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China as Phantom

“America is a land without ghosts.”—Fi Xiaotong

By Christina M. Qiu, Contributing Opinion Writer

Modern China is to the American right what modern France is to American left—a fantasy. The love is gilded in the politically-correct hatred, fear, and targeting of China, as Stephen K. Bannon characterized the country in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” as “the real enemy,” its people as “the most rational people in the world, until they’re not,” and its government as having “taken total advantage of [the United States].” And I say this appearance is love because rhetoric on China is by nature defeatist—China seems both too old and too big to fail. To target China, as Bannon does, is to target nothing, as the country counters all expectations, holding an economy that thrives inexplicably on investment over innovation—a model of growth Trump would wish was applicable to the United States. There is no wall to build. China is where the second Eiffel tower resides without consent of the original. An ethnostate so insular Google has its own knockoff. The home of a president and a billion countrymen who embrace traditionalism as a brother. While Bannon wanted to evolve former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” to cultural, trade, and diplomatic war, Trump recently announced tariffs on Chinese solar panels, predicted to significantly increase the cost of going green. American liberals mourn the loss of our country; news outlets tentatively crown China as our inevitable successor. We seem unable to hurt China without hurting ourselves.

But, as reflected in most intersections of policy and culture, an awkward dichotomy exists: Despite political friction, the connection between China and the American right has never been more public. China grows as the United States halts, representing both threat and opportunity for escapism. The New York Times published a widely-cited op-ed entitled “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish”, reconciling apparent contradiction between the racist ideology and Asian girlfriends of many major alt-right figures with an excessive buy-in to racial stereotypes, such as the model minority and exotification. In response to the NYT piece, other Asian-American writers stated that Lim’s analysis was incomplete, conveniently leaving out women’s agency. The truth, they argued, citing interviews with major alt-right figures including Vietnamese-American Tila Tequila, was more sinister—Asian countries represented the ethnostate and isolationism alt-righters desired for America. Its women were seen as products of seeming utopias, which was, for the women, a relief from the left’s characterization as political novices. The Atlantic cited a forum user in an article entitled “Why China Loves Trump,” who stated that today’s Democratic Party reminded him of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese opinion exists outside the realm of American respectability, as Trumpism—in strange but convincing logics—is equated to communism and Trump’s billionaire status is seen as commonplace. All of which works to place Asian-Americans, of whom 79 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, in an awkward position. The irony asserts itself here: Very few administrations have centered on anti-China rhetoric the way Trump’s has, and very few electorates have loved Asia so much.

As the American child of Chinese immigrants, I have never loved China. There was simply no incentive to do so. On a local level, China seemed “uncool.” I had never used, or wished to use, my Chineseness as a form of social capital. On a larger level, my parents stayed in America to leave China. I was too close to a large something to claim to know, let alone love, it. On an even larger level, America’s categorization of China was always grotesque, both too neoconservative and neoliberal, too communist and capitalist, too different and radically boring. American messaging about China was in contention. The results: inconclusive. Conversations on China veered too existentially because China challenged the myth of our exceptionalism through its exoticism, communism, and radicalism. The parents on TV watched TV, ate turkey, and did drugs with college friends; my parents survived the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The current categorization of China by figures of the American right as economically parasitic and Asia as socially ideal is a continuation of America’s ambivalence, though both extremes are enlarged. Perspectives on China’s potential rise to power is, instead, a litmus test on how should America be, especially because China’s growth may be simply its process of development, an application of declining marginal productivity. Economist Paul R. Krugman stated Chinese people consume too little to maintain economic health; vice chairman of Citigroup Peter R. Orszag stated that China may be near its Lewis point, at the brink of significant economic challenges. China’s soft power is weak; few countries run to its aid when it is not armed with an economic bat.

Bannon’s rhetoric may perhaps best be seen as strategic play. By targeting an enemy as large as China with threats as grand as economic warfare, he appeals to Trump’s hawkish electorate without consigning himself to action, perhaps knowing full well the fallibility of his plan. The puzzle is less interesting for the alt-right that Bannon himself calls “losers”; its praise of Asia is simple investment in the incorrect view of homogeneity as success.

China best represents to the American right both its dream and its apocalypse. Asia is, of course, growing, but its growth is not threatening by nature. Freud’s death instinct is perhaps the best explanation of the right’s insistence on China’s growth as an important future factor in America’s demise. By articulating its death, the collective finds its drive to survive.

Christina M. Qiu ’19 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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