Francis Moriarty: A new Red Scare over China?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — This column has previously warned that Americans' growing worry of China's rising economic strength, armed might and global projection of power could ignite a new "Red Scare" like the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts led by the late Senator Joe McCarthy.

That's because the political stars both here and abroad are aligning in a way that augurs badly indeed, as an aggregation of recent domestic and global developments shows.

Such a scare campaign may come far earlier than I had feared. It could even be imminent — and I have been joined in voicing worry over a renewed McCarthyism by no less than Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administraton.

Shirk, speaking in Beijing over the weekend and quoted in the South China Morning Post newspaper, warned that "an overeaction to China's perceived threat" by the U.S. "could turn into a McCarthyite Red Scare" that in turn would damage America's own interests.

Shirk, who handled China relations during the Clinton administration, says her "late night fear" is that concern over a perceived China threat could lead to a talent drain that would impede US innovation, as the world's two leading economies are inextricably linked.

"Right now there is a herding instinct in the U.S. that is taking us off the cliff with various forms of overreaction to China as a security threat, an intelligence threat, a spy threat, a technological threat, an influence threat," Shirk said at the Yenching Global Symposium at Peking University.

Shirk, now a research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, warned that rising anti-China sentiment could have damaging effects on the U.S.: "So many laboratories at my university depend on great Chinese students, and there are no substitutes for that right now.

"So that's going to be bad, and we make them feel unwelcome, not wanting to give them visas, won't let them work in the laboratories, so they will go elsewhere. That would really slow down America's own technological innovations."

Such developments, she warned, "could turn into an anti-China version of a McCarthyite Red Scare."

The herd that Shirk warns of has already been summoned.

President Donald Trump and his Republican loyalists have launched a smear campaign branding their Democratic Party opponents as "socialists" — an ideological harpoon targeted at anyone identified as progressive, which means nearly all of the Democratic Party hopefuls.

Never mind that barely a handful of Americans can define socialism, much less differentiate it from communism — Trump and his backers have no interest in subtleties. They relish seeing their opponents mired in explaining what they are not, rather than explaining what they are for.


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It's an easy electoral gambit. All it takes is to label opponents with derogatory descriptors — Pocahontas or Pencil-Neck — and it's like throwing meat to Trump's hardcore base. Also handy are tried-and-proven rhetorical slanders like big government, big labor, commie, pinko and, now, panda-hugger. Anti-China, anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments have a long history and such atavistic emotions are easy to play upon.

This is Trumpian territory. Having based his rise on an ascendant right-wing populism, and having gauged the appeal of Vermont's Senator Bernie Sanders, who is in fact a socialist, Trump has relied on his feral instinct — to stoke fear, belittle critics, and label rather than debate.     

China's actions are, unfortunately, playing into this game. Despite Beijing's efforts to dampen the trade-tariff dispute and give a show of helping the US with North Korea, its actions both within and without its borders give a very different impression.

When the noted China expert Perry Link described the Chinese government as an "anaconda in the chandelier," he referred to Beijing's efforts to create an atmosphere of fear within its own borders.

But in the 17 years since Professor Link coined that ominous metaphor, the Chinese anaconda has multiplied in size and irrevocably descended from from its perch. The rest of the world is now sense the ominous power that an "indeterminate grower" like a giant constrictor can selectively exert.

Today, President Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road" infrastructure initiative is expanding China's influence far beyond its borders — not entirely with welcome results. Chinese diplomatic, investment and military muscle are encircling the planet. The anaconda's peristaltic contractions — willed or involuntary, felt or observed — are reminders of the latent possibilities, and are creating reactions both worried and welcoming.

Speaking just after Xi's visit to Europe last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, warned that Chinese companies have free access to European markets, "but we do not have access to the markets in China." But it's about more than access.

Speaking just days after the Italian government became the only G-7 economy to sign up for Xi's Belt-and-Road blueprint, Juncker raised the thorniest of issues: human rights.

He said Beijing' sensitivity to any criticism of its rights record makes it increasingly difficult to have a unified European policy toward China.

"One country is unable to condemn China's human rights policy because Chinese investors are traveling in one of its ports.

"Another country cannot support the decision of the Geneva Human Rights Commission because Chinese investors are traveling somewhere on its territory. It can't work like this."

That might be what Juncker thinks, but the anoconda has its own mind.

Francis Moriarty is a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong, a public broadcaster, and has reported from across the Asian region.


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