IN 1979 America’s then president, Jimmy Carter, met Deng Xiaoping in Washington for talks about how to restore normal diplomatic relations between their two countries, which had been frozen since the Communist takeover of China 30 years earlier. Dutifully, Carter raised a human-rights concern. He asked that China lift its virtual ban on people going abroad. “How many Chinese nationals do you want?” Deng is said to have quipped. “Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million?”
Deng knew that he could play on American fears of a tidal wave of Chinese immigrants. He was ready to open China’s doors, but only gradually—the Communist Party was still afraid of letting its people see the West’s prosperity, and democracy’s success, for themselves. What a different world it is today, and what a different China. Last year the country recorded 130m exits by its citizens from the Chinese mainland. By the end of the decade the number is expected to exceed 200m. Around 600,000 Chinese are studying abroad, mostly at Western universities, more than four times as many as a decade ago.
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This huge movement of people has been a boon for the rest of the world (see our special report in this week’s issue). Producers of luxury goods would be lost without Chinese travellers: their total annual spend abroad is twice that of Americans. The giants of Silicon Valley would not be as successful without Chinese talent, often educated at Western universities. And as for those universities, where would many of them be without Chinese students’ fees? How would their scientific research fare without the Chinese PhD students who are so numerous in their laboratories?
In China, officials’ worries about letting people go abroad have largely faded (except when it comes to Tibetans and Uighurs, who, they fear, might link up with separatist or terrorist movements). Yet in the West the kind of anxieties that Deng pulled Carter’s leg about are widespread. Migrants are often blamed for stealing jobs and pushing up house prices. Students are often portrayed by the media and politicians as stooges of their government, bent on curbing academic freedom. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, recently shocked Chinese-Americans by referring to a “whole-of-society threat” posed by China to his country, requiring a “whole-of-society response”. Some of his concerns are justified. Such sweeping language is not.
The Chinese are coming
The world has seen this kind of racially tinged fear before in the face of a rising power. In the 1980s it was Japan that scared Americans. Japanese companies were buying up trophy assets from New York to Los Angeles. Japanese cars were everywhere (prompting Henry Ford, of the motor company of that name, to warn of an “economic Pearl Harbour”). In 1989 this newspaper decried what it called an “anti-Japanese wind” that was “howling through the corridors of power” in Washington. The American establishment, it said, was “itching to reinvent the yellow peril”. So too were members of the public. Asian-American groups complained of rising hostility targeted at ethnic Japanese (as well as others of East-Asian ethnicity, by mistake).
Some of the language of that period, before Japan’s economy slumped in the 1990s, is being revived today in descriptions of Asia’s new economic giant, China. This is not only happening in America. In recent months a new book in Australia has fuelled debate about the Chinese government’s covert efforts to wield influence there, partly by manipulating members of the large and growing Chinese diaspora. Its title conveys a febrile mood: “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia”. In March some of Australia’s most noted scholars of China wrote an open letter in which they accused their government of overreacting to anxieties by introducing new legislation to counter foreign interference. Australia, they said, was “witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”.
At least in the 1980s it was easy to spot the problem. It was reasonable to criticise Japan for its mercantilism, but clearly wrong to portray a democracy and an American ally as a threat to America’s way of life. With China the picture is more complex. The Communist Party does act abroad in ways that violate democratic principles. It threatens critics and even sends agents to haul them back to China. And when Westerners protest about China’s thuggish efforts to exert influence abroad (and, yes, to persuade members of the diaspora to act as the party’s cheerleaders), it accuses them of racism. What better way of silencing liberals than to threaten them with that label?
But China may sometimes have a point. There is a real danger that careless rhetoric such as Mr Wray’s will ignite the same kind of bigotry that was once targeted at Japan and serve only to confuse a vital debate about China’s global behaviour. Anti-Chinese racism, after all, has a long history in the West. American laws dating back to the 19th century barred ethnic Chinese from gaining American citizenship and Chinese labourers from entering the country. Canada followed with its own restrictions on Chinese immigration (in 1923 it almost entirely banned Chinese from entering). When Australia became independent in 1901 it adopted a “White Australia” approach to immigration that limited entry by migrants of colour. The main point was to prevent an influx of Chinese. America and Canada did not scrap their Chinese exclusion laws until the 1940s. White Australia remained the policy until the 1970s.
Across the West ethnic Chinese suffer discrimination. A study in 2009 by academics from the universities of Hull and Leeds as well as Nottingham Trent University found that Chinese in Britain were exposed to “higher levels of racism” than many other minority groups. Also in 2009 voters in Prato, a city in northern Italy, elected a mayor who had campaigned on a platform of repelling a “Chinese invasion”. He was referring to the migrants (many of them illegal) working in Prato’s clothing factories. In 2016 thousands of Chinese took to the streets in Paris following a spate of violent attacks on their ethnic kin, which they accused the police of ignoring.
There is a problem with the behaviour of the Chinese state in the world, but not with the presence abroad of so many of its people. Western politicians and media must be careful to stress this. Most Chinese who go abroad sooner or later will return; graduates are doing so in record numbers. If their experience in the West was unpleasant, they are hardly likely to champion its liberal values back home.