The latest round of China-bashing in the global media should be contextualized as part of a persistent pattern in which Western politicians, journalists and opinion leaders contend with the growing fear of a “yellow peril.”
In the US, the first manifestation of anti-Chinese sentiment occurred in the mid-19th century, when vast numbers of Chinese immigrants were imported as miners during the gold rush in California (1848 to 1855), and later as cheap laborers in the construction of the first transcontinental railway (1863 to 1869).
Sinophobia reached a peak in the legislation of the US Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), aimed at prohibiting further Chinese immigration.
The second phrase of xenophobia took place in the 1930s, when Japan flooded the US market with countless labor-intensive goods, especially US$1 blouses and jackets that appealed to working-class people.
As Japan recovered from the World War II and emerged as a leading industrial power, it sold cheap automobiles, TVs and other electronic products to consumers worldwide. By the 1980s, this had provoked fear in the US of Japan as an economic competitor.
The ongoing US-China trade war feeds off the anxieties provoked by China’s rise to dominance: China’s trade expansion worldwide has revealed that many developed and developing countries are unable to absorb its excess production.
When Chinese companies export to all corners of the globe, they take over the existing local markets from other countries and create new markets for themselves.
The new markets developed are not necessarily the old markets lost, which creates a win-win scenario in an ideal free-trade environment.
China’s phenomenal growth is unprecedented in modern history, but this success has worried some business sectors in the US and Europe that are finding it hard to come to grips with the cutthroat competition.
The volatility has given rise to calls for protectionist measures in Washington.
Against this backdrop, US President Donald Trump has announced a series of tariffs on Chinese products, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has responded with a list of retaliatory countermeasures.
The timing of these changes in the international economy is not favorable to China.
As the US dollar rises and people worldwide seek refuge in the dollar, monetary chaos in Asia might be inevitable.
Because more Chinese entrepreneurs and citizens are selling yuan and buying dollars, China has imposed an exchange quota to maintain its foreign currency reserves and stop capital from leaving the country.
This means that Chinese citizens now are only permitted to convert US$50,000 per year.
As non-compliant as it looks, Beijing has adopted a wait-and-see approach before the US midterm elections in November.
However, Trump has injected a great deal of uncertainty into the trade disputes and both superpowers do not seem to have an exit strategy in place in case they reach an impasse.
It is unclear whether China will offer generous subsidies to hundreds of thousands of labor-intensive factories in the Pearl River Delta to help them stay competitive, and whether it will pull the massive funds of its state-owned enterprises out of US real estate and stock markets in favor of investment in domestic industries.
Whoever holds the power in Washington after November, China still has to confront economic setbacks and sociopolitical crises in the coming months.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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