A flurry of recent newspaper articles have denounced what they describe as Chinese imperialism. Such texts are part of a new Cold War media blitz against China that simultaneously serves U.S. imperialism by blessing it or denying that it exists.
Last month, the Washington Post (2/15/22) ran an opinion piece by David Von Drehle claiming that, “in a sense, the alliance of democracies” (by which he means the U.S. and its partners) fell “into a fitful sleep” at the end of the Cold War. “What began as a happy dream of perpetual peace,” he contended, “changed in recent years to a nightmare,” featuring “Communist empire-building in China.”
The notion that there was a “happy dream of perpetual peace at the end of the Cold War” that only recently became a nightmare because of international bad guys like China suggests that Von Drehle himself has been not merely snoozing but comatose. Just as the Cold War ended, the American empire killed thousands of civilians in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm (FAIR.org, 10/28/21). U.S.-led imperialism spent much of the rest of the decade prosecuting a war against the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, ultimately helping to take the country apart (Monthly Review, 10/07).
Before the tenth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demise, the U.S. was attacking Afghanistan (Jacobin, 9/11/21), and less than two years after that it was carrying out an invasion of Iraq that would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians (Jacobin, 6/19/14). That period, which Von Drehle regards as a favorable one in global affairs, was quite the “nightmare” for the millions on the wrong end of American bombs and bullets.
Perhaps the author is worried that China might start doing to other countries what the U.S. routinely does, even though China has not, at any point in its modern history, committed an international crime comparable to any one of those that the U.S. enacted in the years immediately after the Cold War—or in the years since, in countries like Libya (Jacobin, 9/2/13) and Syria (New York Times, 11/13/21; FAIR.org, 4/20/18; Electronic Intifada, 3/16/17).
‘A semi-peripheral country’
Many academics who study Chinese foreign policy are reluctant to reduce China’s position in the world economy to that of “empire-building.” For example, Minqi Li of the University of Utah (Monthly Review, 7–8/21) writes:
The currently available evidence does not support the argument that China has become an imperialist country in the sense that China belongs to the privileged small minority that exploits the great majority of the world population. On the whole, China continues to have an exploited position in the global capitalist division of labor and transfers more surplus value to the core (historical imperialist countries) than it receives from the periphery. However, China’s per capita GDP has risen to levels substantially above the peripheral income levels and, in terms of international labor transfer flows, China has established exploitative relations with nearly half of the world population (including Africa, South Asia and parts of East Asia). Therefore, China is best considered a semi-peripheral country in the capitalist world system.
Claudio Katz (Life on the Left, 9/6/21), the Argentine academic, argues that China is a “potential” empire: It “appropriates surpluses from the underdeveloped economies,” but its approach to the military dimension of geopolitics has been to act defensively. He writes:
In contrast to the United States, England or France, China’s capitalists are not accustomed to calling on the political-military intervention of their state when they confront difficulties in their international business. They have no tradition of invasions or coups when confronted by countries that nationalize companies or suspend debt payment. No one knows how quickly the Chinese state will or will not adopt those imperialist habits.
Such level-headed analyses complicate Von Drehle’s simplistic assertions, which could be why he leaves them out of the conversation.
‘Imperialism on the march in the East’
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed (1/13/22), Robert D. Kaplan described Western imperialism as a feature of the past, rather than a present reality, three times. “Intellectuals can’t stop denouncing the West for its legacy of imperialism,” the piece began. “But the imperialism on the march today is in the East.” He went on to claim that “unlike Western countries, which are busy apologizing for their former conquests, the Chinese…take pride in their imperial legacies.” The article ended with Kaplan’s assertion that “the American left should focus on where empire as an ideal truly endures, which isn’t in the West.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. empire “truly endures” in the approximately 750 military bases it has in at least 80 countries (Al Jazeera, 9/10/21). China, by contrast, has just one overseas military base (Foreign Policy, 7/7/21).
A puerile cartoon accompanied Kaplan’s piece, and it too denied contemporary American imperialism: A pair of giant octopuses are standing on a chessboard shaking hands. One octopus is covered in the red and yellow stars of China’s flag, the other in Russian colors; they’re holding all of the chess pieces, while a much smaller Uncle Sam looks on without any. The United States, in other words, is a powerless bystander with no holdings in the imperial great game.
The U.S. spends more on its military than any other country, accounting for 39% of all global military expenditure in 2020, and dramatically outpaces China in this regard, especially in per capita terms: In 2020, the U.S. spent an estimated $778 billion on its armed forces, and China allocated an estimated $252 billion to its military (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 4/26/21)—$2,365 for each US citizen vs. $180 for each citizen of China.
Similarly, Washington and its Western allies’ grip on the global financial system demonstrates that Western imperialism is chugging along. The U.S. dollar is the global reserve currency (Atlantic, 9/6/21), not the yuan. The US and its partners are in control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Al Jazeera, 11/26/20)—rather consequential chess pieces—while China doesn’t dominate any institution of global economics or governance of similar magnitude. Amid these conditions, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, Korea and the rich economies of Europe—most of which are “in the West”—have drained $152 trillion dollars from the Global South since 1960 (Al Jazeera, 5/6/21).
‘No longer the imperialism of the West’
Simon Tisdall of the Guardian (12/12/21) sounded a similar note in his article on “China’s New Age of Imperialism.” Like Kaplan, he referred to U.S. imperialism in the past tense:
Imperialism, in all its awful forms, still poses a threat. But it is no longer the imperialism of the West, rightly execrated and self-condemned. Today’s threat emanates from the East. Just as objectionable, and potentially more dangerous, it’s the prospect of a totalitarian 21st-century Chinese global empire.
That Western imperialism is apparently “no longer” a threat will undoubtedly come as a relief to Afghans. Their country is on the brink of famine, with U.S. sanctions effectively ensuring that Afghanistan can’t be fed (New York Times, 12/4/21):
Such widespread hunger is the most devastating sign of the economic crash that has crippled Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. Practically overnight, billions of dollars in foreign aid that propped up the previous Western-backed government vanished and U.S. sanctions on the Taliban isolated the country from the global financial system, paralyzing Afghan banks and impeding relief work by humanitarian organizations.
When Tisdall wasn’t erasing American attempts to starve millions of people, he was inflating alleged Chinese threats to America, writing:
U.S. media reported last week that the port city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea could become China’s first Atlantic seaboard naval base—potentially putting warships and submarines within striking distance of America’s East Coast. It is said to be considering an island airbase in Kiribati that could in theory threaten Hawaii. Meanwhile, it continues to militarize atolls in the South China Sea.
Yet the U.S. having bases that put it “within striking distance” of China isn’t just a theoretical possibility: The U.S. military already has nearly 300 military bases spread across East Asia, with seven more in nearby Australia. In September, the U.S., Britain and Australia announced a new military alliance aimed at China, which will involve a further military buildup (Salon, 10/28/21).
Tisdall reduced the militarization of the South China Sea to a simplistic tale of a belligerent Chinese empire, rather than discussing these and other contexts, such as RIMPAC, a biennial U.S.-led naval maneuver. RIMPAC is the world’s largest maritime exercise and functions as a show of force to China, which was disinvited from the festivities in 2018 (Washington Post, 8/17/20). Similarly, the U.S. routinely sends naval ships through the South China Sea (CNN, 5/20/21), a move that antagonizes China about as much as Chinese vessels sailing through the Gulf of Mexico would upset the U.S.
Even though Tisdall repeatedly denied that American imperialism is ongoing, near the end of the article he acknowledged that the U.S. has vastly more global power than China: “By key measures—the number of overseas bases, alliances, military strike-power—America still greatly outstrips China’s regime.” He then changed his earlier opposition to “imperialism, in all its awful forms,” asserting that the U.S. “greatly outstrips” China “in terms of respect for human values and rights.”
Yet weeks before Tisdall’s article, UNICEF reported that 10,000 Yemeni children have been killed in the war on the country, which the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and which the U.S. fuels and has fueled from the start (In These Times, 11/22/21; Middle East Eye, 11/17/17). The U.S. has likewise demonstrated its disrespect for “human values and rights” by using its control of the international financial system to levy sanctions against Venezuela that, according to an estimate from two US economists, killed approximately 40,000 Venezuelans between August 2017 and April 2019 (CEPR, 4/25/19). No contemporary Chinese foreign policy is responsible for nearly as much suffering.
To try to prove that China is the world’s foremost imperial threat, the coverage also points to China’s relations with Taiwan, and to its treatment of peoples living in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau. This aspect of the argument is odd, in that imperialism, in its contemporary usage, tends to refer to international relations. For instance, Tisdall (Guardian, 12/12/21) says Chinese state repression of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, or of residents of Hong Kong, amount to Xi acting like “a latter-day Roman emperor,” a plank in the writer’s assertion that China has less “respect for human values and rights” than the U.S. empire.
While there is evidence of significant human rights violations in both places, Tisdall provides no basis for believing that China has less of a claim to them than the U.S.—or its close settler-colonial allies, such as Canada, Australia or New Zealand—does to Indigenous lands seized by European invaders from thousands of miles of way, or that China has done so in an even more brutal fashion.
Like Tisdall, Kaplan (Wall Street Journal, 1/13/22) calls Hong Kong and Macau part of China’s “imperial geography,” a peculiar way to describe two regions returned to China by Western imperial powers: Britain gave back Hong Kong in 1997, and Portugal did the same with Macau in 1999. The author also writes that Xinjiang and Tibet “represent colonial legacies of former Qing rule,” which is one way of saying that China has had authority over Xinjiang since the 18th century (BBC, 9/26/14). As for Tibet, Robert Barnett (NPR, 4/11/08), director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, says that “Tibet has never been considered independent by major players on the world stage.”
Kaplan also points to Chinese saber-rattling against Taiwan. The latter has many of the trappings of a state, but only 13 countries regard it as an independent nation (New York Times, 12/10/21).
None of this is to suggest that China should resolve the Taiwan question militarily. Nor is to endorse Chinese policies in Macau, Hong Kong, Tibet or Xinjiang. The point is that authors like Tisdall and Kaplan are playing fast and loose with history and international law, and applying wildly unequal standards that cast China as an evil empire and the United States as alternately a benign empire or not an empire at all.
These recent articles are part of a longer-term trend across much of the corporate media. Last summer, a Slate article (7/14/21) maintained:
Beijing is capable of perpetuating imperialism in its own right. One case in point is the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive program of investments and infrastructure projects abroad. Designed to overcome China’s own overproduction dilemma at a time of stagnating wages and inadequate domestic demand, it targets developing countries in the region with extraterritorial legal arrangements, debt-trap diplomacy and, unsurprisingly, environmental exploitation.
The authors aren’t the only ones in corporate media to make this claim about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Washington Post, 8/27/18). While BRI can give China leverage over borrowers, there is academic research that calls into question whether BRI amounts to imperialism: For example, Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire (Atlantic, 2/6/21), of Johns Hopkins University and Harvard, respectively, studied BRI and disputed the charge that it is a form of “modern-day colonialism.” “Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country,” they noted.
In 2020, a Wall Street Journal op-ed (10/1/20) characterized BRI as “imperial overreach,” citing Africa and Latin America as examples. Justin Podur (FAIR.org, 1/31/22) recently demonstrated that there is no convincing analogy between China’s policies in Africa and those of European empires, and it’s equally rich for the leading U.S. financial paper to accuse another country of imperialism in Latin America. Katz (Life on the Left, 9/6/21), noting the “overwhelming intrusion of the U.S. embassies” in Latin America, points out that “China is miles away from any such encroachment”: “Profiting from the sale of manufactured goods and the purchase of raw materials is not the same as sending the Marines, training police and financing coups d’état.”
Two months before the Journal essay, a Newsweek article (8/31/20) claimed that
Xi is now openly promoting imperial-era views that the Chinese emperor had the right and obligation to rule tianxia, or “all under heaven,” thereby suggesting China should now be considered the world’s only sovereign state.
It would be remarkable if Xi said that China should rule “all under heaven,” or be the “world’s only sovereign state,” but the author provides no source to that effect, and I can find no evidence that Xi has. While U.S. leaders don’t say that they think the United States should “be considered the world’s only sovereign state,” the power the U.S. has secured for itself comes closer than that of anyone else. While Washington’s leaders don’t say that they think the United States should “be considered the world’s only sovereign state,” the power it has secured for itself brings the U.S. government much closer to having that type of authority than any other state.
Instead of carefully considering the implications of China’s rise for the rest of the world, these articles have opted to whip up xenophobia against the country while also glossing over—if not outright cheering—U.S. imperialism.