It’s time for the West to stop demonizing China

Earlier this year, at a joint presentation by the heads of US and UK security services, FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly declared that China was the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security”. The statement formally confirms what has been evolving for many years — the elevation of China as the Western world’s number one bogeyman.

The demonization of an external enemy, portrayed as posing a threat to civilization, has been a characteristic of Western governments for centuries. It has always been an invaluable tool in rallying the people, distracting them from domestic woes and policy failures, and bolstering the government’s image. The choice of enemy over the years has varied, depending on the outlook of the government in power and the suitability of credible bogeymen who were available at the time. 

In the Middle Ages, when Christian countries in Europe were confronted by a variety of economic problems and social unrest at home, the preferred target they selected was the Islamic world. Over a 200-year period, this led to eight major Crusade expeditions (1096-1291) mitigating Europe’s problems by exporting them overseas.

In the 16th century, new and much more conveniently located bogeymen became available as Christian Europe split into Catholic and Protestant camps. Each side proceeded to hurl bigoted venom and propaganda at the other, creating a state of permanent cold war hostility, interspersed with regular bouts of actual warfare. 

We are all far more interconnected than ever … by common interests that require international cooperation rather than confrontation. The most pressing of these common interests is undoubtedly climate change and the need for all nations to work together … The demonization of countries with different cultures or government systems makes this task much harder

Protestant England continued this tradition for centuries, with Catholic Spain and France both proving useful enemies to unite the people and distract from domestic problems. Indeed, portraying the French as an external threat became somewhat of a fixture in British government policy. Even today there are anti-French echoes ingrained in the psyche of many English people, most recently demonstrated in some of the dreadful Brexit hyperbole.

However, as time marched on and the 20th century dawned, France’s status as number one bogeyman clearly had to make way for Europe’s new powerhouse, Germany. 

In the second half of the 20th century, as nuclear weapons proliferated, demonizing countries became a much more dangerous game, but the well-tried and tested strategy was far too valuable to abandon. The new Western bogeyman was the Soviet Union and the propaganda of the Cold War proliferated even faster than the armaments. No opportunity was lost in reminding people of the dangers lurking beyond their borders and how good their lives were in comparison with life in the Soviet Union. The phrase “better dead than red” was coined and regular Cold War crises ensured that fear of the enemy remained constantly at the forefront of Western minds.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a new bogeyman was required to divert people’s attention from domestic grievances and ensure they realized how lucky they were to be living in the United States or Europe. Step forward China! Negative Western attitudes toward China had been growing for some years. Even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the seeds of fear had been planted. Derogatory and racist phrases such as the “Yellow Peril” or the “Yellow Hordes” were commonplace in Western popular culture as far back as the late 19th century, reflecting xenophobic fears of the huge and growing population of China. The evil fictional character, Fu Manchu, one of the world’s first supervillains, appeared on the scene in the first half of the 20th century, with 14 novels and several movies depicting the sinister image of a Chinese leader striving for world domination. 

After the demise of the Soviet Union, with China the only remaining communist superpower in the world, it was inevitable that it would become the new target of Western propaganda, with real leaders replacing the fictional Fu Manchu in being demonized. Over the past 30 years, as China has become steadily more powerful and influential in the world, anti-China sentiment in Western governments and media has increased at a similar pace. Even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has failed to knock China from the top of the bogeyman chart (as confirmed by the FBI director’s recent pronouncement). China’s policies with regard to its regions of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, the Belt and Road Initiative, the South China Sea, COVID-19, energy supplies, telecommunications, pollution and just about everything else have been roundly condemned in the West with a persistence and intensity rarely matched elsewhere.

The promotion of China to the West’s number one bogeyman status may be viewed by some as a badge of honor, reflecting China’s new power in the world. However, it is surely time for such demonization to stop, on both sides of the divide. The world has changed dramatically and crude efforts to bolster governments by creating ever-present external threats also have to change. We are all far more interconnected than ever, not just by the internet and instant worldwide communication, but also by common interests that require international cooperation rather than confrontation. 

The most pressing of these common interests is undoubtedly climate change and the need for all nations to work together toward the common goal of protecting our planet for future generations. The demonization of countries with different cultures or government systems makes this task much harder. For the sake of all humanity, East and West need to set aside their rivalries and differences — real, perceived or simply invented. Instead, we need to focus together on defeating the real enemy. The true bogeyman today, wherever in the world you live, is climate change.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.