The phrase “yellow peril” first came into use at the end of the nineteenth century as thousands of Chinese labourers immigrated to the United States and Europe. The fear was that the vast numbers of Chinese people would not only steal local jobs, but gradually colonise the entire globe.
The threat from the East was a theme picked up not only by newspapers at the time, but popular authors as well. Jack London’s The Unparalleled Invasion (1914) describes an aggressive China systematically conquering its neighbours before being stopped in its tracks by acts of biological warfare from the West. The story ends with the “sanitation of China”, i.e. mass genocide of the Chinese people, and a welcome transition to western style democracy. Hooray!
At a stretch, we can dismiss these barbaric and primitive viewpoints as being symptomatic of a lack of experience with people from the Far East. History has shown that first contact with different races has invariably resulted in hostility and fear of some kind. But how do we explain the reemergence of these sentiments 100 years later, at the supposed zenith of our civilisation?
If you think I’m exaggerating, then take a look at these articles, all written by reputable western newspapers in recent years:
The list could go on, but I’m starting to get depressed already. Anyone who is familiar with my previous blog will know that I’m not exactly China’s number one fan, but even I get fed up with the endless slew of over-the-top, paranoid bullshit that gets churned out day after day. Yes there are rising tensions between China and the West, and the future looks anything but stable, but are articles such as these doing anything to help?
In March of this year I attended a speech by former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt, one of the people responsible for forming U.S. – China relations in 1972. As part of his speech, he reiterated some of the arguments put forward in his book China Boys: How U.S. Relations With the PRC Began and Grew for the likelihood of a peaceful and cooperative future for the world’s two largest economies. The book ends with an excerpt from his 2008 address to the next president of the United States:
Secretary of State Alexander Haig once told me, “In the boxing ring, the safest place is in a clinch.” Since 1972, the United States has worked its way into a clinch with China. Your goal should be to stay there. You want the economies, political systems, and societies to become so closely connected that conflict and confrontation are no longer even thinkable, much less doable. The relationship, while certainly not friction-free, and surely not without competition, should be free of the dangers of the great power rivalry which once threatened the world.
As he says, the work has already been done – the relationship between the U.S. and China has reached the stage where anything but peaceful cooperation would be disastrous for both sides. Furthermore, the growing prominence of people-to-people diplomacy through student exchanges, travel, and business partnerships is slowly bringing about greater mutual understanding. It’s just a shame that this side of the story hardly ever gets told, and certainly never makes the headlines.