Manufacturing the myth of a China threat

By William Briggs

January 8, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — A lie, well told, is often easy to believe. The fiction that China somehow presents a threat to our lives and lifestyles proves the point. Cold War rhetoric is accepted as truth, even when there is no ideological battlefield.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was supposedly about ideas. It was presented as a battle between the forces of light on one side and the forces of darkness on the other. The idea was well marketed, and the world ran along these ‘ideological’ rails for the better part of half a century until the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The myth of China as ideological foe 

When Mao Zedong came to power the West gained another Cold War enemy. China proclaimed itself to be ‘socialist’ so there was some possible logic to this, but today it is impossible to accept that China is a socialist threat. Any threat that it poses is to US economic hegemony.

States almost inevitably create enemies where none exist. Great powers require both the perception of an external threat and willing, dependable, and necessarily dependent allies. Since the end of World War II, the United States as the dominant power has built and maintained fictitious threats and rallied smaller powers to its banner. These more subservient states have benefited from the embrace of a larger, paternal power. These alleged benefits have been strategic, political, and economic. It is a strategy that is as old as any recorded empire. China has been designated as a threat and the threat perception has been magnificently confected to the degree that the majority of people have come to accept this as truth.

An American dream and economic reality

In the final analysis there are just two political ideas that are, in turn, tied to two economic ideas; capitalism and socialism. The political expression of this economic conflict remains the major focus for the state. This does not imply that economics are ever far from the thoughts of decision makers, but the selling of ideas essentially takes the form of a political sales campaign. This was undeniably the case when the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was launched, and it has echoes today. The difficulty in a 21st century setting and with China as the ‘enemy’ is that ideological differences simply no longer exist.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of capitalism was supposed to herald an age where capitalism could reign unimpeded. Economic crises, however, not only refused to go away but became sharper, more intense, and more threatening. We live with growing inequality, with war and dislocation, with refugee crises, environmental disaster, and pandemic. Things have simply lurched from crisis to crisis.

Despite evidence of decay, a proposition that the US economy will continue to dominate global capitalism remains.  It is rooted in ideas that frame what is described as American exceptionalism. The US clings to the belief that it can resist the laws of history – that its power will not wane. The end of the Cold War briefly reinforced this grandiose view. Two things got in the way of the fairy tale. Economic crisis was one. The other, intimately connected issue, was that China began to loom large on the horizon. The ‘natural’ order of things was upset. Threat perceptions were quickly promoted.

As China has developed, as its economic power has grown, then so too has the power of ideology been reintroduced. Cold War politics have been re-jigged to suit the requirements of the new century. However, while the tactics and rhetoric might remain the same, the actual conditions that apply are very different.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was, to a degree, based on ideological differences. Things have changed. For the United States to simply run the same argument in its public policy towards China as it did during the Cold War years requires a stretch of the imagination. Even the mildest of examinations shows that it is fanciful to suggest that China is a socialist state. It may be led by the Chinese Communist Party and may speak of ‘building socialism with Chinese characteristics’, but it operates as a major capitalist economy. Interestingly, the more capitalist that China becomes, the greater the degree of anti-Chinese, anti-socialist language that is employed by the US and its allies. What then is this threat? Is China a threat because it is ‘socialist’ or is it a threat because it is capitalist?

Was China ever a socialist threat?

The ‘logic’ that drives threat perception is a dangerous one. The Cold War which could so easily have become a hot one was built around the idea that the Soviet Union presented a danger to the West. This view of history is deeply flawed.  The Soviet Union, led as it was by Joseph Stalin, was nationalist by inclination. But that was hardly the point. Propaganda almost always out-trumps truth. And so it is with China. When China was at least notionally ‘socialist’ it seemed to pose little or no threat. Today it is paraded as a major problem for the world.

This, of course, begs the question of whether ‘socialism’ as practised by China was ever an issue. What makes the idea of socialism or communism so threatening is that it seeks to replace capitalism and to promote equality. Its theoretical propositions must ultimately be internationalist. The Chinese path to socialism stood in direct contradiction to that proposition. For Mao and his political heirs, it was a ‘China First’ approach. There were undoubtedly significant reforms, but China was first and last seeking to establish a Chinese order of things. The first decades after 1949 were marked by relative isolation and attempts at self-sufficiency tempered by an appreciation that it needed to catch up, economically, to the West.

The catch-up, the Great Leap Forward, and its disastrous history has been well chronicled. US responses were just a little confused. Hawks and doves argued and dithered, but the fact remained that China, while a useful enemy, was never regarded as anything like a threat. But today, now that China has in reality moved back into the capitalist camp, the US is employing language that is far shriller than when Mao was proclaiming that the ‘East is Red.’

If China was building socialism, then it was a socialism that posed neither threat nor benefit to anybody outside China. Millions perished in Mao’s ill-conceived attempts to modernise, but this aroused little real interest to anyone outside China. China was left to its own devices. Capitalism was entering its ‘golden age’. The post-World War II period saw the world economy prosper. What was happening in China was, at best, a side-issue. The Cold War continued even as capitalism thrived, but all good things come to an end; even golden ages.

The 1970s saw the global economy stall and stumble. Crisis was in the air. Profit rates were beginning to decline, and Western economies, to avoid calamity, sought new markets and new centres of production. Costs needed to be reduced. Industrial production needed to be moved away from the developed world to new, possibly greener pastures. This coincided with China’s realisation that it needed to shed its more restrictive socialist garb and to embrace the world. On one hand we see capitalism, and particularly US capitalism, desperately seeking new centres of production and, on the other hand, we see China seeking engagement with the West. It appeared to be a marriage not entirely of convenience but certainly made in economic heaven. Cooperation and positive engagement, however, cannot be carried out if there is too much ideological friction and so, ideology took a back seat to diplomacy.

When ideology comes a poor second

The efficiency, or possibly sleight of hand that governments and major players display in jettisoning ideological principles and rearranging political and economic agendas is most impressive. By the 1970s, China had, in the eyes of the US, become a state and economy that needed to be nurtured. Positive engagement became the order of the day. The US, in China’s estimation, became less of an imperialist monster. Political issues were handled in a ‘pragmatic’ fashion. Economic benefit was regarded by both sides as far more important than Cold War rhetoric.

After Mao came Deng Xiaoping. The former casualty of the cultural revolution, the former ‘capitalist roader’ had been brought back from the political dead. Something remarkable happened on the way from Mao’s ‘iron rice bowl’ view of the world to Deng’s declaration that ‘to get rich is glorious.’ Both were CCP leaders but had been factional enemies. The two had managed to resolve their differences by 1973. This was, of course, just a year after Mao had opened the door to the West and played host to US President Richard Nixon.

Deng’s perspective had not changed, but now he was a favoured son of the CCP and no longer an enemy. Mao’s strategy might have been based on a spur of the moment reaction, or it might have been a considered action aimed at strengthening China’s position. Whatever the motivations, the result is there for all to see. 

The move, from ideological foe to partner in economic prosperity, was rooted in the economic malaise in which the US and the rest of the developed economies had sunk. It was a crisis that required an almost qualitative shift in how capitalism operated. One factor that changed the face of how capitalism functioned was a shift in how production was organised. Traditionally, manufacturing took place at the centre of economic strength and power. Workers went to where jobs were to be found, be that internal migrations or international ones. The 1970s and the strain that the economic crisis placed on profit margins meant that production moved to where workers could be found, and this meant establishing production centres where wages would be lower. Manufacturing in the developed world was decimated but capital managed, at least briefly, to avoid some of the more threatening aspects of the crisis. China became an important destination and haven for corporations. It became an almost limitless workshop and factory for the world. It suited the needs of both China and the West. There was simply no room for politics and ideological disputation.

Things have changed dramatically in the relationship between the two states. It is now difficult to imagine anything like a return to the relative calm and peace of that period. Economic and political interactions between states have undergone something of a seismic shift. The two economic superpowers are now locked in a battle, not of ideas, for the ideas that propel them are all but identical, but for market share and the power that hegemony brings. 

It’s the economy, stupid!

Individuals, organisations, ideas, can all be demonised at a moment’s notice and people can be convinced that it is right and proper to hold whatever opinion is given to them. It has been an integral part of statecraft to make rival states enemies, until, of course, conditions change, and they become firm friends.

This simple truth has never been more obvious than with the recent history of relations between the West and China. It’s a well-travelled path. Politics and political considerations remain seriously important, but it is worth remembering former US president Bill Clinton’s ‘it’s the economy stupid’ quip during a 1992 debate with George H. Bush. That truth, that political actions are motivated by economic realities ought to be obvious, but rather than being obvious, the opposite idea, that political actions frame economic responses has been encouraged.

We need to remember that the state exists to support the economic structures upon which it rests and that those same economic structures depend on the state. Problems only arise when crisis is in the air.

Since the Great Depression, there have been 17 significant recessions and crises. In the period between 1970 to 2011 there were 147 banking crises, 217 currency crises and 67 sovereign debt crises. The point is that capitalism lives in and with problems, and that these problems have accelerated in frequency over time.

Capitalism is competitive. It’s what drives it. It must expand in order to maintain profit. It has no alternative. This becomes both a problem and a necessity, especially when considered against the potential that always exists for the general rate of profit to fall. This tendency is a terrifying one for capital. The troubled period of the early 1970s was a pivotal moment for capitalism. To avoid the theory of a fall in the rate of profit from becoming a devastating reality, there was a rush to globalise economic relations and to integrate economies.

Government policies shifted to accommodate the needs of a greatly changed economic reality. Individual capitalist giants and transnational corporations left home for more lucrative, greener pastures. States were left to fight for political survival. The world economy and global state system were faced with a truly existential moment. The state, in order to secure the future of the economy, will do whatever it takes, including creating enemies where none exist. Ideology can be taken up, dropped, and then picked up, dusted off and re-badged. Where once China was an enemy and later an economic partner, it is once more an ideological foe, a socialist regime, hell-bent on spreading a pernicious form of Chinese socialism and crushing the rights of all under foot.

Nationalism’s return

Ideology can motivate interstate rivalry but only when there are competing ideas at play. China’s evolution from quasi-socialist regime to a powerful capitalist economy shows that there are more fundamental issues at hand. The rivalry here is simply about economic interests, economic control, and the power of US imperialism.

Capitalism has reached a critical moment. Forward movement has slowed, and real economic recovery is an impossible dream. While globalised economic relations continue, there has been a return to the idea of nationalism and economic nationalism. Trade war politics are common and populist political ideas and practices have swept countries and continents.

Nationalism and bad economic times go together. Nationalism, in the period of capitalism’s ‘golden age’ from the end of World War II until the economic crisis of the 1970s was not an issue. Today we are drowning in a sea of nationalist symbols and symbolism. Former US President Donald Trump sought to make America ‘great’ again. Current US president Joe Biden, even before his inauguration, let the world know that America was ‘back’. Russian president Vladimir Putin resurrects Stalinist symbols. China’s president Xi Jinping appears in simple, if elegantly tailored Mao suits. Smaller powers are no different.

A clash of the titans 

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak devastation upon the globe, so too did the debt crisis all but consume the global economy. In 2020, global debt rose to $277 trillion. Incidentally, total global GDP is $142 trillion! Such is the health or otherwise of the world economy. At the same time China’s economy, although hit by the same crisis, grew at a greater rate than comparable economies and especially the US.

Given the global crisis of capitalism, it might be logical to assume that Chinese growth would be met with something like enthusiasm. It boosts global output and makes a flattened world economy look a little less frightening. There was no applause from the US because its own economic figures were considerably less impressive. As China’s economic power is enhanced, then so too is the US adamant that it will not be surpassed. China, after all, has been designated to be a threat. In an economic sense the threat is real.

The importance of the economy in guiding political responses is obvious when observing US behaviour towards China. The US approach to China since 1949 was haphazard. The logic of the Cold War invited a hostile response but was followed by a period of relative neglect. More interest was shown from the beginning of the 1970s as foe became friend. Engagement turned to containment as China’s rise became significant. There are now signs of another policy shift; from containment to ‘roll-back.’

China, too, has shifted policy in the years since 1949. After the Korean War, China retreated into a nationalist version of ‘socialism’. The Chinese paid little attention to the West, apart from propaganda proclamations that sat easily with Cold War ideology, but by the 1970s it was time to come in from the cold. The economy grew and engagement with the West was on top of the agenda. Today some of the richest people on the planet not only live in China but carry a party card in their wallets. The top 400 richest Chinese saw their collective wealth grow from $1.29 trillion to $2.11 trillion, in 2020. Twelve Chinese companies made it onto the Forbes 500 list in 2001. By 2011 a Chinese company had risen to number three on that same list. Chinese firms now occupy five of the top ten spots.

The myth that the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States is based on an ideological struggle is just that; a myth. It is a useful lie that has been used to good effect. Economic necessity, for the United States and its allies, determines what will or will not constitute political reality. Engagement with China, alongside China’s desire for economic change, led to the growth of an economy that now seriously rivals that of the United States. This, for the US, is an intolerable situation and yet there is an inevitability that flows from such actions.

What is clear is that there are two competing powers. One is rising and the other falling. It is impossible to imagine that the US, whose star is fading, is about to quietly pack up its bags and pass the baton of world dominance to its rival and herein lies the real threat to us all.

William Briggs is the author of China, the USA and Capitalism's Last Crusade — When survival is all that matters