US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping will have to sign off on any trade deal. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri

Many of my generation who witnessed and bore witness to the Vietnam War carry in persistent memory the irreparable injuries Washington inflicted on the people of Indochina and America, and on the dignity and interests of the United States as well. Reading H R McMaster’s 1997 book Dereliction of Duty sharply brought back to the surface those memories of a war that was always more about China than about Vietnam – both in its inception and its conclusion.

With and because of the way the war ended, US-China relations improved dramatically, but for the last few years attitudes in the US toward China have been regressing to where they were in the 1950s and 1960s. This negative tendency began with the Barack Obama administration’s call for a pivot to East Asia, which seemed to mean expanding the wars in the Middle East eastward once again. More recently, the Bannon-Bolton clique around the White House proclaims its thirst for war. In the peculiar phrasing of the new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reminiscent of the Japanese concept of total war, China poses “an all-of-society threat.” The children? The language?

My purpose here is to examine the nature of this syndrome that afflicted American attitudes toward China from 1949 and continues to do so today.

I’ve chosen four angles from which to consider the problem: race, religion, politics, and history, roughly in the order of their importance in American discourse, in hopes of raising some possibilities for re-thinking.

Like the chickenpox virus, racism lies latent in the nerve cells of the spine and brain, pervading all walks of American life, erupting periodically like a skin rash. It takes courage and effort, socially and psychologically, just to fight it, not to speak of overcoming it. Racism (and its partner sexism) gives the lie to one of the core American values: equality. Values too often proclaimed too often reflects failure to live up to them – whether by the person or the nation. The louder the emphasis the more suspect.

Chinese are not brown or black or Latino, but they’re not white, either. When equality is abandoned in the discriminatory treatment of and attitude toward people of color, retribution lurks. Without a sincere commitment to equality, the supremacist pays a cost, a permanent anxiety that no matter how polished his or her front, some other race may be superior to the white. It might be an extraterrestrial (ET) or maybe adolescent Chinese (or Koreans) filling up the string section of the orchestra or freshman seats at Harvard.

Just as Jews were demonized as inferior and at the same time superior, so the Chinese are often assumed to be. This is one component of American Sinophobia; racism that flip-flops between contempt and envy, much like anti-Semitism.

Let’s consider next the religious angle – a touchy subject, and in most countries a veritable minefield. How fortunate for China to have had in Confucius an enlightened agnostic, who approached the matter diplomatically but firmly when he said, “Keep the spirits and gods a good distance away, but grant them all due respect.”

Confucius’ authoritative warning of two and a half millennia ago has served to limit the combustible combination of politics and religion and to an extent spared the Chinese the religious-wars endemic in the West – like the ones raging on right now

Confucius (somewhat like Immanuel Kant) drew a firm boundary between the essential social issues that concerned him and those things that lie beyond the ken of man – an arena of open-ended speculation and no-prisoners conflict; a pseudo-politics. Confucius’ authoritative warning of two and a half millennia ago has served to limit the combustible combination of politics and religion and to an extent spared the Chinese the religious-wars endemic in the West – like the ones raging on right now.

Chinese indifference or resistance to Western evangelism and proselytizing has dismayed religious leaders. For centuries, Christians have sought with extreme passion to convert Jews, but having limited success now look for better prospecting among the more populous Chinese.

Turning to politics, the issue is somewhat simpler if not less fraught. In 1946 Winston Churchill declared war between Christianity and Communism, omitting understandably Capitalism and Imperialism. His demonization of Russia, the key to Allied victory in World War II, followed quickly; a mere three years later a new Communist government took power in China. It was a government, not a regime, and its proper name was the People’s Republic of China, not Red China, or Communist, Mainland, Contemporary or other name chosen to evade the correct name – something that would have been of great concern to Confucius, who famously demanded correct naming as the precondition for logical discourse. But the Cold War (another misnomer) was under way.

Extending World War II, imperialist war was raging in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as Washington tried for regime change in China, to no avail. Richard Nixon went to the PRC, traded toasts with Mao Zedong, and minds changed. Government officials and their media minions began calling China by its proper name.

Fast-forward again to the present and we find that China under its Communist government has reorganized and developed itself into a major power and a major contributor to the world economy. To Washington the positive aspects of China’s “rise” have become an exasperating challenge to the United States’ imagined world leadership, a post that has never existed, has no mandate, and to which the Chinese do not aspire. Nor would any sane leader.

The last component of my examination is history, which has not been kind to the Chinese. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The Japanese elites, though seething with resentment underneath, really since the 1895 Triplice, perform their subservience rituals and get top-tier economic treatment so long as they follow Washington’s orders on strategic matters. Chalmers Johnson, a recovering imperialist ideologue, explained this long ago in his Blowback trilogy. The fretting South Koreans are starting to show some independence from Washington, but it is the Chinese who demand to be treated with respect as equals, and convincingly so, determined not to be turned back into a divided colony of the West. They remember quite well how long the West relied on Japan to control Chinese nationalism and how the West finally opposed Japan only when it became clear (after the Russo-Japanese entente of April 1941) that Japan would seek its manifest destiny by attacking south in the Anglo-American sphere instead of north against the USSR.

This is why to this day Japan is virtually useless as a strategic partner against China. The Japanese have to watch their step – with China and with Korea – having much karma still to work off from World War II and from their collusion in and profiteering from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the afterlives of World War II.

Such are my views of Washington’s China Syndrome, a disorder rarely shared by others except to humor Washington. My advice to Washington’s officials and their stone-casters in the media and academia is Rethink Your Thinking. “Rethinking Thinking” is the title of an internal but unclassified critique of China groupthink by CIA/naval intelligence officer Josh Kerbel.

Sigmund Freud insisted that aspiring psychoanalysts first undergo the procedure themselves. China watchers would do well to cast their critical eye first on Washington and its approved shibboleths for discussing China before stepping smartly into the world of Unknown Unknowns.

This article is a slightly revised text of the author’s talk at the Association for Asian Studies president’s panel at the AAS meeting in Denver, Colorado, in March.

Moss Roberts

Moss Roberts has been a professor at NYU's Department of East Asian studies since 1968. He has released dozens of publications on Asian language and culture, including multiple books and translations. He currently teaches courses on East Asian civilization and serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

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