First, it was the fear of Japan
In the mid-1980s, the movie “Black Rain” was released. The plot began in the United States, with two policemen caught in an internal war within the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The plot follows the two policemen’s journey to Japan with the suspect and his extradition to the local police.
The film rode on the American fear of a Japanese takeover of the American economy. In the 1980s, this fear dominated the political atmosphere of the United States as Japan grew stronger.
In the end, the American fear passed after it became clear that with all due respect to Japan, even with its technological power and determination, it still posed no risk to the United States.
At that time, China had only begun its first steps towards recovery and was not yet a threat or force to be considered. Since then a lot of water has flowed in the Yangtze River and China has become one of the world’s strongest and largest powers with the ambition to take first place.
China and the World – Reasons for Fear
The first immediate answer to the question is: People are afraid of China because people are afraid of what is strange and different from them.
Chinese are very different from Western culture. Chinese are different in appearance and their language is incomprehensible. This is not the same as comparing the differences between Spain and England, for example.
The difference is much deeper and is expressed in almost every possible aspect. The differences between Spain and England are minor in comparison because both belong to the same Western civilization and both derive from the same roots.
Still, do Westerners fear the Indians, just as they fear the Chinese?
The answer is no.
Indians are also completely different from Western culture, including language, appearance, and food. So why do the Chinese scare the Westerners more?
To understand this, let’s begin with the trivial reasons.
The Chinese look very different from how Westerners look. Many Westerners cannot tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. For them, they are all slanting.
Moreover, when the average Western person sees a group of Chinese for the first time, he will find it difficult to distinguish between them. Later, if he gets to know them, he will differentiate. But at first sight, everyone looks the same.
On one of my visits to Bangkok, after a year of living in Taiwan, I remember sitting in a cafe on Khao San Street in Bangkok, looking at all the blond young Westerners, and suddenly they all seemed the same to me.
I received this perspective after a year of living with Taiwanese people.
When you cannot tell the difference between people, you are less sensitive to their facial expressions, which naturally leads to distance, alienation, and fear.
A Westerner who speaks only one language will feel comfortable in other Western countries even if one does not speak their language. The main reasons for this are the basic letters and similarities of the languages that originate from Latin.
The letters of English are common to almost all Western languages, so even if you do not understand what is being said, you can still partially understand what was written.
And even when one does not speak the language, there are still words that ring in a similar way and allow partial understanding.
None of this exists in the Chinese language. Everything, including words, pronunciation, syllables, and letters are completely different and completely incomprehensible. There is no way to understand anything.
The inability to understand is also an inability to communicate; the inability to communicate increases the sense of alienation and engenders fear.
Western countries are all part of Christian culture. There are Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican, but among them, there is a common cultural denominator, which is expressed in various ceremonies, holidays, and customs.
For example, the new year of the western countries is celebrated exactly on the same date, according to the solar (Gregorian) calendar while the Chinese new year is celebrated according to the lunar calendar.
Beyond Christianity, there is a common history (even if hostile), common values and the same regime (in most Western countries).
Chinese culture is different.
Chinese ethos is not related to the West in any way. A formative event like the French Revolution, for the Chinese, is meaningless in terms of direct historical influence. Chinese beliefs, Taoism, Confucian tradition, and Chinese history are all very different from those of the West.
The lack of cultural identity is almost absolute, and it also creates distance and alienation that leads to fear.
The cultural aspect, of course, affects the rules of everyday behavior and things that are accepted as acceptable in the West (such as appealing to a young person over an adult) are perceived as totally unacceptable in Chinese culture and vice versa.
Thus, tourists and businessmen who come to China are lost in the thicket of Chinese etiquette rules. They do not understand what is permitted, what is forbidden, what is considered acceptable, and what is perceived as offensive behavior.
The inability to understand the etiquette in China also produces a sense of alienation that leads to fear.
Chinese cuisine is one of the richest in the world. The number of dishes and options is inconceivable. There is a wide diversity of Chinese cuisines across the different areas of China.
If you visit a Western country like Italy, England, France, Spain, the United States, and other Western countries, you will find similar food in different versions, in different restaurants.
In other words, there is diversity and different types of food, but there is a certain homogeneity that characterizes the local cuisine in each country.
In addition, the ability of the foreign visitor to understand the menu is easy. Even if the menu is written in a foreign language to the visitor.
In China, however, the variety of dishes is significantly larger than the number of dishes in Western countries. In many Chinese restaurants, the menu is in Chinese, making the visitor completely dependent on hosts.
But that’s the easy part of the food.
The hardest part is related to some of the dishes. The practice of eating dogs in southern China, with the rather shocking sight of barking and howling dogs in cages waiting to be slaughtered, gives rise to very harsh feelings among Westerners and reinforces in many of them the concept of Chinese “cruelty.”
Although, for those who eat a cow or pork, what is the essential difference?
Personally, I am a vegetarian, and I understand the lack of logic in the different attitudes towards cows, pigs, and dogs, but one cannot ignore the fact that it is very emotional and the treatment of dogs in the West is very different from that of cows and pigs.
Beyond these factors, which can cause a sense of alienation and fear, there are various factors related to China’s standing in the world and its strategic ambitions.
Chinese economic growth
Until the early 1990s, most Western countries were not troubled by China. In the reign of Mao Zedong, China went from bad to worse and posed no threat to Western countries and certainly not a threat to the superpowers.
With the rise of Deng Xiaoping, China began its miraculous recovery and enormous potential has already begun to be understood.
At a fairly rapid rate, China took over all the low-tech industries and became the world’s largest manufacturer. Chinese growth led to the destruction of entire industries in Western countries, but of course, it did not stop there.
China did not plan to remain a workshop for Western countries. China has begun to build more sophisticated technological industries.
Knowledge for these industries was not always achieved through the most acceptable methods, which aroused great hostility and concern among Western countries who feared that their technology would leak to China.
The economic boom was also translated into accelerated construction of infrastructure, in an unprecedented scope in the world with great feats and accomplishments such as skyscrapers, trains, airports, dams, and more.
The Chinese have gained economic power that has been translated into military and political power.
China, in an attempt to satisfy its inexhaustible hunger for resources, began to spread economically toward Africa and South America, investing in infrastructure and mines to ensure the continued flow of resources to its growing industry.
The Chinese did not seek to strengthen for the sake of strengthening but to realize a long-term strategy.
In its own view, China sees itself as the central power of the world. It is not yet there but they want to get there. This aspiration is already a threat to some Western countries that are concerned about the Chinese regime and their inability to understand and communicate with it in much the same way that they communicate with each other.
Of course, the United States feels that it is the country most threatened by China’s expansionist ambitions because unlike other countries, the United States is militarily deployed all over the world, including East Asia.
China is not only aspiring to become the number one superpower in the world but is working strategically to get there.
In recent years, China launched two mega-projects. One is a global bank (AAIB – Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) that competes with the Western World Bank.
China has established an investment bank that provides loans, without restrictions, to countries that in some cases, could not receive them from the Western World Bank.
That is, when the World Bank gives a loan, it places conditions such as economic reforms or government reforms. China places an alternative. It does not require reforms and thus addresses a large group of countries that do not meet the criteria of the World Bank or are not interested in meeting them.
Dozens of countries have joined the World Bank of China in a competitive situation and an alternative to the Western World Bank.
The second mega-project is The Belt and Road Initiative, probably the largest project in human history. China is rebuilding the ancient Silk Road, by land and by sea.
It connects itself with countries in the Middle East and Europe by establishing infrastructures such as seaports, airports, railways. For this purpose, China provides loans to countries that are unable to finance these huge projects in their territory.
The loans, as noted above, can be given without asking too many questions. But if there is a country that cannot repay the loan, as in the case of Sri Lanka, the payment is made by leasing the infrastructure to China for many years.
Of course, it gives the Chinese strategic power and great leverage which arouses great concern in India, since Sri Lanka is like its backyard.
I think it is possible to understand how this all arouses great concern among Western countries and people.
Is there any reason for this fear?
I’m not sure.
When the Chinese finish the project, hundreds of millions of people living in the area will be able to enjoy these infrastructures. Transportation will be faster, safer, and more efficient.
The Chinese interest, of course, is to allow for faster goods transportation that will improve the competitiveness of Chinese manufacturers, which is a completely legitimate interest.
China’s economic power is also reflected in the realization of expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea. The Chinese claim about the South China Sea has been around for many years and has been anchored in Chinese law.
The problem is that the Chinese claim collides with other claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan. The Chinese do not take into consideration the claims of the countries located on the shores of the South China Sea and are taking steps to take over the sea.
Over the last decade, the Chinese have invested great efforts in building military bases in different parts of the South China Sea.
The Philippines filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice in Hague and won, but it did not impress the Chinese, who said they ignored the ruling.
The Chinese do not put their hands on the plate and invest huge sums in developing their army and technological capabilities to challenge the US, or even become better.
Meanwhile, the tension in the region is increasing because of the American determination to preserve freedom of navigation and aviation in areas China claims territorial ownership.
Will there be a war between China and the US over the South China Sea? I do not think so, but things can get out of control.
There is no doubt that South China and the news coming from the region also contributes to the concerns and fears about China.
China and Taiwan
Many people in the West do not know the history of China and Taiwan and regard them as two different countries, where China is threatening and Taiwan is threatened.
Also, many people refer to conflicts between countries in the most superficial manner and take the side that seems weaker to them, regardless of the justice of the matter.
This superficial perception of the China-Taiwan conflict sees China as an aggressive country trying to take over Taiwan, a smaller and weaker independent state.
Of course, here too, the result is a fear of China’s expansionist ambitions.
China is not a democratic country. It’s no secret. Even more, it seems that President Xi Jinping is tightening the hold on power in the country. The attitude towards human rights, individual freedom, and freedom of speech is different from Western perception.
Tiananmen Square events are still etched in Western memory.
Are people in China afraid? fearful? living in terror?
I do not pretend to know 1.3 billion Chinese, and certainly not to know all of China, but my feelings from many visits in China were good.
It’s really a subjective experience but it’s my experience. The feeling is that there is a great deal of freedom. In quite a few cases, they talked to me about politics and asked my opinion about China. I felt that the people I met, as part of business trips, were not afraid but were living their lives.
But for Westerners who have not visited China, they see China through the media prism that cannot convey these feelings and experiences, especially when it focuses on the difficult things, naturally.
Google, YouTube, and Facebook
The Chinese government is unwilling to accept any social networks that cannot be supervised. They are afraid of a political association that will lead to unrest and rebellion in the communist party.
So, China blocked the use of Google, YouTube, and Facebook. The Chinese have alternatives like WeChat (sort of combination of Facebook and WhatsApp), Baidu, and other platforms.
Foreigners who use their own mobile can log in to Google, YouTube, and Facebook via the G3/4 system but not via WiFi unless they are in the hotel. At least, this was my experience in China.
Here again, it’s understood, how these decisions and actions by the Chinese government can increase the concerns and fears of western people.
I have listed many reasons that can lead the average person in the West to be afraid of China.
Much of the fear of China, and perhaps the central part of the fear, stems from the lack of understanding and lack of familiarity with Chinese culture, and especially the lack of familiarity with the Chinese themselves.
I lived in Taiwan for a year and a half and visited China many times during the last 15 years. I have come to know, appreciate, and love this rich culture.
From my point of view, business trips to China or tourist visits in China are much more enjoyable because of the human warmth, the interaction with the Chinese, warm hospitality, and generosity.
I would always prefer to travel to China rather than to travel to the United States or Europe. In terms of personal security, China is much safer than the big cities in the West.
You can go almost everywhere alone without fear. I do not think it’s possible to say that about London, Paris, or New York, cities with peripheral areas that visitors should not go into, either day or night.
I certainly think that some of the fears from China are justified, but personally, out of my intimate acquaintance with the Chinese and Chinese culture (which I see it as part of East Asian Cultures), I am optimistic about China.
I do not believe that China has any intention to launch a war, despite the occasional rhetorical statements made against the United States and Taiwan. All in all, this is a very calculated country, with a history of very few external wars.
Should the Chinese care about public fear in the West? In my opinion, the answer is yes! They should care for their own good. There are several reasons for this:
The Chinese economy cannot grow on the basis of Chinese consumption within China. In order to maintain steady growth, China needs the world market and the main consumption power of the global market is in the West. Hostile feelings are easily translated into an economic boycott, even if it is not declared.
Apart from the economic dependence on consumption in the West, China is dependent on a steady supply of minerals, which usually comes from countries where public opinion is not a factor with great influence.
But the weakness of local public opinion has the opposite effect. It is also less relevant for local governments that can be influenced relatively easily.
There can certainly be a situation, in the case of increased hostility between the Western powers and China, that they will try to strangle the supply of minerals to China.
Another economic aspect is tourism. China holds fourth place in the world in terms of tourism (after France, Spain, and the United States) with 61 million tourists. What prevents China from reaching 90 million or 100 million tourists (France is at the head with 87 million)?
The Political reason
The second reason is political. China aspires to a world leadership position. They are seeking the same type of political influence like the Europeans or Americans, that is, dictating their values and social perception, but they are also looking at other types of influence. Such an effect cannot be built in a hostile public environment.
The Cultural reason
The third reason is cultural. China aspires to cultural recognition. The proof is the establishment of more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. Cultural recognition cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of public hostility and alienation from China.
How can China improve the situation?
Assuming that the Communist Party does not decide to disperse and assuming that China continues to operate in the coming years as it is today, China must define the reduction of hostility in large parts of the Western public as a challenge.
Transparency – It is true that transparency is not the central value of the current regime, but if China can explain what guides it, where it is striving, its considerations, its vision (things that are much more transparent in the United States and Western countries without judging their willingness or quality) it could reach more people and lessen their apprehension.
Culture – China should act to spread Chinese culture through means other than Confucius Institutes which are academic oriented. Social networks provide endless possibilities for action that can turn the tables around.
Politically, of course, we can talk about Taiwan, Tibet, and the conflict in the South China Sea. But it takes things to a less realistic place. These are not topics that are going to change in China soon.
What China can do in this context is to explain itself. China has real and solid historical claims about Taiwan and Tibet. I do not pretend to be a legal expert who knows how to rule this way or that, but historically, there is a basis for China’s position.