In the U.S. government, unhelpful generalizations about Asia are catching on again.
Search the archives of any mainstream media outlet, and one will begin to turn up articles from the 1980s and 1990s eerily similar to modern day commentary on China. A new strategic competitor is arising in Asia, whose society “stresses collectivity, consensus, authority, hierarchy, discipline,” and focuses “on the long haul.” Its political system is a “tyranny” of “paternalistic authoritarianism,” and could spread across Asia as an alternative development model. Even a hegemonic military struggle is in the cards. With the benefit of hindsight, such predictions about Japan now appear outrageous, founded on a mixture of superficial analysis and paranoia about a mysterious Orientalized adversary. Yet how could such half-baked reasoning enter the mainstream before — and, more importantly, how can we avoid falling for the same intellectual traps again?
In 2021, China watchers have no shortage of content to assess. The availability of machine translation and in-country study have made good analysis on China more available than ever. However, another kind of commentary is proliferating with equal speed — one that substitutes rigorous analysis of China’s economy or military with cultural essentialism and stereotyping. Concerningly, these narratives are taking hold in the heights of the U.S. national security establishment. Far from being outliers, they are the basis of a number of best-selling books, popular social media accounts, and regular media appearances.
We believe that China is clearly the most serious strategic competitor to the United States, its allies, and the international order. It is precisely because of this challenge, not in spite of it, that we think China watchers must get the subject right. A trope-ridden analysis of the PRC’s goals not only perpetuates a myopic form of racism, but also endangers U.S. national strategy. Just as stereotypes about Japan prevented good analysis throughout the 20th century, pithy, clickbait-style claims about China now threaten to impede deliberations about a deadly serious near-peer adversary. Avoiding and deploring racism in commentary is not about being “woke.” It is an issue of common decency and simple accuracy. Analysts, scholars, and policymakers should know how to spot such low-quality commentary, and how to counter bias in their own views and writings.
Just as is the case with China today, the existence of trained Japan experts in the 20th century did not stop the spread of false stereotypes. Historian John Dower’s works show how, prior to the Second World War, commentators described Japan as a nation with a “unique psychology” that “no Westerner can really penetrate.” Although scholars of the time recognized its people as industrious, they were fundamentally uncreative, “borrowing this and copying that, never inventing.” Americans and Europeans consistently underestimated the Japanese military until, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the swift Imperial advance down the Malay Peninsula, the miscalculations swung to the opposite extreme — Japanese became unstoppable supermen, purported to have natural night vision and jungle fighting capabilities.
The root problem with these characterizations was that, as Dower argues, “prejudice masqueraded as fact,” so that even level-headed assessments of Japanese intent and capabilities rested on a foundation of faulty assumptions. The end of the war brought a temporary halt to fatalistic descriptions of Japan, whose stereotypes transitioned to focus variously on the Soviet Union and — presaging the 21st century —Communist China.
By the 1980s, the specter of unstoppable Asiatic power was back in vogue, this time in the form of “Japan Inc.” Rather than the result of innovative management structures meeting an investment bubble, cultural essentialists painted a portrait for the American people of a communal, fiercely focused mass of Confucian engineers and businessmen who uniformly placed the interests of their nation ahead of their own profits. A 1991 Newsweek article discussed Japan’s economic growth as the result of its “intrinsic martial instincts,” “relentless competitiveness,” and “national character.” Political cartoons of the era frequently depicted Japanese businessmen as buck-toothed, short, slant-eyed samurai, who had merely exchanged the combat fatigues of the 1940s for business suits.
These images deeply impacted the American political psyche. By 1989, 68 percent of Americans responded in a poll that the “economic threat from Japan” was more serious than the military threat from the Soviet Union. Commentator Paul Harvey went so far as to warn that Japanese investments in U.S. properties and national debt gave Japan the ability to inflict an “economic Pearl Harbor.” Harvey was not alone, as well-reviewed books and articles described Japanese plots for everything from holding the United States government hostage through purchases of debt to fighting a war of hegemony. New York Times correspondent Henry Scott Stokes said in 1986 that Americans could face the “terrifying prospect of a suicidal nuclear-armed Japan,” evoking imagery of the Kamikaze.
These commentaries on Japan’s successes and ambitions ignored much evidence to the contrary. Images of a unified Japanese race working together in commercial harmony bely the frequent political clashes, labor disputes, and social upheaval that defined Japan’s late Showa era ending in 1989. The Japanese economy of the 1980s was not built by Confucian values and a culture of selfless sacrifice, but by a high savings rate, management innovations, and an epic investment bubble. Predictions of Japanese schemes against the American homeland fell flat, but just as at the end of the Second World War, cultural essentialism found a new target.
“Japan’s 100-Year-War Plans” could almost be pulled, word for word, from some books about China being published today. One popular view asserts that China and other Asian cultures eschew open conflict to achieve their goals and must resort to skullduggery, ignoring the fact that the largest conventional battles since World War II took place in Asia mostly between Asian adversaries. Others still argue that Chinese are unable to innovate — despite the fact that Chinese AI research papers received more citations than American papers for the first time last year. Other examples abound. On Twitter, the anonymous account BadChinaTakes is a collection of everything from sloppy to downright bigoted views of China; the account has amassed close to 20,000 followers in under a year.
Unfortunately, these views are finding a home in the government. The previous administration’s China strategy directly evoked Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, and other policymakers reference unclear subtle Chinese machinations to fulfill a strategy decades in the making. In 2019, the State Department’s director of policy planning stated the issue outright in a dubious claim that China is a uniquely difficult challenge because it’s “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Studying the cycle of fear and misjudgment as once applied to Japan and now used to describe China leaves three important stereotypes to address. First, some business and military experts alike inaccurately declare that unlike the West, Asian civilizations are marked by a preference for subterfuge and trickery. Second, that the economies of Asia excel due to a relentless cultural work ethic, rather than genuine innovation. Third, and most importantly, commentary is often marked by extremes — the Asian adversary is perpetually either on the brink of collapse, or of global domination. These claims do not always come alongside overtly racist imagery and dialogue, but they are stereotypical and inaccurate nonetheless, and such views often seep into otherwise level-headed analysis of contemporary China.
So what is an analyst, scholar, or policymaker to do? Understanding China’s culture, strategy, and ambitions is critically important in an era of great power competition, and countries around the world need a core of experienced and educated experts to respond to China’s profound challenges to the international rules-based order, human rights, and security in the Asia-Pacific.
We suggest the following analytical framework for discussing China. This is an incomplete list, and should be considered a starting point only. The primary rule is to resist extremes. China is, much like the United States, a land of contradictions. CCP leaders are facing enormous demographic, economic and diplomatic challenges. At the same time, it is a real and dangerous competitor to the United States and its allies and partners. Both of these can be true at once, and works that overstate the threat China poses should be considered with the same degree of skepticism as those that suggest its collapse is near.
The second rule is that all arguments about China should be grounded in data rather than sweeping claims referencing inherent cultural traits. Confucius’ The Analects should not be guiding discussions over PRC domestic policy in 2021. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is unlikely to provide anything but the most general of insights about how the PLA plans to initiate an operation against Taiwan.
The third rule is that one should compare the scope and nature of claims made about China to those made in the past — about a country like Japan, or even one’s own country. Americans would be wary of a Chinese “Americanist” incapable of conversing in English, who had not entered the U.S. in a decade, and whose principal reference point was an abridged and translated version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Culturally essentialist views of the United States, such as the idea that Americans uniquely value contracts due to a shared history of frontier justice, are as laughable to an American audience as many of theories above are to a Chinese one.
Professional Military Education (PME) must play a role in developing more nuanced, diverse perspectives on China among senior staff. We are receptive to arguments that PME must do more than teach military history, and believe that officers should be exposed to the culture and politics of our adversaries on forums other than cable news. Our experiences show us that while teaching culture, avoiding generalized statements by using imperfect but rigorous models like Geert Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture improves both dialogue and student outcomes.
Whether in the 1980s towards Japan or today towards China, culturally essentialist commentary has the dual distinction of being both stereotypical and unhelpful. Those who study China should seek out holistic perspectives on China, including those on Chinese culture. However, the resurgence of Orientalism masquerading as informed analysis has dangerous repercussions. It is no accident that a rise in racism directed at Asian Americans over the past year has come at the same time as anti-Asian rhetoric in American politics. Racist violence towards Americans is tragic, morally repugnant, and a stain on America’s reputation at a critical geopolitical moment. For reasons of morality, accuracy, and effectiveness, commentators must do better than reheat old racist stereotypes when analyzing China.
Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force with operational experience across the Asia-Pacific and Middle East. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School teaching courses on East and Southeast Asian politics, culture, and security. Ryan has previously published on Asia-Pacific security issues with The National Interest and The Diplomat. He is an incoming active-duty Ph.D. student at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Alex Barker is a research intern at National Defense University and an MA candidate in Asian studies at Georgetown University, where his work focuses on security and technology issues related to U.S.-China relations. He previously worked in the tech sector in Taiwan. His opinions are his own and not reflective of his employer’s.
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