The ‘China threat’ and the political economy of fear

Narrative is not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events in their aspect as developmental processes but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications.

Hayden White1

Our fashion is to have the enemy of the year. China is big, it’s large on the map, it’s yellow, so there is an un- der-the-surface racist element, and it fits very nicely an obsessive state of mind. I imagine it will last a couple of years, because China is big enough to sustain this obsession.

Zbigniew Brzezinski2


The twin paradigms of China threat and China opportunity are animated by Western/American neocolonial desire. Their constructions of self and Other are not merely discursive in nature, but have political and strategic consequences. Rather than divorced from power, they are always in the service of power and at the same time (re)produced by it through the political economies of fear and fantasy. How knowledge, desire, and power interact in the cases of these China paradigms will be the focus of Chapters 4-7.

Thus far, scholarly analysis of Western representations of China has tended to treat those representations merely as knowledge, which is then empirically evaluated against so-called ‘objective facts’ in China. Depending on whether they are thought to match Chinese reality or not, they are labelled either ‘truth’, ‘misrepresentations’, or something in between. But this empirically-grounded approach misses a crucial point. That is, it leaves intact and unquestioned the complicity of China knowledge in power relations. What is needed, therefore, is a critical examination of the power/knowledge nexus in the two modes of China representation. How the ‘China threat’ paradigm relates to the political economy of fear and informs political practice is the focus of this and the following chapter. And Chapters 6 and 7 will deal with the ‘China opportunity’ paradigm.

To better understand the dynamics of power/knowledge/desire in the ‘China threat’ paradigm, we need to recognise this paradigm for what I think it is, namely, a particular form of desire—fear—disguised as certain knowledge. Fear, it may be argued, is primarily a biological instinct inherent in probably all animals that are both capable of fear and have experienced such an emotion. And yet, in the human context at least, fear is as much a sociocultural phenomenon as it is a natural, biological reflex. This is because most forms of fear in modern society are not experienced directly through actual physical encounters, but rather are created, mediated, maintained and reinforced through often-institutionalised knowledge resources such as images, symbols, metaphors and, above all, discourses. Sometimes referred to as ‘prevailing danger codes’, those knowledge resources serve as ‘an extremely dense layer of mediation between what one might be advised to fear... and what one’s moment-to-moment experience appears to be’.3

In a study of the politics of fear in the media, David Altheide argues that fear ‘did not just happen or emerge’ from uncertainty, the lack of community or a sense of lack of control over our lives; rather, it is largely produced and reproduced through ‘the entertainment formats of mass media and popular culture’. Only through coming to grips with this culturally-mediated dimension of fear, can we better understand why one’s sense of fear is often not directly or proportionally linked to the object of that fear.4 In fact, quite often the opposite is true. For instance, Altheide points to the paradox that ‘there is widespread public perception [in the West] that risk and danger are everywhere, that we are not safe, and that the future is bleak’, even though most in Western societies ‘are safer, healthier, living longer, and more secure in their environments than virtually any population in history’.5

How is such a strange ‘surplus’ of fear produced and consumed in an otherwise reasonably safe and wealthy society? Michael Shapiro suggests that the increased level of popular representation in the political process has not been matched by a similar increase in people’s ability to represent safety and danger as they find them in their daily lives.6 Rather, just as more and more supermarket products nowadays are no longer made locally, so too the ‘commodity’ of fear is increasingly outsourced from elsewhere, manufactured and packaged as knowledge by all sorts of security, intelligence, health and environment experts. And just as consumers part company with their money in exchange for whatever fantasies are evoked by commercial advertisements, consumers of fear surrender their power to scaremongering experts and political leaders, in exchange for the promised certainty and security. In return, through their knowledge of danger and threat, those experts and politicians gain trust, power, and the ability to influence others to behave in ways that meet their expectations. In this way, whatever form of knowledge that can effectively tap into fear and constantly reproduce it is, without doubt, ideally placed to serve power and enforce discipline.

Little wonder that the discursive production of fear and threat has been a fixture in modern-day politics. In Australia, no recent federal elections were complete without some forms of politics of fear at play in the political campaigns, be it about ‘boat people’, terrorism, workers’ rights or even interest rates. Of course, fear is not always an undesirable element in politics and social life. Moi'se argues that ‘an element of fear is an indispensable protection against the danger of overconfidence. Fear is a force for survival in a naturally dangerous world’.7 However, when fear is systematically deployed in politics, it is worth asking whose interests this fear politics intends to serve and how such fear is produced and for what purposes.

The ‘China threat’ paradigm should be understood in this broad context. This paradigm does not reflect a pre-existing sense of fear about a menace ‘out there’, but rather is a discursive site where such fear is first constructed and where a particular form of political economy of fear emerges. With a specific focus on the US, this chapter will examine how the China threat knowledge, which gives the popular fear of China an aura of objective credibility, serves the political and economic interests of the power elite, and is at the same time shaped by those interests.

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