By ratcheting up anti-China rhetoric, Washington is hurling America back into another Cold War. But this time round, a comparable ”good versus evil“ culture war is also tearing apart the American body polity and the vaunted US media, compounding the danger of this latest great power rivalry.
American journalism had played historic roles in confronting tyrants and liberating the oppressed. In China, for example, undercover reporting by The New York Times helped bring to light the Uighurs’ plight to the world. Speaking truth to power, and without fear or favour, American journalists have sought to hold all governments to account, including exposing Washington’s fabricated evidence in the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
Yet when China became the target of Washington’s duplicity, in the case of the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory which has been refuted, for instance, there was a disconcerting acquiescence.
But the fourth estate, who have largely turned a blind eye to the Trump Administration’s reaction to the increasingly hostile rivalry with China, is showing signs of compromise. Sure, American reporters, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are no state mouthpieces. In fact, the US press corps is affronting on a daily basis a White House infamous for creative fact-spinning and alternate reality.
Yet when China became the target of Washington’s duplicity, in the case of the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory which has been refuted, for instance, there was a disconcerting acquiescence. The concern here is not with right-wing broadcasters like Fox News, but those avowed to nobler standards of journalism. Though not peddling the Administration’s falsehoods, these news organisations are not refuting the disinformation either. Case in point is in the reportage of White House trade adviser Peter Navarro’s unsubstantiated accusation of Beijing “profiteering” from the pandemic and selling “fake tests” and “counterfeit tests”. In fact, the US media's disproportionately negative coverage of China also carries a disturbing undertone of a presumption of guilt.
America’s Christian heritage with its dualistic worldview tends to dichotomise reality into the antithetical spheres of “good versus evil”. Wearied of unbridled religiosity, America founding fathers sought to temper Christianity’s way of dogmatising morality by elevating reason as the final arbitrator of right and wrong, imbuing the republic with an enlightened, judicious temperament.
If the silence persists, American journalism may become complicit in this unfolding tragedy.
But as fear of a rising China spreads, many Americans, including the news media, are abandoning their better self for their darker instinct, and the warped impulse to impute “evil” entirely to the “other”, to wit, China, disregarding the US’s share of culpability in the deteriorating relationship.
And alarmingly, an Iraq-war-like disinformation campaign to punish China is underway. But unlike the Iraqi episode, an uncalled-for war with the PRC will be devastating to the world. If the silence persists, American journalism may become complicit in this unfolding tragedy.
The US mass media loss of moral bearing predates their approach to China. Americans have in fact been battling their own inner demons, with conservatives and liberals locking horns in an intractable culture war. And this enmity has spilled over onto the air waves, with Fox News and CNN bringing the “religious right versus secular left” fight to the news arena. Despite assertions to the contrary, the US mainstream media has lost its “fair and balanced” footing and the few remaining dispassionate neutral voices the likes of NPR are now banished to the margins.
The White House’s symbiotic relationship with Fox News exacerbates the imbalance. Trump’s divisiveness cuts even deeper into the American body polity, undermining the independence of institutions such as the Justice Department, among others, and pushing an already estranged Congress into greater ideological paralysis, impairing the federal government operations, sometimes to a grinding halt.
Trump and Biden are outbidding each other on who is the more hawkish on China.
In the Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University philosopher William James identified in America another distinct heritage, pragmatism. A pluralist capacity to co-exist with differences, with an intuitive grasp for the common good in its varying shades of grey. But this common sensibility has given way to the grim puritanical ethos of a black versus white morality with no tolerance for the ambivalent grey, snuffing out the American pragmatic instinct for compromise and bipartisanship, crippling and fracturing the US.
The tragic death of George Floyd has opened afresh unhealed wounds of a fragmented, racialised America. Earlier, the Covid-19 crisis laid bare the country’s inept and incapacity to transcend differences for a collective response. And even in the face of China’s ominous rise, unity appears elusive: Trump and Biden are outbidding each other on who is the more hawkish on China.
A polarised America is battling two enemies simultaneously: an endless culture war with itself, and a new Cold War with China. The former has torn apart and turned the enlightened pragmatic republic into a melancholic dogmatic democracy. And an illiberal America is now hounding China the same way it bedevilled itself, with vindictiveness. The US media’s vilification of China, for instance, is symptomatic of America’s conservative and liberal news outlets’ mutual contempt and revilement of each other. And Washington’s boorish assault of Beijing mirrors the President’s assailment of political opponents at home.
Unless America recovers its judicious temperament and centrist sensibility, the prospect of coexistence between great powers is likely to remain dim.
China’s authoritarianism is posing great risks to the existing liberal world order. But turmoil within the US is also complicating the geopolitical reconfiguration. Unless America recovers its judicious temperament and centrist sensibility, the prospect of coexistence between great powers is likely to remain dim.
Clearly, with Trump’s “make America great again” worldview, this Cold War with China is not about defending the free world. This is a battle for raw power dominance. And one that could be held hostage to an upcoming US presidential election, and the personal ambition of a mercurial incumbent who has shown a capacity to stop at nothing to stay in power.
The US-Sino rivalry is fumbling into the Thucydides trap (the likely conflict that ensues when an emerging power challenges the existing dominant power), and a titanic clash that the world can ill afford to look the other way. But to step into the fray, the rest must resist taking sides. ASEAN member states have to retain their neutrality. And middle powers such as Australia must stay firmly in the middle, holding to account both superpowers. By staying centred, the rest may be able to nudge these two East and West heavyweights to meet halfway, and help realign the weighing scale towards a peaceful power equilibrium.