The U.S. should stop characterizing China as an inevitable military threat.

February 25, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Dick Cheney and other conservatives constantly warn us of the “China threat.”  Check out these headlines and articles:

This belligerent U.S. attitude that insists that China will inevitably ripen into our next big enemy concerns me for two reasons.

First, why can’t the U.S. work toward an upcoming era of cooperation with China, rather than assuming that we must eventually go to war because China is an emerging superpower?  This preference for aggression rather than cooperation is a xenophobic tactic that Neocons have previously used to make “enemies” out of many other countries with whom we should be working to develop strong relationships.  What is China’s sin, by the way?  China is doing the same things the United States does.  For instance, China competing economically with vigor.  China is accruing wealth.  China is testing sophisticated weapons. China is expanding its influence into parts of the world where petroleum can be found in the ground.  Yet the U.S. is paranoid about China.    If our frustration is that the Chinese practically own us (along with Japan), that is our own fault that we can’t control our own profligate government spending.  I’m not advocating being naive. Perhaps China will someday threaten American interests.  I’m suggesting that we should save harsh rhetoric if that happens. 

Second, I have a personal stake in this rhetoric.  I have two Chinese daughters (they are both adopted) and many Chinese friends and acquaintances.  I am concerned that Americans, led by our government and media, will morph into a people who will once again view Chinese people with disdain.  Don’t laugh.  Look how Americans now view people of Middle Eastern descent.  Our dysfunctional government and simplistic mainstream media are quite capable of developing similar derogatory racial attitudes toward Chinese people, including the Chinese people already living in the United States.  I don’t want to live in an America that is any more xenophobic than it already is.

But why do I say “once again,” as though the Chinese have previously been the victims of horrible racism in the U.S.?  Because the Chinese have, indeed, been victims of widespread racism for most of their existence in the United States.  A detailed work on this subject is Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America (2003).  In that work, she showed, among other things, the damage that can be caused when media and government conspire to denigrate people whose only crime was to be of a certain ethnicity or culture. [The quotes in this article are from The Chinese in America].

Chang was a Chinese American freelance historian who died at the age of 36 after a nervous breakdown following an episode of depression.  She was a fascinating person. In addition to The Chinese in America, Chang left another literary gem, The Rape of Nanking.

It was through Chang’s writings that I learned much of what I know about the Chinese in America.  More than 100,000 Chinese laborers came to America to make their fortunes during the gold rush.  They came to America because it was not easy to survive in China, especially in rural China. 

In the typical rural village, people slept on mats on dirt floors, their heads resting on bamboo pillows or wooden stools.  . .. An arm load of fuel warmed and fed a dozen people . . . most lived and died without gaining more than a dim comprehension of the world beyond their own village … the promise of gold electrified the imaginations of the impoverished Chinese.  It ignited hopes among poor people … They borrowed money from their friends and relatives, sold off their water buffalo or jewelry or signed up with a labor agency that would front of them the money for passage in exchange for a share of their future earnings in America.

In America, however, the Chinese faced different sort of challenges.  Nonwhites could not become naturalized US citizens under a 1790 statute.  Many of the Chinese didn’t actually make it to America.  Three quarters of a million Chinese men were decoyed into slavery in what was known as the “coolie” trade.  Many of them were locked into filthy receiving stations.  Chang estimates that between 15 and 45% of the “coolies” died in transit to the final work destinations.  Cuba was one of these destinations, where the coolies were made to work on sugar plantations 21 out of 24 hours each day.  Suicide was common.

But many of the Chinese workers did make it to San Francisco.  Between 1848 and 1850, San Francisco, previously a desolate area of sand dunes and hills, suddenly grew to a population of 30,000.  It was a “roaring frontier town.”  92% of California were men, and “violence was the rule.”  During the 1850s, 85% of the Chinese in California were engaged in mining.  Mark Twain wrote that the Chinese “are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness . . . a disorderly China man is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.”

The Chinese worked so hard (and successfully) at mining that, in 1852, legislators proposed that Chinese migrants be prohibited from mining.  The California state legislature declared that “their presence here is a great moral and social evil–a disgusting scab upon the fair will face of society–a putrefying sore upon the body politic–in short, a nuisance.”  The Governor of California urged legislators to impose a heavy tax on the “coolies” to stop the “tide of Asiatic immigration.”  The legislature complied.  This huge tax, “extracted from the sweat of Chinese laborers, went to the largest California hospitals” from which the Chinese were barred.  The Chinese were also cheated by the tax collectors and they were often beaten and threatened.  The California courts barred Chinese from testifying against whites in court.  They were declared to be “nonwhite” and thus prevented from becoming citizens of the United States. They were forced off of their mining areas by whites, but prevented from seeking any action in court (again, because they were not allowed to testify in court).

Prevented from competing as gold miners, many of the Chinese went to the city of San Francisco, many of them settling in what is now the area known as Chinatown.  Considerable numbers of them opened restaurants, which were enjoyed by not only the Chinese but by people of all nationalities.

Other Chinese immigrants opened laundries and other shops in San Francisco. The numbers of Chinese grew, to the concern of many white residents.  In 1853, the San Francisco Daily Alto California wrote editorials claiming that the Chinese

were morally a far worse class to have among us than the Negro.  They are idolatrous in their religion-in their disposition cunning and deceited, and in their habits libidinous and offensive . . . they are not of that kin that Americans can ever associate or sympathize with.  They are not of our people and never will be, though they remain here forever . . . it is of no advantage to us to have them here.

The Chinese did legendary good work on the railroads.  They were forced to chisel tunnels through the granite using hand-held drills, explosives and shovels.  On average, they progressed 7 inches a day to carve out one-mile tunnel.  The railroads worked hard to recruit more and more Chinese workers.  They work from sunrise to sunset six days a week in 12 hour shifts.  They received two-thirds of the pay that white workers received.

Following the Civil War, Western politicians worked hard to prevent the Chinese from voting.  In the 1870s, Congress and a Federal District Court withheld from the Chinese the right of naturalization, thus declaring them ineligible to vote.

An 1870s depression brought on much resentment against the Chinese.  Anti-Chinese clubs started to flourish in California.  Municipal ordinances were passed to drive them out of the city.  In 1870 San Francisco passed a “sidewalk ordinance,” which made a criminal to walk through the city carrying a pole with baskets on your shoulder.  This was an attempt to drive Chinese laundries out of the city.  Special taxes were levied against laundries without horse-drawn vehicles (the Chinese delivered on foot). Chinese were victims of gang warfare, one of the worst examples known as “the Chinese Massacre of 1871.”  (Page 121).  White doctors claimed that the Chinese brought inexplicable diseases into the United States.  A well-known San Francisco hatemonger revved up crowds by suggesting that they should exterminate the Chinese population of San Francisco by dropping balloons filled with dynamite over Chinatown.  “In July 1877, the mounting tension exploded into a full-fledged pogrom, perhaps the worst disturbance in the history of San Francisco.”  (Page 127).

After that, laws were passed to make it difficult for the Chinese to find any work at all. They could still work for themselves, but a law passed in 1879 made it a misdemeanor for anyone else to employ “any Chinese or Mongolian.”  In 1879, Ulysses S. Grant indicated that he supported passage of a bill banning Chinese immigration into the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all Chinese immigration for 20 years.  Scholars have called it “one of the most infamous and tragic statutes in American history.”  What earned the Chinese all of this animosity? California Senator John F.  Miller described the problem.  The Chinese were

Machinelike… of obtuse nerve, but little affected by heat or cold, wiry, sinewy, with muscles of iron; they are automatic engines of flesh and blood; they are patient, stolid, unemotional … and herd together like beasts.

Page 130.  In 1880, only 748 Chinese lived in Manhattan.  Shortly after that, however, Chinese workers were brought in to replace striking white workers.  Within a period of a few years, “some 2000 Chinese laundries were operating in metropolitan New York.”

Chang describes a numbingly long list of individual violent acts and government injustices perpetrated against the Chinese following the passage of this Exclusion Act.  In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, canceling all certificates granting Chinese laborers the right to reenter the United States.  In 1892, after the Exclusion Act expired, Congress passed the Geary Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for an additional 10 years.  The Geary Act also deprived Chinese immigrants of protection in the courts.  Other laws kept Chinese workingmen from bringing their wives into the United States.

Following the passage of the exclusion act, annual immigration of Chinese decreased from 8,000 per year in 1883 to a total of 10 in 1887.

In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Act, which barred Asians from owning land, even if they could afford it.  (Page 161).  This kept numerous Chinese from owning their own farms and forced them to become migrant laborers. 

California state law granted separate public schooling for blacks and Indians, but not for Asians:

Giving local school officials the legal right to close down even the segregated school they established for Chinese-American children.  For 14 years, from 1871 to 1885, Chinese children were the only racial group to be denied a state-funded education.

Chang’s book documents numerous other injustices and atrocities against the Chinese.

So what happened, then that caused the Chinese be tolerated by many Americans?  They faced a common enemy: Japan.  The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor

redistributed stereotypes for both Chinese and Japanese Americans.  Suddenly the media began depicting the Chinese as loyal, decent allies, and the Japanese as a race of evil spies and saboteurs.  After the attack, a Gallup poll found that Americans saw the Chinese as “hard-working, honest, brave, religious, intelligent, and practical” and the Japanese as “treacherous, sly, cruel and warlike.

[Chang notes that Pearl Harbor brought devastating consequences for the Japanese American community, even though as a group they had played no role in the attack.”

In 1943, the ban on Chinese immigration (that had been enacted back in 1882) was repealed.  But even then, the bill established an annual quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants.  Chang also notes that 20% of the Chinese population in the United States served in the United States military, compared to 8.6% of the general population (page 228).

To fast forward to present times, it turns out that we don’t entirely trust the enemy of our enemy.

But the prejudice against Chinese still festers just below the surface.   Chang raises many modern examples, including the entirely concocted U.S. federal government prosecutions against Dr. Chih-Ming Hu, a NASA worker and Dr. Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos labs.   Hu faced groundless accusations by the U.S. in the 1980’s, while Hu, a Los Alamos scientist, spent more than 200 days in prison after being wrongly accused of sending nuclear bomb secrets to the PRC.   How groundless were these charges, pursued by 260 federal agents conducting a thousand interviews?  The federal judge apologized to Hu, stating that Hu had been “terribly wronged” and admitting that federal prosecutors had “embarrassed our entire nation.”  (p. 364)

In April, 2001, after a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American Navy spy plane over the South China Sea, the PNC held the American crew for eleven days while tense negotiations proceeded. (p. 395).  During this crisis, members of the American media “recommended the mass dismissal or expulsion or even imprisonment of the entire Chinese American community.”   As Chang documents several such incidents where the American media unapologetically fired off numerous groundless charges at millions of innocent U.S. citizens of Chinese descent. (p. 396).

And consider modern polls showing the depth of the continuing American resentment of U.S. citizens of Chinese ancestry.

A 2001 Gallup poll found that more than 80% of Americans viewed the PRC as “dangerous.”  In another poll . . . close to half [of Americans] thought that Chinese Americans “passing secrets to the Chinese government is a problem.”  Almost a third believed Chinese Americans were more loyal to the PRC than to the U.S. 

(p. 396). Chang’s book reminds us of the power of government and media in shaping stereotypes that harm innocent people. In this day and age, where mainstream media and government officials are acting especially simple-minded and xenophobic, we are again in danger of needlessly stirring up new hatreds against innocent individuals.


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Category: Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, Military, Politics, Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Although I share Erich's concern about the current Administration's belligerent neo-con attitude toward China (and toward many other real and imagined "enemies"), I nevertheless have a very different opinion about this topic. First, despite the extensive list of examples of American bigotry from the 19th and 20th century that Erich mentions (and which forms the majority of the above post), I think he would agree with me that virtually all of these examples are _non sequiteurs_ when applied to China's ascendancy as a potential *future* political and military threat. The latter will almost certainly happen, and the former will almost certainly have nothing to do with it.

    Second, there are, indeed, very good reasons to characterize China as an inevitable future threat, because that is exactly what it is very likely to become. In the 20th century, America won its Cold War with the Soviet Union not with military or political strength, but rather with economic strength: under President Reagan, U.S. military spending grew at a rate that the Soviets could not match, and they bankrupted themselves trying to keep pace. That strategy is unlikely to work with China, because China of the 21st century will likely have a more efficient economy than America: globalization will give its gigantic labor force much better access to both the mineral resources of Russia and the oil resources of the Middle East than the Soviet Union of the 20th century ever had. Furthermore, being geographically situated on the same continent as those resources will give China a significant competitive advantage compared to the U.S., especially as fuel costs to trans-ship goods across the Pacific Ocean increase. If the U.S. tries to directly compete against China in an economic "cold war," as it did with the Soviet Union, China will likely drive the U.S. toward bankruptcy rather than the other way around.

    Indeed, this is already starting to happen. China already has one of the fastest growing economies on earth: nearly triple that of the U.S. Yes, its overall economy is still smaller than America's, but compound interest will eat up that gap within the lifetime of most people reading this blog. And we certainly have no shortage of American manufacturing jobs being lost to Asian out-sourcing. Simply put, China's low labor cost *right now* is giving it more profits to buy the fuel and raw materials needed to feed its economy, and that fuel and those raw materials are (and will continue to be) cheaper to buy in China than in the U.S., because they are closer to China than to the U.S. Indeed, those costs, compared to the U.S., will drop even more rapidly when China is connected to Mid-East oil by pipelines (which virtually eliminate transportation costs) rather than by tanker trucks and ships. Strategically speaking, the U.S. manufacturing industry is at a very big disadvantage when compared to China's, and that could spell big trouble for America's future economy.

    Another critical point to remember is that there is a huge difference between the 20th and 21st centuries: in the 21st century, for the first time in human history, global resources (fuel, metal, wood, food, etc.) will very likely have significant periods of shortages. That means they will become expensive, perhaps very expensive. This poses two threats for the U.S. economy and, thus, its national security. First, it will amplify the impact of America's competitive disadvantage compared to China, because more efficient producers are generally able to outbid less efficient producers for the same scarce resources…and that will very likely be China. Second, it will also mean more bickering and debating among various interest groups about how to respond…something that America's democracy has not proven to be very good at compared to China's single-party, top-down dictatorship. Simply put: dictatorships are often better at crisis management than are democracies (this is why business corporations are dictatorships and not democracies), and our planet appears to be headed for crises that are both larger and more-frequent. As much as we might not want to admit it, China's form of government just might be better adapted to survive on this planet than is America's. Before you laugh, consider this: of the millions of species that live on our planet, only about a dozen species of insects operate as top-down collectives (ants, bees, termites, etc.), yet they comprise about one-half of our planet's biomass.

    Bottom line: I don't know if America is headed for a showdown with China, but I believe it is almost certain that as our planet's resources become scarcer and scarcer, and as wars and other disputes break out over who will get them, China, not the U.S., will be the dominant player at the bargaining table. Many smart parents in America already recognize this trend and are responding: they are no longer enrolling their kids in classes that teach Spanish (even though Spanish is rapidly becoming a second language in America), they are enrolling them in classes that teach Chinese, because *that* is where the high-growth jobs will be in the 21st century. I would very strongly urge Erich to do the same.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: I agree that the U.S. is in for big trouble competitively, I just don't like the war rhetoric. We should compete in other ways, not shooting, bombing and killing.

    But the U.S. is not prepared. We spend too much of our time passively amusing ourselves, our students are not excelling, for the most part. We don't invest enough in basic research. The "values" we instill in our children are too often shallow. This all adds up to a world in which China will own us.

    I agree with you about the suggestion that we learn Chinese. I will come in handy.

  3. Ben says:

    In my opinion, Spanish is still the language which is preferable for school-aged to be learning today. Not because Grumpy is wrong about the Chinese economic boon, but because of my own experiences… learning Spanish in school, seeing the Spanish-speaking population blossom in my region (and others). I have witnessed kids who become alienated by their peers because of progressive, abeit well-meaning parents (who thought French was a good choice). The fact is that in many *American* cities, Spanish language is becoming mandatory in order to function effectively. Granted, in 20 years, Chinese language classes may be the direction to go, but right now, being bi-lingual (spanish english) is the way to go in terms of being a socially literate American.

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