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China Threat Narratives of the Past and Implications for Today

There is something about China that has captured the American imagination. China has become a fixture in the puzzle of the American national security landscape. While the perceived threat from China is more appropriately described as a flickering light over time, in moments of diminished threat, the US and China have attempted to share tokens of goodwill and even cooperation. The shifting between periods of hostility and strategic partnership in the Sino-American relationship over the past two and half centuries continues today. Like many junctures in the past, the question today is whether the American threat beacon will glow brighter as to how China is perceived or whether it will dim to a comfortable level similar to the 1970s. Looking at the historical threat narratives on China is helpful in contextualizing how China fits into the American threat picture today.

The Sino-American relationship toggles between moments of friend and enemy or supporter and detractor in the diplomatic, economic, military, and even national sentiment spheres. For example, moments of diplomatic or cultural niceties have occurred at state dinners as well as moments of global unity such as the Olympics while at the same time cyber angling or South China Sea arguments are in full swing. The vacillation confounds the casual observer and is indicative of a larger, often disjointed, relationship. There is certainly a level of frenemy that characterizes the relationship.

The oft-used moniker of China as a frenemy in a historical context is illustrated during the late 19th Century when Americans on the East Coast were enamored at the prospect of helping Christianize China, while on the West Coast, job-loss fearing Americans were mobbing Chinese immigrants and sending them back to China. During the early 20th Century the US Government sided with China over its key Asian ally Japan while at the same time officially prohibiting Chinese from immigrating to the US. Even when the 1930s saw high levels of American funding going to the Chinese Nationalist Government and Chiang Kai-shek Pew polls show significant American support for China against Japan although the US national exclusion law against Chinese immigration remained in place well into the mid-1940s.

Today the relationship is not materially different. The US and China are each other’s largest trading partners. China holds considerable US debt and China remains a vital market for US growth. While China continues to test the cyber limits against the US and seize land in the Pacific, the US refrains from taking significant military action. Moreover, Presidents Obama and Trump have employed an inconsistent policy towards China with harsh words for President Xi one day and then hosting State Dinners and acting as if Sino-American relations were at their apogee the next day. To put it simply, the US does not know if China is a friend or enemy.

Even the creation of cultural generalizations – ethnocentric views – about the Chinese and how these tropes have transitioned is illuminating. In the past, Americans viewed the East more broadly as exotic and attractive. A lack of cultural understanding has also provided a level of suspicion in the US around Chinese intentions. For example, a black-out on American intelligence on China in the 1950s and 1960s made it very difficult for the US to understand the inner thoughts of Chinese leadership or even basic economic, military, and cultural views. Many have attributed this lack of knowledge as contributing to the “Red China” threat in the Cold War.

Americans used conflicting tropes on China from the beginning of the Sino-American relationship. These contradictory storytelling devices contribute to the highly irregular and vacillating threat descriptions of China. For example, in the early years of the Sino-American relationship, Americans characterized the Chinese as drug addicts, weak-minded, backward, and tied to outdated traditions. However, at the same time, American fears around domestic job loss at the hands of Chinese immigrants stemmed from the top-notch Chinese work ethic and ingenuity as demonstrated by their grinding and entrepreneurial efforts on the American railroads and gold mines in the 19th Century. In the early 20th century, China was seen as the new frontier for Christianity, Democracy, and Western values in Asia. Americans saw China as a land of opportunity and a way to make the largest country in the world look and act like the US. Even during this period of hope and enthusiasm for China, the Chinese were prohibited from immigrating to the US through the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

(Pete Souza)

Perhaps the “Red China” trope used widely during the Cold War was the first time that a monolithic view on China existed in the US. This period of American thought alignment on China was, however, short-lived as the rapprochement of the 1970s ushered in a period of mixed strategic thought on China where it was viewed on one hand as a political ally in Asia against the Soviets, while on the other remaining an enemy on the flashpoints of human rights and Communism. Thus, the changing nature and inherently bifurcated view of China has long characterized the Sino-American relationship as one of hot and cold since its inception two and half centuries ago.

Perhaps the explanation for this episodic and unsystematic threat picture of China lies in how the US fundamentally sees its own insecurity due to China. The incoherent threat picture of China from the time of America’s founding indicates a haphazard American view on China at worst and a short attention span at best. Moreover, it indicates a heavy weighting of subjective threat narratives that individuals and groups have fostered along the way. Whether the causes lie in a subjective determination of China in the hearts and minds of America’s leaders and populace, the threat that China has posed to the US has flickered for the past two and half centuries. At times when the threat beacon showed its brightest, subjective biases played a key role in getting us to that point. Interestingly enough, the capabilities and intent of China could be viewed in a much more gradual transition in contrast to its rapidly changing threat status. Putting a finer point on it, it may have been less around what China had done that changed its characterization of threat and more about how the US viewed China based on American bias and changes on the domestic front. A historical perspective on American sources of bias could be valuable in understanding threat perceptions today.

Historical Perspective

At the time of America’s founding, China was a major power on the cusp of decline. China treated the US, as it did other Western nations, with disdain and routinely called it a barbarian state. The US was not on equal terms with the Middle Kingdom and therefore was part of a larger tributary system from the Chinese perspective. China viewed itself as the center of the universe and all other outlying states were destined to support the one, the Middle Kingdom that was destined to rule them all. In the early days of Sino-American relations, all Western trade was limited to the one trading city of Canton and thereby creating the Cantonese trading system. As Chinese power receded, and Western powers tested the limits of this decline, relations began to move full circle from Western states being the tributary states to China assuming a subservient role.

As Britain and the US desired to expand their trade reaches, Britain employed its mighty, well-trained Navy while the US used its scrappy naval and merchant corps. Opium would be a game-changing commodity for both countries to expand their trade and capture the giant Asian market. It also served to flip the trade imbalance with China and counter the massive amounts of tea heading into England and the US. In an effort to stem this silver flow into China-based largely on tea sales, opium was an ideal commodity to push upon an immense country with a weak government and faltering military deterrence. As the British imported opium from India and the US imported it from Turkey, China’s opium demand spiked as did the profits for both Western states. Americans, as well as the British, began to see the Chinese no longer as a powerful empire which could dictate the terms of trade, but as a malleable, decrepit state with a massive opium demand and a rudimentary defense.

Starting in the late 1830s, Britain and the US began to impose their will on China with the Opium Wars. By this time, America was beginning to gain its sea legs with respect to international trade and affairs. After China’s last-ditch effort to halt Western encroachment failed with its defeat in the Opium Wars, China was forced to open its ports, cede key coastal cities, and strike from its repertoire the term barbarian used for Westerners.

From 1842 until the 1940s, the US did not view China as a national-level threat and even treated it as a frail state to be used for America’s bidding. The US even adopted a caretaker mentality of sorts where it attempted to help China. This new American mindset on China was ardently ethnocentric and sought a Christian, Westernized image of itself. A ground-swell movement within the US to help China was led by a group commonly referred to as the China Lobby. The Lobby was composed of missionaries, business interests, and those Americans with ties to friends and family who had lived and worked in China at the height of the opium trade. This group took it upon itself to see China succeed but only in a way that mirrored the American way of life.

A complicated security narrative emerged around China in the 1800s. Americans viewed it as a state lacking sovereignty, hooked on opium, and incapable of welcoming modernity and future salvation unless it became Westernized and Christianized. Even with the prevalence of this negative view of China, however, a religious, self-righteous narrative based on helping China also emerged. Many Americans believed that it was up to the US to help the world’s largest country lift itself up and become a Western, Christian, democratic beacon in Asia.

The domestic narratives on Chinese immigrants within the US were also complicated in the mid to late 1800s with competing notions of awe and praise on one side and fear and anger on the other. At first, the Chinese immigrants were welcomed into the US because of the immense need for labor due to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad as well as the California Gold Rush. As the Chinese Empire was entering a period of darkness, many of its people flocked to the US for an opportunity. The Chinese were particularly strong laborers who supplied a critical labor resource at a vital time in American history. Many American leaders praised the Chinese for their work ethic and credited them with helping to complete the gargantuan feat of completing the railroad. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, some Chinese returned home with their savings but many settled in the US. For those who stayed, the American perception of them began to quickly erode.


The most prevalent, negative narrative that began to emerge in the US in the 1870s around Chinese immigrants centered on the prospect of taking American jobs. This fear festered in the US. American mobs would eventually attack Chinese immigrants and force many to leave. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 would round out this anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. In a dramatic change in views of Chinese immigrants, the positive narratives around the Chinese in the US in the 1850s and 1860s as a resourceful and helpful people quickly transitioned to ones of stealing American jobs and even of a people incompatible with American values. It would be the first time in America’s history that an entire people would be prohibited from entering America’s borders.

This growing disdain for Chinese in the US, however, failed to dampen the competing desire of many American missionaries and their China Lobby friends to save China from itself. A series of missionary campaigns to China, beginning in the 19th Century and continuing into the 20th Century, set out to mold China into the image of the West. The appeal of this Christianized, Western likeness grew in the early 1900s with the rise of Sun Yat-sen, a Christian leader bent on leading China with democratic principles. The torch of his Nationalist Party was then passed to Chiang Kai-shek who also was a Christian and even dressed as a Westerner. At the diplomatic level, China was moving closer to an ally of the US and notions of insecurity from China were diminished in the early 1900s.

In respect to the American psyche, China was also looking more like a friend to the American people. Support was growing beyond the missionaries and China Lobby members. Spurred primarily by one colossal cultural event, a groundswell of American support for China moved across the populace and crosscut demographics. Pearl Buck’s celebrated book The Good Earth published in 1931 seized American hearts and encouraged mass support virtually overnight for the Chinese people. It inspired support for the Chinese people in almost a kindred spirit way between Chinese peasants and poor Americans struggling through the Great Depression. Born in China, Buck’s sentimental views of the Chinese were prevalent in her book. These views would be held by many members of the China Lobby in the first half of the 20th Century to include President Franklin Roosevelt.

China evolved into one of America’s closest Asian allies in the 1920s over Japan who had previously enjoyed that status. While Japan had been the recipient of President Teddy Roosevelt’s “Japanese Monroe Doctrine” allowing for Japanese expansion in Asia, Americans had started to shift towards their new friend of China. The early 1900s saw China beginning to embrace Christianity, Western dress, and even some democratic principles. Japan on the other hand still had an emperor and was ambitiously growing its empire. In a choice between the two nations, the US started to tilt towards China both diplomatically and in the hearts of the American people.

Even with the diplomatic support of Sun and Chiang and mega cultural events such as The Good Earth, America still prevented Chinese from immigrating to the US for five decades (1882-1943). Not until the Magnuson Act of 1943, was the Chinese Exclusion Act repealed. To say the least, it was a time of competing narratives around China in the US. The US had a soft spot for China and was grateful to Chinese immigrant support in helping to build the locomotive lifeline across its vast terrain, mine its gold and silver, and settle the West, but it would prohibit Chinese from crossing its own borders once job fears grew. Americans saw the Chinese living in China as drug dependent and backward in need of spiritual salvation, but at the same time viewing those Chinese immigrants within the US as industrious, hardworking, and detrimental to American values. It was a time full of competing and contradictory narratives around China as a foreign country but also around the Chinese immigrants within the US. A lack of coherent American policy ensued as well as a flimsy threat picture of China and its immigrants.

An interesting part of the story is that the characteristics of both– China as a state and Chinese immigrants – did not change considerably in the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century. It is true that China had evolved from a declining empire to a fledgling republic, but it was consistently weak in its final years as an empire as well as its early years as a republic. China remained a frail country throughout this period while its immigrants garnered a reputation for industrious values. What spurred the altering of narratives around China and Chinese immigrants were American views, cultural events in the US, and American policy.

While the rise of Mao Zedong was a homegrown phenomenon, internal American wrangling only helped to elevate the perception of threat that he posed. Many short-sighted, and blinded-by-ideology China Lobby members saw Mao as a flash in the pan nuisance. Mao, however, overachieved against all American leaders’ expectations. Mao’s Communism was yet another source of evil that the US felt obligated to confront. One of the staunchest China Lobby supporters, President Franklin Roosevelt, was most disillusioned by the potential of China’s tilt towards communism. Perhaps swayed by hopeful disbelief, many American leaders continued with the ill-fated support of a Christian, Western China with Chiang at the helm. This miscalculation would spur the rise of China as a new threat to the US. The China Lobby introduced a fog of emotion around Mao’s China that prevented a more accurate view of the actual situation on the ground in China. In the late 1940s after its victory over Chiang, Mao’s China was cast as, and thus perceived as, the most threatening it had been in the history of Sino-
American relations. The China Lobby’s influence eventually began to melt away as well as the missionary desires to help China. Narratives of insecurities posed by China were rampant in the US.

The narratives of threat on China’s evolved slightly in the late 1940s from generally economic to more of a national security concern. While the signals of danger by China in the previous century centered on the American ability to trade in China or from hardworking immigrants taking American jobs, the Era of Mao introduced a new type of perceived China threat. This flickering of the Chinese threat that would take us through the next seven decades was much more focused on a threat to American national interests in the Pacific. The national security threat beacon in the late 1940s and early 1950s shown brightly and would not dim until the rapprochement of the 1970s.

The threat picture would once again intensify in the late 1990s partly due to the Soviet demise as well as a Chinese troop build-up. However, this threat beacon would once again dim in the 2000s with the advent of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. With the US redirecting its attention to the proximate threat of radical Islamic terrorists, the US preoccupation with threats from China faded once again. Moreover, China and the US entered into a strategic partnership in the early 2000s and a semblance of solidarity against terrorists followed. It was again a warming in Sino-American relations and reminiscent of, although not achieving parity with, the FDR-Chiang alliance prior to WWII or Nixon-Mao rapprochement. Continuing in the vein of mixed perceptions on China, while national security threat narratives certainly diminished around China, economic threat narratives continued in the early 2000s.

In the last five years, the national security China threat narratives have begun to intensify once again and Afghanistan has allowed the US to refocus on a China threat. China has also done its fair share to make its threat beacon shine with increased wattage. Between its launching of its first aircraft carrier and pursuit of a blue-sea navy, its building up of islands in the South China Sea, its growing naval footprint and port expansion worldwide, as well as President Xi Jinping’s largest restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army since the 1950s, China has signaled that it is a growing threat not only to US interests and allies in the Pacific but also throughout the world. China’s military restructuring currently in progress would transform the force from the large, slow Soviet-style force designed to defend from invasion to a more nimble, expeditionary force capable of projecting power outside of the mainland. It would be naïve to think that China could grow its outward focused military at its current rate and not pose any semblance of a military threat at the very least from a capabilities perspective. The threat narratives on China today in the US may very well rival the threat narrative intensity around China at the start of the Cold War as well as the perceived threat.


It would be unproductive to think solely of China as a threat or as a partner in such binary terms. Unfortunately, people yearn for the simplicity of knowing which way the relationship is leaning. People latch onto threat narratives around China that generally support their preconceived views of China as a friend or foe. Threat narratives serve as neat cubby holes to place pieces of information in a larger contextualization of a complicated issue. Narratives operate as mnemonic devices to help people better understand the world. Certainly, based on the past historical examples of narratives on China, the spectrum has varied widely from a country the US wanted to support with its hard-working people, to a country filled with drug addicts, who were stealing American jobs, and would later try to spread Communism across American borders.

Part of the desire for threat calculus is based on the inherent need to know how to act towards and think of China. The answer is not as simple as thinking of China as a friend or potential enemy. The stakes are simply too high. The US must and will continue to trade prolifically with China. China will continue to hold vast American debt as a way to invest its excess capital. China’s One Belt, One Road program to expand its global influence will undoubtedly push against American spheres of influence. However, as the US recedes in some of its desires to be everywhere all of the time, this may not be the worst development. Simply put, the US and China need each other immensely and for this reason of practicality, the threat level on China should be interpreted as low.

With a partnership of necessity as the starting point, the threat still exists in certain areas just as partnership exists in others. Opening almost any newspaper on a given day, you might just see this very phenomenon of competing threat narration play out on a single page. For example, in the world section of the paper, the first a story could be on China’s South China Sea island build-up with the very next story talking about American automaker Tesla’s new, state of the art care facility in China. It’s a competitor and partner dynamic resembling the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This view of the threat from China is not as rosy as many China-philes would like, but it is certainly not as dire as many China-phobes communicate. Elements of both threat and partnership will continue to co-exist in Sino-American relations. Acknowledging the historical perspective that the past several centuries have also balanced competing notions of threat and partner is important as we look towards the future of the relationship. After all, our current, seemingly incoherent relations are nothing new. The goal for those in a position to influence should always be to reinforce those points of partnership and manage, curtail, and communicate about those points of threat. However, based on the last two and half centuries of Sino-American interaction and competing notions of threat, cautious optimism is the prudent path forward.