Viral epidemics have plagued civilisations in all of history. A new virus threatens not only a society and country, but also all societies and countries. To deal with it, the cooperation of the international community is necessary. However, it is also during this time that racist rhetoric and behaviour against China and the Chinese have become rapidly resurgent, especially in the US and some Western countries.
“the first time that we [the US] will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian” - Kiron Skinner
On 3 February 2020, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Walter Russell Mead titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia"*. Without scrutinising the author’s views on China, the publication of an article with such a blatantly racist title by a mainstream Western media has profound implications. Soon after, on 5 February 2020, The Washington Post published "The Coronavirus Reawakens Old Racist Tropes Against Chinese People". This piece by John Pomfret discussed the re-emergence of anti-Chinese sentiments in the US. Other mainstream media have also noted this trend. In fact, the racist overtones in the overreaction by the US and some Western countries in “isolating” China are self-evident.
Racism and racist behaviour are deep-seated in the West. Not long ago, Kiron Skinner, then director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State, highlighted that the US-China relationship is “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology, and the US has not had that before” and described the conflict with China as “the first time that we [the US] will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.
Consequently, American scholar Samuel Huntington’s notion of the clash of civilisations which Huntington raised in the early 1990s is again brought to the forefront of US foreign policy. For many years, the US has emphasised political correctness and race-based diplomacy is no longer accepted by the majority. Nevertheless, Huntington’s notion of the clash of civilisations is deeply rooted in the West, as a form of racism in the subconscious minds of some. Given the slightest opportunity, it will find its way back into US diplomacy.
The rapid rise of racism cannot be ignored
As US-China relations continue to deteriorate, the rapid rise of racism can neither be ignored nor taken lightly. Today, the US and the West are most worried about the severe challenges confronting the liberal international order (also known as the rules-based international order) advocated by the West. This liberal international order is an extension of liberal democracy in domestic affairs. While the current domestic problems in the West are affecting its ability to uphold the liberal international order, the West generally believes that the biggest challenges are from great powers, especially China and Russia.
Indeed, the US has officially regarded China and Russia as its biggest rivals, and naturally elevated its rivalry with China to the top of the agenda in US diplomacy. To effectively deal with China, the US needs ideological guidance, much in the way that the “X” Article, written anonymously by US State Department official George Kennan, guided the US in containing the Soviet Union in the Cold War after World War II.
While building up the liberal international order, Western countries must also “liberalise” the domestic affairs of the member countries that subscribe to this system.
Originating and established in the West, liberalism and the liberal international order inevitably possess racist characteristics somehow. Needless to say, there is no unified Western liberalism because of the different histories, cultures and circumstances of the various Western countries. It is understood differently and manifested in different ways. To safeguard their respective national interests in the global arena, Western countries vary in their attempts to construct a world order based upon liberalism. Clearly, liberalism has always been pluralistic, and a unified version of a liberal international order is non-existent.
However, a unified consensus on race exists in Western liberalism: the world is simply divided into white and non-white, or the West and the rest. The objective of the white and the West is to “liberalise” the international order. While building up the liberal international order, Western countries must also “liberalise” the domestic affairs of the member countries that subscribe to this system.
In the name of liberalism, interference in other countries’ domestic affairs or “regime change” has become a foreign policy tool, especially by the UK and the US. Cambridge University political theorist John Dunn believes that politics and diplomacy in the UK and US are values-based. British scholar N.J. Rengger explained the meaning of values very well by answering two related questions, namely “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do?” Ultimately, the answers to these two questions lead to religion: “I am God's son, and I do God's will.” In this perspective, the logic and underlying values in the past religious conflicts between the West and non-Western countries (such as the Crusades) and today’s clash of civilisations are the same.
Historically, the concept of liberalism is developed in the West and it has spread from the West to the non-Western countries. But from a development perspective, liberalism must solve the domestic problems in the West before tackling the issues between the West and the non-Western countries.
Evidently, different Western countries have different views of liberty.
The universality of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, and fraternity), established during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the French Revolution, form the core of liberalism. Enlightenment thinkers had realised these values in France and propagated them globally. French philosopher Nicholas de Condorcet believed that the West should play the role of the generous liberator to free those ruled by “godly” but authoritarian and ignorant conquerors. Another philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau radically put forward the idea of “forced freedom” where he wrote of citizens being “forced to be free” when they are constrained to obey the general will.
On top of having a huge impact on domestic developments in the West, these ideas also became the dominant thinking in Western colonialism and imperialism. For example, through colonial policies, France regarded its colonies as part of its sphere of influence and imparted these values to them, especially in Africa. Concerned that the value of liberté will be replaced by the US’s version of liberty, France deployed substantial defence against the US in Africa, more than that against the Soviet Union because France did not consider the set of values from the Soviet Union a threat.
Evidently, different Western countries have different views of liberty. Prior to becoming a power on the global stage, the US suggested its version of liberty to neighbouring countries in order to compete with Europe. To the Latin American countries, the US proposed and established the Good Neighbour policy, which is centred on non-intervention and non-interference in domestic affairs, and the principles of democracy, peace and justice.
Through colonialism and imperialism, the distinction between whites and non-whites completely superseded all other distinctions, including ethnicity, religion and national diversity.
White supremacy has become mainstream Western ideology
Despite the competition in expansion, which led to war, the Western countries shared the idea of white supremacy. As it gained currency in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it became the predominant paradigm in global order. The West believed that the only civilisation in the world was the Western civilisation, and that the West and civilisation were synonymous. Underpinning white supremacy, which has become the mainstream Western ideology, are the hard and soft powers of the West. Hard power comprises economic and military means by which the West gained supremacy in economy, military and society through industrialisation. With the exception of Japan, which triumphed over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, no other country from the non-Western world could do better than the West. Even then, Japan’s success was attributed to its Westernisation.
In the 19th century, the concept of social Darwinism emerged, and quickly became popular and accepted as the main Western ideology for liberalism and global expansion. Charles Darwin suggested “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” in the theory of evolution, although he did not openly equate evolution to progress but merely seemed to acquiesce in this understanding. The social Darwinists applied the Darwinian evolutionary theory in social development, and explained that the West was more advanced, progressive, civilised and moral because the Western “species” had reigned supreme in human history. Through colonialism and imperialism, the distinction between whites and non-whites completely superseded all other distinctions, including ethnicity, religion and national diversity.
The idea of white supremacy soon made its way from Europe to the US. In the 19th century, the US practised racial segregation through its “White Only” policy to deal with the arrival of tens of millions of new Chinese and Indian immigrants. The US similarly applied the idea in international diplomacy. It must be noted that Foreign Affairs (named in 1922), the leading magazine in international relations and foreign policy in the US, was known as the Journal of Race Development when it was launched in 1910.
After World War II, racism was replaced by cultural pluralism. This transformation was due to the bloody extermination of some six million European Jews by Hitler, rather than a change in the Western perception of the non-Western world.
The subsequent terrorism that occurred in various forms in European countries led to the West questioning the inclusiveness of Western civilisation.
With the rise of civil rights movements by ethnic minorities in Western countries in the 1970s, especially the African Americans in the US, the West began to change or at least showed restraint in its views on race. Cultural pluralism consequently emerged and took root in the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities in the US. Although underlying this theory was the belief that Western civilisation can be inclusive to and assimilate social groups from different ethnicities, the academic and policy circles consciously avoided discussing sensitive issues such as race. This gave rise to political correctness.
However, the situation changed drastically after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, which many deemed to affirm Huntington’s theory on clash of civilisations. Thereafter, in his book titled Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, Huntington expressed great concern about the threat to US national security by the decrease in the number of white Americans and the increase in the population of other ethnicities. The subsequent terrorism that occurred in various forms in European countries led to the West questioning the inclusiveness of Western civilisation. Intellectuals and politicians publicly acknowledged the failure of cultural pluralism, fuelling policy debates on immigration and terrorism in the following years.
To this day, many social groups in non-Western countries remain ideologically colonised, harbouring fantasies about the Western ideologies.
Racism has always existed in and will never disappear from Western foreign policy. While restraint may be exercised or hypocrisy may exist under different circumstances, racism will surface in various ways in policy-making from time to time. From the exclusivity of religion (God) in medieval times, to ethnicity (white supremacy) in modern times, to liberal democracy (alliance of values) today, the logic behind racism and racist behaviour is highly consistent.
Worse, many non-Western countries that were ruled by the West for a long time have already subconsciously accepted racism. Japan is a good case in point: it learnt from the West, rose by using militarism to prove the superiority of the Yamato race (the majority ethnic group of the Japanese) over other Asian races and attempted to achieve parity with the West. To this day, many social groups in non-Western countries remain ideologically colonised, harbouring fantasies about the Western ideologies.
In other words, our future is one where multiple “gods” co-exist.
The thoughts and behaviours of the people in some countries have gone beyond those of the West. To protect certain specific interests, some create artificial “ethnicities” or “races” through various means to magnify the differences in identities of various social groups and spawn conflicts among them. These include “first-comers” and “late-comers”, “locals” and “foreigners”, as well as “democratic” and “authoritarian”. These created “races” have already caused political disputes and conflicts, and will definitely cause greater and more intense conflicts in the future.
With the rise of non-Western powers, especially China, Russia and India, Western racism may be checked and contained. Equality in international relations, including the issue of race, is dependent on the checks and balances of power among countries. The unique value systems possessed by China, Russia and India will inevitably lead to the rise of a plural global order, underpinned by hard power and soft power with values at its core. In other words, our future is one where multiple “gods” co-exist.
* In latest news reports, three journalists from The Wall Street Journal have been expelled from China on account of the Wall Street Journal article titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia". Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the article "discredits the Chinese government and people's efforts to fight the epidemic" and that the "unfortunate editorial choice of adding the racially-discriminatory title China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia triggered indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community". This announcement comes shortly after the US said it would treat five Chinese state media outlets as "foreign missions" as they are controlled by the Chinese government. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has released a statement condemning the expulsion of the journalists, noting that "mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions" and that "the correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech".