Illustration: Craig Stephens
Tom Plate
Tom Plate

America’s knee-jerk reaction to China: just shoot the bad guy

  • Viewed calmly, the new world order is simple: China is back, deal with it. But, to a Washington in cold war mode, Beijing can do nothing right
  • Since 2004, about 1,800 US newspapers crucial to American democracy have closed. Yet US politicians prefer to fixate on the fate of one Hong Kong daily

Given the relentless Western media verdict of “China’s increasing assertiveness”, it might seem surprising that, across Asia, doubts about America’s own continental conduct proceed apace. Yet this goes little reported back in the US.

Nonetheless, within some government and policy circles in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore – to mention just a few of which I am specifically aware – the Cambridge-New York-Washington crowd is seen to have lost its cool equipoise. The brains trust of the West is trending neurotic.

The psychic disturbance is China. By pushing China’s expanding capabilities and aims onto the perceptual horizon of a second cold war, the United States is pumping up a mere mountain into a monster mountain range. It can’t see China straight any more.

Many US think tanks are lost in new China thought, spurred into conceptual overdrive, treading precariously on the dark edge of the woods, confusing the trees with the forest.
Yet, viewed calmly, the new world order is not so terribly complicated. Simply put, China is back, so just deal with it. Unless it implodes upon itself – owing to structural tension between economic innovation and political calcification – it’s not going away.

Lacking an adequate sense of history, the West cannot seem to develop sensible coping mechanisms. Jumpy, it reaches for its gun. The cowboy’s hand-jerk response: shoot the bad guy.
In his insightful new book, Australian Bush to Tiananmen Square, veteran China watcher Ross Terrill quotes Mao Zedong explaining to a Thai prime minister how to deal with communists:

“First, don’t make propaganda war against them; they’re thick-skinned and they won’t feel anything. Second, don’t kill some off, because they think to be killed in action is heroic. Third, don’t send troops against them in the jungle, because they’ll run away and you can’t keep your own troops in the jungle forever … Fourth, see that your own people are fed, clothed and happy; then the Communists can’t do anything.”

This was said in 1975, according to Terrill, a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Mao (then quite ill) may have been oversimplifying, but the founder of the People’s Republic of China was not joking. 

A critical juncture in the China-US contest in Southeast Asia

Former Singapore ambassador to the US Chan Heng Chee (1996-2012), often challenged glum pessimism about America, pointing out that it had often been a force for good in Asia. But that asset, with the current relentless demonisation of China, is being downsized.

Many in the intelligentsia in Southeast Asia view Washington’s propaganda strategy as a losing game. Is “genocide” really the correct categorisation of the policy and practice of the Xi Jinping government in Xinjiang?

Without one’s patriotism being challenged, is it possible for an American to suggest that genocide is not the best description?

Is practically every Chinese claim in the South China Sea wholly invalid? Is it invariably the case that China is always in the wrong? This morbid American mentality towards China – a historic country and civilisation which, in all fairness, deserves at least as much respect as wary watchfulness – has the potential to become a colossal strategic blunder. 

America’s growing antagonism towards China can be traced to the US media

Beijing can do almost nothing right, especially in Hong Kong. If you don’t believe me, just ask the British. After a century and a half of making decisions from afar, as was characteristic of a colonial empire, London contracted a suspicious case of democracy fever as the 1997 handover approached. It insisted that the mainland government – politically communist without the slightest apology – get with the democracy programme.
Such cynicism: and now American politicians, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Senator Ted Cruz, cannot say enough bad things about Chinese governance. Precisely because so much unfinished government business remains on the American mainland, you would think that serious US leaders would focus their undivided attention on that. 

For example, America claims to derive legitimacy of its political system from the involvement of an educated citizenry in civic discussions and decisions. To that end, American newspapers have been seen as vital contributors.

This was perhaps first emphasised by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic study Democracy in America. Newspapers, he thought, were essential to democracy. In the US, however, between 2008 and 2019, half of its newspaper jobs were lost either to “market discipline”, as capitalists call it, or to automation and the internet. What’s more, since 2004, some 1,800 US newspaper have closed.


Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily ceases operations after top executives arrested, assets frozen

Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily ceases operations after top executives arrested, assets frozen

Capitalism can be a cruel taskmaster and under this soulless system – without government or foundation support – a newspaper that cannot successfully compete in the market will not survive for long. Now add one more corpse to the death toll – this time from Hong Kong.

We are told that the primary cause of the death of Apple Daily, which was critical of Beijing, was not the cruel law of the market, but the special administrative region’s tough law governing national security. Alleged violations have led to the arrest of a few executives and journalists. Evidence will now have to be produced in court of seditious actions. But the bottom line is one less newspaper, for the time being at least.

From the West, the howls have been utterly deafening, but I cannot recall comparable wails of loss accompanying American newspaper deaths. Nor have there been any memorable high-level commissions to study the problem of democracy.

In truth, American politicians now decrying the Hong Kong drama often hate crusading newspapers as much as any foreign official, though they won’t admit it publicly, of course.

So the tears from Washington and New York last week were those of robotic crocodiles, ready to pounce on anything they believe makes Beijing look bad. It’s rather the same old story.
Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate has worked at Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention the late Los Angeles Herald and the late New York Newsday