Sinophobia Unhinged

Mar 15, 2024

It has been building for years. It started in the early 2000s when the United States and its allies first raised security concerns over allegations of the so-called backdoor espionage potential embedded in Huawei’s telecommunications networking products. China’s national technology champion was, at the time, the market leader in the development and production of the 5G platform that was about to take the world by storm. The imposition of US-led sanctions in 2018-19 stopped Huawei dead in its tracks.

Of course, Huawei was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg—the poster child for what has now become a rampant outbreak of Sinophobia. Subsequent US-led sanctions on Chinese access to advanced semiconductors, a full-court press on China’s AI ambitions, claims of rampant cyberhacking of critical American infrastructure and handwringing over the purported risks of Chinese electric vehicles, constructions cranes, and now TikTok all have one thing in common: They are visible manifestations of unsubstantiated fear inflation that are wrapped in the impenetrable cloak of national security. Inflammatory words of congressional politicians—“China is America’s greatest adversary…” are now at risk of being put into action.

These are strong words that I don’t take lightly. According to the Oxford English Dictionary phobia is an “extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance.” While the Sino prefix is intended to tie this pathology to fear of the so-called Chinese technology threat associated with the developments highlighted above, it has far deeper roots. Several years ago, I wrote of America’s “trade deficit disorder,” conflating a large bilateral trade deficit with China with a much larger US multilateral trade deficit with over one hundred nations traceable to an unprecedented shortfall of domestic saving. Others have written of exaggerated depictions of China’s military threat, concerns that have bordered on hysteria as tensions mount in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. These are all visible manifestations of the same fear-driven mentality.

Sinophobia is, of course, a first cousin to the profusion of false narratives that formed the basis of my recent book, Accidental Conflict. While I attempted to be even-handed in the book — four chapters about America’s false narratives of China and another four chapters on China’s false narratives of America — that is not my intent in this missive. The venom of America’s strident anti-China sentiment has gone far beyond any semblance of mutual misunderstanding that framed the core thesis of my latest book. Not since the red baiting of the early 1950s has America vilified a foreign nation as it is doing so with China today.

Back then, a two-pronged congressional approach, led by Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin on the Senate side and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on the House side, spearheaded an assault on America’s so-called communist sympathizers that inflicted grave reputational damage on many innocent US citizens. In one of the great ironies of modern times, another politician from Wisconsin, Mike Gallagher, is leading the charge today. His platform is the House Select Committee on China (full name: Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party); today’s House committee has used the high-profile combination of hearings, letters, investigations, and provocative speeches to elevate a series of unsubstantiated charges against China that bear an eerie resemblance to the worst days of HUAC.

That gets to the heart of my complaint. In all cases, from Huawei to TikTok, a series of Sinophobic allegations have been based on circumstantial evidence of potential nefarious capability that has been translated into fear through deductive reasoning. In my view, the problem lies in the process of deductive reasoning: it is based more on widespread bipartisan appeal of the politics of China bashing rather than on verifiable intent. A leading Democrat, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, asks us to “imagine” what could happen if Chinese electric vehicles were weaponized on US highways. The seemingly apolitical FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee and a so-called contributor of the conservative Federalist Society, warns of the potential of embedded Chinese malware to disable critical US infrastructure, “if or when China decides the time has come to strike.” A former US counterintelligence officer has publicly warned that “…cranes can be the new Huawei…” in underscoring the Trojan Horse potential of Chinese made modems embedded in US construction machinery. Too many “ifs” and mythological parallels if you ask me.

As Sinophobia feeds on itself, the dangers of accidental conflict with China can only intensify. In his first inaugural address in 1933, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt underscored the ultimate risk of this dangerous pathology with the memorable line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Amid today’s growing frenzy of Sinophobia, that message is well worth remembering. Are we blaming China for our own self-inflicted fears?

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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