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Opinion

Fear of China is overblown

Don't let the hype about China make you fret. Bear these five points in mind.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom / July 5, 2010



Irvine, Calif.

"When the Chinese become our overlords, will they be benevolent overlords – or horrific task masters?" The Daily Show host Jon Stewart made that joke three years ago, but American anxiety over China's rise is more intense today.

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The good news is that our anxieties are often misdirected – we fret more about dying in rare plane crashes than in common highway accidents. Is the current Sinophobia also overblown?

When I give talks about my new book on China, people often ask me fearful questions about everything from Beijing's large holding of US Treasury notes to its military buildup. I try to put their anxieties in perspective with these five points:

1. We've had related worries before about other countries. American concerns about China's economic surge mirror ones we had in the 1980s about Japan, when it was rising in the global economic hierarchy and copies of the book "Japan as Number One" were selling briskly. And the original "Red Dawn" film, released in 1984, imagined an invasion of the United States by Soviet soldiers; in the remake they'll be Chinese.

Yet Japan's buying sprees of US landmark properties and other activities that worried us came to an end fairly quickly in the 1990s – and the Soviet Union imploded without landing troops on American soil.

2. We've had related worries before about China. In the summer of 1900, when Yellow Peril fantasies filled the air and a group of anti-Christian insurgents dubbed "Boxers" were holding foreigners hostage in Beijing, some alarmist Americans claimed the uprising would evolve into a military campaign for world domination. One periodical warned of invasions like those carried out by Genghis Khan.

Yet the Boxers wanted to rid their homeland of Western influences, not venture beyond their borders. And by the fall of 1900, the only "invasion" was one from a multinational force into China. It involved reprisals against not only Boxers but also many ordinary Chinese unconnected to the uprising.

3. Other countries fear China, too. Some fears are unique to America but many are shared by countries across the globe – and some of these owe more to nightmarish fantasy than fact. In January, a Daily Telegraph column conjured a dark vision of Britain in 2050 being laid low by Chinese hackers who shut down the country's infrastructure.

There are legitimate threats from Chinese hackers, but projecting a Yellow Peril-style invasion with high-tech characteristics is an enormous leap. And at a time when China's main military concern is reasserting its position as a regional power, the countries that should be worried are neighboring nations in South and East Asia, not those in Western Europe or North America.

4. China's leaders are afraid of some of the same things we are. We worry about resurgent Chinese nationalism, but so do they. China's leaders know that once on the streets, protesters who begin criticizing foreigners often start railing against domestic authorities. This limits Beijing's use of nationalism, especially as the Chinese government knows there's widespread disgust with official corruption.

5. Some of the really scary things about China have US parallels. What we ought to fear most from China is how its growth will harm the global environment. And behind that growth is a desire among too many Chinese to copy the behaviors they see in America – from driving gas-guzzling cars to eating beef to buying the latest gadget.

Should we be concerned about China? Yes, but we must distinguish between grounded and ungrounded fears. Jonathan Watts makes this point nicely in his forthcoming book, "When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It." As a child, he was terrified by an adult's bogus claim that if every person in China jumped at once, it would shake the Earth off its axis and kill us all. Today, as a parent, he still worries about the collective impact of China's 1.3 billion people – as it relates to the environmental consequences of changing Chinese consumption patterns.

In thinking about China, we all need to make the same kind of move, from childish fears to sensible adult concerns.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches at University of California, Irvine, and is the author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know."

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