Preparing for the Next “Red Scare”

PHOTO: Chinese military men

Are we always to be fearful and preparing ourselves for those who are rising economically behind us? The past twenty years has seen the exponential growth of wealth in China and with it, the positioning of the country as another Us vs. Them competition within our domestic politics and media. Most of rhetoric is framed around them “beating us” economically but there are also the murmurs of direct conflict, typically in regards to protecting the sovereignty of Taiwan or problems with N. Korea.

My worries about the creation of a fictional competition rather than reinforcing and broadening a more symbiotic relationship were spurred by two loosely related things: 1) Learning that there is going to be a remake of the 80’s film “Red Dawn” not featuring Russians but the Chinese as the enemy this time around and 2) reading about our R&D processes and warfare technology creation in the PW Singer book “Wired For War”.

“Red Dawn” isn’t to be taken seriously, either in its 80s version or whatever may come of the remake. What I can recall of seeing the first is being a kid and enjoying a “hometown” fight, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tragic, against those dirty Russkies and Cubans that decided to invade America. I could cheer for Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez and the other Wolverines defending our homeland. The Soviets were our great enemies ideologically and militarily since the end of WWII and opposition to them was passed down through various media to those of us born in the early 80s. When you played war you either fought the Russians, the Germans, or the Vietcong (depending on your family history and movie-watching habits). Now we have a remake that will hopefully be less outright propaganda and more tongue-in-cheek but who knows. The reason I bring this up is: why the Chinese? Also, is this really the message that we want to be subtly sending to the demographic this movie is mostly aimed at (12-18 year olds)? That our next greatest enemy is already plotting against us an ocean away, waiting over the horizon for the perfect time to invade our fair land? As I said, the film itself probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously but isn’t it typically the case that entertainment can be an indicator of streams and subconscious cues in the culture at large?

In Wired For War, a book about robots and warfare in the 21st century, PW Singer discussed with several experts the countries that may be leaping ahead of the US in this newly emerging and possibly critical warfighting capacity. He quotes a RAND report as saying “the US and its military must include in its planning for possible military conflict the possibility that China may be more advanced technologically and militarily in 2020” (pg 246). There are also worries about the quality of science and math education amongst American students as well as the costs of health care on the workforce and companies and our dependence on foreign-made manufacturing for a lot of the ‘off-the-shelf’ technology that is being used (pg 247).

China is name-dropped as a potential enemy throughout the book by various military personnel, advisors, and think tank people. They worry about how we will stack up against the Chinese military in this arena in years to come. Our domestic fears have also been fueled by the persecution of minorities in China, the undemocratic nature of the nation’s government, and their seeming growth in both economic and demographic power. Growing demand in China is leading them to all corners of the globe seeking natural resources to keep their people’s appetites sated. We’ve already seen their entrance into the Middle East market and Africa in the search of oil. Some contend that overfishing by illegal Chinese boats off the African coasts have led to lost economic opportunities for the local fisherman leading to the current Somalian pirate trends and job loss in West Africa. Water will be another scarce resource in years to come in China.

It seems a bit much for our politicians and others to start positioning them as a threat. So why the belligerence? Because the military-industrial complex needs money too. Our military is a trillion dollar industry that has to be fed. Wired for War makes a case for vast amounts of waste, top-heavy leadership and stagnant thinking, as well as outright fraud and theft within the DoD and defense contracting (pg 256). Like most organisms, survival is key, so, be it through pr releases, monied politicians, or lobbyists, it is an industry looking for the next big enemy that it can sell systems to fight against. Being the new big dog on the block, with a million man army and large expenditures on research and development, China makes an excellent opponent.

I’m not sure at this point that the American public buys into the rhetoric of an “evil China” as it did the “Evil Empire” that the Soviet Union represented. Maybe because Americans are more accustomed to Chinese culture via its cinema and cultural influence (what business executive hasn’t read Sun Tzu?). But in the coming years, as China’s wealth and economy grow, so will a stirring in the general public. The mass media these days depends on contention – pitting two people against one another or a bunch of talking heads on split screen to create false drama with a bunch of empty rhetoric. I highly doubt American citizens would support going to war for Taiwan against China (and it seems that might be resolved in the near future anyway) or that the Chinese have any real interest in destroying the “American way of life”. Our way of life helps fuel the factories that are paying the absurdly low wages to millions of workers. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the US government go to war without express approval of the public before and, given how complacent the public is these days, no big to-do will be made until it starts hurting the population in the pocketbook.

Why might we see more of this anti-China rhetoric in the future? Well, because politicians are politicians. They need to get elected. Our country is already in a fragile state of mind due to the the ever-lurking threat of terrorism (or at least the media’s fueling of those fears). We have the massive Department of Homeland Security and Department of War Defense to feed budget-wise. Those defense industries that get the contracts employ large portions of people across the US and have a strong interest in, if not waging war, fueling the purchase of preventative and offensive weaponry to fight a war which might not exist in the future, to help their shareholders and their bottom lines. The generals, the elected officials, and reporters ask “How might we be fighting a war with China in the future?” or “What weapons would be best to fight that future war with China?” I think the questions should be “How can we make it necessary to not go to war?” and “Why are we starting from the position of thinking of China as an enemy rather than a possible friend?”

Flickr photo from chenta

4 Comments

  1. Chris

    With luck, our economies will remain so entangled that a war will be simply impossible. Unless we want to cripple ourselves.

    With that said, our ability to demonize other countries is starting to border on comical. We’ve gone from Al Qaeda to the Taliban to Saddam to insurgents and to Iran in the last decade alone. Each one is portrayed as the new Hitler and the citizenry seems to warm to the idea far too quickly.

  2. Jordan

    Yes, it seems easier to come up with another threat or enemy than to negotiate with the ones we have. Post edited for spelling and citation clarity. I feel like Alessandra Stanley.

  3. Ian

    I wrote about this last April here on WWW, except I was more discussing the media’s role in building up a new “Red Scare”.

    Having recently been to China, I can tell you its not really at all what our media and government would make it seem. Yes the people don’t make as much money as us (as you call “absurdly low wages”), but things don’t cost nearly as much money there. China is by no stretch of the imagination “Communist”. They are socialist, with the government owning a share of most companies. Generally speaking, the people in the cities of China (about half the population) make more money and have a much higher standard of living than those in the country areas. There is a wide economic divide between city dwellers and the farmers in the country. The challenge for China is to raise these poor up to the middle class. Cities in China are pretty modern. Shanghai in particular was very reminiscent of a western metropolis, except far cleaner.

    Their government really isn’t that invasive. I see more soldiers and police walking around here in the US than I saw in China. In everyday life, you don’t interact with the government at all. They seem to have many more progressive government programs to benefit their population as well, including healthcare and retirement benefits that improve with age.

    The people there also have no interest in conflict with Americans. I received really only two reactions from people there. Either I was seen as a walking pile of money because I was obviously from the US, which really only occurred in shopping areas, or I was treated very warmly. In one airport, a group of about 20 children were excitedly saying “Hello!” to me, I guess wanting to show what they learned in school. Chinese youth idolize American culture. Michael Jackson was playing everywhere in China at the time, teenagers wore clothing with English words printed on them, Transformers 2 signs were everywhere, American movies played on the television, American music played on their karaoke game shows. McDonalds and KFC were everywhere, as were Pizza Hut and Hagen Daaz stores. As China continues to grow, their culture starts to come closer and closer to our own. The USSR was built upon a government system that framed capitalism as an evil, just as our government framed communism as evil. China isn’t doing that. They don’t frame us as the villain. They aren’t trying to divide the world between “us” and “them”. People here need to understand how much we have in common with China, and that is the responsibility of our media.

  4. Jordan

    I probably did exaggerate a bit with the absurdly low wages and had excised a section talking about Umair Haque’s “American iPod” so should’ve amended that part as well. I’m well aware of the cost of living in other countries but I don’t think that should preclude us from making efforts at better labor conditions and wages for the people that make the junk we buy.

    As to your comment in general, I have definitely had a similar experience with Chinese people throughout Asia, either as travelers, expat businessmen or part of the diaspora. All were far more curious about us than antagonistic. As you said, They aren’t trying to divide the world between “us” and “them”. People here need to understand how much we have in common with China, and that is the responsibility of our media.

    I agree with the last statement but am not sure how we go about getting such a responsible media to reach the broader, tv-based audience. I have a feeling that our generation has had much more influence from an integrated heterogeneous world and cultural influences but I don’t know if it’s enough to remedy the narrow-mindedness of Boomers that are currently in power and making our decisions. This would be our ‘digital divide’, where a certain age group relies on infotainment for ‘news’ and another large segment is more willingly to use multiple sources to search for and disseminate information online.

    While discussing this article with Chris, he sent me this article that has a quote by Tim Geithner and Hillary about US and China cooperation in the future which is, hopefully, how our politicians will continue to think of it:

    Simply put, few global problems can be solved by the U.S. or China alone. And few can be solved without the U.S. and China together. The strength of the global economy, the health of the global environment, the stability of fragile states and the solution to nonproliferation challenges turn in large measure on cooperation between the U.S. and China.