insisting that everyone, including airline companies, embrace the idea of China as the villain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 11:26am

An unnecessary – even silly – controversy can yield an outcrop of clarity obscured in the fog of complexity. Take the Taipei/Taiwan/China contretemps over how international airlines should list Taoyuan International Airport on its booking websites. Is a third world war really going to erupt over something like this? Sometimes you have to wonder.

The backstory: when the Beijing government – which is always hyper-touchy about Taiwan, but everyone should know this by now – started to lean on the world’s airlines not to label or even imply that Taipei was anything other than a part of the People’s Republic of China, much of the English-language media framed this as the story of a hummingbird (Taiwan) rolled over by the gorilla (Beijing), while also slandering the airlines as winged wimps when one after the other they began their descent into the desired labelling conformity.

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Yet, the world’s commercial carriers were entirely within their rights to accept as a matter of necessity Beijing’s strong stand. The most reasonable remit for our commercial airlines is not to want them to play a role in adjudicating global tensions but focusing on landing their planes safely where they are supposed to land – even at Taoyuan International Airport – no matter how bumpy the weather. This by itself is an important, skilled service – and for every success, every edgy passenger is eternally grateful.

From an international-law perspective, Beijing’s “request” mirrored the long-ago-settled one-China UN formulation that’s officially accepted by governments almost everywhere. Are we going to relitigate this again and again?

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In the United States now, where carefully contextualised international news is as rare as a factually correct Donald Trump tweet, the portrayal of China has become less factual and more demonising – as if the next stop might just be Armageddon. If China and America are “destined for war”, to quote the actual title of a recent book by a Harvard professor (no less), one might wonder whether America is incapable of imagining a future that is unlike the past and so China must be hammered into the square stereotype of the USSR all over again. Right – Beijing is always the bad guy, even when its position on an issue is not wrong.

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It’s no surprise that many Americans are given to believe Beijing is always the bad guy. Ironically enough, the media’s “Russian collusion” obsession has reduced attention, for now at least, to the gorilla-Beijing build-up and might buy some time to fight the growing demonisation of China.

Today’s casual observer could assume that almost every one of the oft-quoted experts on Beijing has climbed abroad the “destined for war” train that looks already to have left the station. Almost everyone interviewed nowadays seems to want to add fuel to the demonisation – and, to be sure, Trump’s noxious tariff tantrums over China’s offences against American capitalism don’t help.

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But the world needs to know that we have many sane (and even brave) China experts who should be admired for policy integrity. They are anything but panda-huggers; they keep a cool head when many around them do not.

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They are too rarely permitted mass-media exposure to balance the anti-Beijing hotheads. Henry Kissinger, once of Harvard and of Nixon (and, recently, of the tenderly balanced On China, a most timely and valuable book), has been the media’s default authority when in need of a quote. But this might make you laugh: along the New York-Washington axis-of-policy Dr Kissinger is now sometimes dismissed as “soft on China”.

There are obvious problems with one’s demonisation of another. One is that the longer the propaganda campaign continues, the harder it becomes to pull back to a more balanced, workable perspective.

Another is that the demonisation can blow back into the demoniser’s face, especially if, based on seriously false assumptions, it hardens into a self-fulfilling prophecy of inevitable threat. So, who should strike first? Why not the good guys?

Hubris drives demonisation; true wisdom requires a measure of modesty. Absolute truth turns out to be more often contextual than canonical. European philosophers of the empirical or sceptical school almost always get this right.

Britain’s Cambridge emeritus professor Raymond Geuss, in Changing the Subject, an admirably readable recent sweep of Western philosophy, emphasises the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s suspicions regarding ironclad moral justifications aimed at compelling “others” to do what we think they ought to do: “Perhaps we might ask whether we don’t find in ourselves, if we look closely enough,” concludes Geuss, “at least strong traces of what we see in them, even when that is not something we approve of.”

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America is not alone in getting important stuff wrong. China also needs to appreciate more fully Montaigne’s scepticism of absolutes. It might consider lowering the fever pitch on the “it’s our time” business. No matter how understandably justified by centuries of serious insult, this attitude is off-putting and menacing, unintentionally or not.

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And China might consider polishing its Confucian humility and reviving its inner Deng Xiaoping: fear to be dragged down onto a sweaty wrestling mat by empty-headed American dummies who don’t understand China and never will.

In 2011, Geuss was honoured with election as a Fellow of the British Academy. The best British thinkers, when at their most astute, emphasise the inherent provincialism of presumed universals: another of his books bears the title History and Illusion in Politics (2001). It invites us to review with sceptical eye things we stoutly assume are a certainty.

He wasn’t directly commenting on the Sino-US relationship. But it’s one quite level-headed way to read it.

Columnist Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies, has degrees in political science from Amherst College (Phi Beta Kappa) and international policy from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School