THE ‘CHINA THREAT’ PARADIGM

The ‘China threat’ is a fundamental image that casts China’s rise and its international implications primarily in a negative, alarming, and threatening light. It is more than a particular argument, or a singular ‘China threat theory’, as many of its Chinese critics often call it. Rather, it represents a paradigm that, as a lasting normative concern and cognitive habit, both informs and lends coherence to otherwise divergent ways of looking at China in scholarly analysis, government documents, popular culture and mass media.

A good starting place to look for manifestations of the ‘China threat’ paradigm is mass media, which is often where shared intersubjectivity and normative concern—the foundation of a paradigm—are forged and converge, and where the cognitive habit is nurtured and put on regular display. As a columnist for The Ottawa Sun, puts it: ‘Watch the evening news or pick up a newspaper and you’re almost certain to see something about China’s many sins—economic and moral’. 16 One media fascination with China is particularly illustrative here. In March each year, when China’s National People’s Congress approves its annual budget, there is an all too predictable round of media coverage on China’s military spending, with a spate of reports invariably sounding alarms on its double-digit expenditure increase and the lack of transparency. This particular discursive ritual is both a sign of the ‘China threat’ paradigm at work and a regular contribution to that paradigm. Thanks to this fundamental image, it is the Chinese military budget, not the much larger US military spending, that has been routinely perceived as an issue of international security concern.

This paradigm does not confine itself to military matters. As China’s economic juggernaut continues to power ahead, the issues of Chinese trade practices, currency, and the safety standards of the ‘Made in China’ brand have all come under the purview of the ‘China threat’ discourse. The result is the representation of a manufacturing superpower that threatens not only Western jobs but also its sense of security and pride. This preoccupation with the China threat is immediately palpable through such sensational headlines as: ‘Job Losses: Made in China’, ‘Inflation Made in China’, ‘Another Danger Made in China’, ‘Tracing a Poison’s Global Path Back to China’, ‘Is China Trying to Poison Americans and Their Pets?’, and ‘China’s Milestone, Our Millstone’. To a US Senator, the words ‘Made in China’ have become ‘a warning label’, all but reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the word ‘Chinese’ as a derisive adjective in his political vocabulary.17

Looked through the ‘China threat’ paradigm, any societal disturbance or environmental problems in China may also take on a menacing quality. At the height of the SARS crisis, the front cover of the 5 May 2003 issue of Time Magazine (Asia) boasted literally the bold headline: ‘SARS NATION’, a not so subtle suggestion promptly reinforced by an adjacent picture of the Chinese national flag superimposed with an X-ray of lungs with pneumonia. Five years later, the 3 May 2008 issue of The Economist's cover story ran the title ‘Angry China’, accompanied by a close-up illustration of a fierce, glaring-eyed dragon in a confronting colour of red. That story, in response to angry Chinese reactions to the violent protests against the international legs of the Beijing Olympics torch relay, sought to remind the China threat from the angle of Chinese nationalism. In both cases, a strong normative concern with the China threat came first, and the empirical concern with the actual threat of pandemic diseases or nationalism per se came second. Otherwise, it begs the question of why the 2009 outbreak of swine flu in the US did not generate a similarly alarming headline, or why the Beijing Olympics, even well before it was held, were compared almost exclusively with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, not with other Olympic Games.

Western public opinion provides another avenue to appreciate the ‘China threat’ paradigm in operation. The theme of China as a (potential) threat has been a regular fixture in China-related questionnaires. In a late 2007 survey entitled ‘Hope and Fear: American and Chinese Attitudes Towards Each Other’, about two-thirds of US respondents believed that China’s emergence as a global economic power represented either a ‘serious’ or ‘potential’ threat to the US. On the military front, the proportion of the same views on China jumped to 75 per cent.18 In early 2008, a Gallup poll of Americans revealed that China replaced North Korea as one of the top three US enemies. At the same time, the Harris survey for the London-based Financial Times showed that in the eyes of many Europeans, China was the biggest threat to global stability.19

For all their contribution to the ‘China threat’ paradigm, mass media and public opinion are only its most visible outlets. One cannot really appreciate the full depth of this paradigm without looking at the more analytical and intellectual domain of China watching in IR. It is no exaggeration to say that there is now a cottage industry devoted to the ‘empirical’ and theoretical analysis of China as a threat.20 This more or less scholarly section of the ‘China threat’ paradigm can be categorised into two sub-paradigms: capability-based threat discourses and intention-based threat discourses.

 
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