Keith Rankin, 29 April 2021
We humans seem to have a need to coalesce into tribes, and we do this by identifying – and sometimes demonising, or holding in condescension – others who are not us. We also like to anthropomorphise, treating both animals and nations as if they were humans. Thus, 'Peter Rabbit does this'; and 'India does that'.
Of late one of our favourite activities has become 'calling out' others; we like to 'tell off' – even 'cancel' – individual people (or people stereotypes), and we like to tell off countries (or country stereotypes). In doing this we are usually 'letting off steam', and our actions tell us more about ourselves than the targets of our volleys.
One of our favourite targets in 2021 is China. Of late, in particular, we have discovered the Uighurs of northwest China, and use them to justify an increasing anti-China rhetoric. China is the rising player in our 'bad guy' books. Soon enough, if China is the bad guy, then Chinese become the 'bad guys', and we (or at least people not of Chinese appearance) give ourselves permission to behave appallingly towards these 'bad guys'. A few weeks ago on the news I saw footage of a big young African American guy assaulting, on the street, an elderly Chinese American woman; the scapegoating of Chinese people – and Chinese-looking people – in America is becoming a very serious problem. Black lives matter; Asian lives matter too.
Last week I was disturbed to hear this on RNZ – 'Drums of War' warning – in which Peter 'Trash' Dutton seems to be wanting to provoke World War 3. In New Zealand, as in Australia, there are people and organisations on both the political right and the political left seeking to 'call out' China without seeming to have any idea what they wish to achieve, and what the consequences of identity dogwhistle international politics could be.
The G Word
Politics of this type have become well entrenched in recent years in India, where Hindu nationalism is the prevailing political force, and where nearly 200 million Muslims stand to become scapegoats for, among other things, India's present Covid19 tragedy.
Then in the last decade, while the 'good guys' were ostensibly in power in Myanmar, a very real anti-Muslim genocide took place; the genocide of the Rohingya people mostly living in Rakhine State, in Myanmar's west. I don't recall many tears shed in New Zealand for these unfortunate people.
'Genocide' is a very strong word, meaning the perpetration of death in pursuit of a wish that the targeted identity group should cease to exist; or at lease would cease to exist within the actual or idealised borders of the perpetrating nation state. It is such a strong word that it is too easily used as a way of targeting a present people (or polity) on account of the sins of those people's forebears; this is what we see with regard to Turkey today.
In December 2019 I was in Tasmania, with my family. It's a beautiful place, with warm and friendly people. But something felt wrong, especially in Launceston which uses an extinct animal – the Tasmanian tiger – to promote its regional identity within Tasmania. The 'elephant in the room' was of course that the Tasmanian people are – for all practical purposes – both extinct and unacknowledged. Tasmania has no tangata whenua in anything like the sense that exists in, say, New Zealand and Canada. The Tasmanians suffered a genocide between 150 and 220 years ago; while many of the individual deaths may have fallen short of the definition of 'murder', those deaths were rather 'convenient' for the mainly Anglo-Celtic settler population. Fortunately we do not brand modern day Tasmanians for the sins of their forebears; we don't demand mea culpa from them. We allow euro Tasmanians to come to terms with their own history, at their own pace.
New Zealand had its own genocide, at around the same time. In the Chatham Islands.
What is happening in Xinjiang Province – in northwest China – is not a genocide; rather, it is a brutal program of assimilation, in a part of the world (East Asia) where collective 'order' is valued relatively more than it is in western liberal democracies; and 'civil liberties' are valued slightly less than in 'the West'. This prioritisation – in favour of collective order – is legitimate, though it is not a prioritisation that reflects my own values. Thus, if people in the euro-west really do care about minorities in China and other Asian countries – and I don't think that many of us do – they should aim to set good examples of tolerance; and ensure that the polities they wish to influence towards more liberal values are able to trust the liberal west.
The liberal west needs to demonstrate a culture of empathy, of awareness of the histories of (for example) China, and awareness of the political and cultural constraints that make liberal change slow. (We might note that, from the time of Japan's Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan rapidly adopted the same colonial values of the major European Powers of the time; and from then until 1945 they became an aggressive military power on the world stage. Invasive western-type supremacist belief-systems have not served Asia or the world well. In 1840 the British were not reading about the Treaty of Waitangi; rather, the British navy was invading China through Hong Kong, peddling opium as a revenue source enabling these traders to buy tea and porcelain.) We should be slow to judge others' priorities; we should show more humility and less of the 'calling-out' that only aggravates division.
We in the liberal west have become obsessed with international terrorism aimed at us or our interests. And we've a history of cracking down hard on independence movements, whether the American southern confederacy, the Irish 'home-rule' and independence movements of the United Kingdom, or the efforts in Spain to suppress Basque separatism.
China has experienced a degree of domestic terrorism that has been linked to the East Turkestan (Uighur) separatist movement. The case I remember is the attack at Kunming Railway Station on 1 March 2014; 312 people died and many more were injured. An academic paper – China's response to terrorism – lists eight domestic or international events since 1997 in which Chinese people died. China's understandable response – though regrettable – is to try to assimilate the people in its northwest who, as an organised people, wish to separate from China. But attempts at assimilation, which should be discouraged as both inhuman and ineffective, are not genocide. Eradication of identity is an almost impossible task – we see that the confederacy identity still thrives in the United States, sixteen decades after the Civil War..
We need China in the 'international tent' with us. China saved the western world from the 2008 global financial crisis, and constitutes a critical part of the global supply chains that underpin our standard of living in the west. In doing so, they accepted a much enlarged share of the world's pollution, allowing western countries to deindustrialise while still being able to maintain high material living standards.
We need to show empathy towards China, and its many very real challenges, enabling China to show empathy towards us. As a country, China has rarely invaded any territory outside of what it considers to be its present borders – although there still are border disputes with India. (While China never stayed in Korea or Vietnam as an occupying power, it does at present have excessive influence in Laos.) And, so far, it has shown itself to be pragmatic re the contentious status issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan. I was surprised at how long it took before China's non-democratic government to suppress Hong Kong's pro-democracy insurrection.
What are the choices? One is that the West tries to provoke a Chinese version of the Arab Spring – not a very promising precedent – and the other is to continue on a pragmatic course of mutual tolerance, empathy, diplomacy and interdependence.
Further, we remember that – in past conflicts – people have been widely interned based on their ethnicity (including New Zealand's appalling treatment, in World War 1, of New Zealanders of German heritage). Once impassioned, we are unlikely to distinguish 'China' from 'Chinese'. The scapegoating of nations leads to the scapegoating of people of particular ethnicities and faiths. The West is already seeing far too much anti-Chinese sentiment.
Misplaced western moralism endangers world peace (tenuous at the best of times) and cooperation. We should be careful what we wish for when we demonise China. 120 years ago, the process of mutual demonisation between the 'Great Powers' was a slow burner. The eventual tragedy was well beyond what anyone expected, or wanted. Stuff happens.
Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.