Published: 23:42, April 25, 2024 | Updated: 10:21, April 26, 2024
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Is China America’s ‘final frontier’?
By David Cottam

It seems that hardly a day goes by without the American and British media demonizing China. Recent targets for paranoia include: Hong Kong’s “draconian” security laws, even though they reflect remarkably similar Western laws; Chinese electric cars, telephones, refrigerators and household gadgets, all apparently designed to spy on unsuspecting Westerners; and now counterfeit postage stamps “flooding” into Britain and the United States from Chinese criminals with the “tacit approval of the Chinese Communist Party”.

Much has been written about the psychology of demonization. Portraying an external “enemy” as an existential threat has been a characteristic of politics for centuries. It has always been an invaluable tool in rallying the people, distracting them from domestic woes and policy failures, and bolstering the image of successive governments. The choice of enemy over the years has always varied, depending on the suitability of credible bogeymen. However, in recent times, the remarkable rise of “Communist China” as an alternative superpower inevitably made it a target for Western, and especially American, hostility.

There is, however, a further explanation for why the anti-China narrative is at its very strongest in the United States. As is so often the case, it’s an explanation firmly rooted in history. Specifically, the US mindset is still deeply affected by the “frontier spirit” of American mythology. Throughout the 19th century, America’s Western frontier was pushed toward the Pacific coast by a steady stream of European settlers, inspired by economic opportunity and the concept of “manifest destiny”. This bestowed on them their “absolute right” or even “duty” to conquer the wilderness, subjugate the Native Americans, and replace their “savagery” with civilization. By the end of the century, the mythology surrounding this phenomenon was well-established.

The American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in 1893, outlined the principles of the myth in his “Frontier Thesis”. In this, he argued that the frontier symbolized the dramatic struggle between “savagery and civilization”. At the heart of this was the idea of an outsider or enemy that had to be defeated in the name of civilization. This frontier myth also incorporated the belief that the harsh conditions of the frontier taught the early Americans to be self-reliant, independent, individualistic and heroic, all qualities with which Americans still like to identify today. It also incorporated the notion of the justified use of violence, not just in self-defense but in pursuit of what was seen as a legitimate cause, noble or otherwise. The everyday violence of frontier life and the mythologized heroism of gun-toting cowboys in the “Wild West” are still very much reflected in the attitudes of many in modern America.

For modern international relations, the implications of this frontier mythology, so ingrained in the American psyche, are self-evident. The centrality of the myth is the concept of America’s duty, or “manifest destiny”, to civilize and conquer a “wilderness” to allow the nation to prosper. After the Western frontier reached the Pacific at the end of the 19th century, the focus switched to a new overseas frontier and a new mission to both prosper and “civilize”. This saw the expansion of American colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific Basin, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. This cemented the idea of American exceptionalism and the US’ right and duty to intervene elsewhere to help “inferior”, “less civilized” people by promoting the beliefs and civilization of the “superior” US nation.

The current Western trend toward greater tolerance, inclusivity and pluralism needs to overcome its last obstacle — the intolerance of different political ideologies. This challenge is the real final frontier

During the Cold War, this colonial phase of the frontier morphed into what successive American presidents termed the “frontier of freedom”. This narrative persists today wherever countries have espoused political systems that differ from the Western model. American ideology, with its emphasis on “democracy” and the frontier qualities of individualism and self-reliance, has been aggressively championed around the world, whether the world wanted it or not.

The sense of exceptionalism at the heart of America’s frontier narrative is mirrored by that of its strongest ally, the United Kingdom. Indeed, British exceptionalism has even longer roots, going back to the history of the British Empire, spanning almost 400 years from the late 16th century to the mid-20th century. Imperialism invariably engenders a sense of arrogance, entitlement and superiority, all of which form part of Britain’s colonial heritage. This may explain why the US’ ideological world mission has been so eagerly supported by the UK. American frontier mythology and British imperial mythology are natural bedfellows.

This historical perspective helps to explain the current Western demonization of China. The US’ frontier legacy and the UK’s imperial legacy are fundamental in understanding their sense of exceptionalism and entitlement. This is what underpins the mission to “civilize” China by attacking its ideology and promoting Western values.

Understanding reasons for Western hostility to China is not, however, the same as condoning it. Indeed, in the interests of peace and international cooperation, not least over climate change, it is more imperative than ever that the West’s ideological hostility to China needs to be overcome. It is ironic that at a time when a more tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic ethos is permeating Western culture, including acceptance of religious, racial, sexual and gender differences, there is such a determined reluctance to let this also encompass ideological differences.

This is completely illogical. No ideology or political system is perfect, and all countries have different cultural influences that impact on their political philosophies. Chinese values have been strongly influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, which emphasize social harmony, cooperation, hierarchy, and respect for authority. Western values, on the other hand, have been shaped by Christianity, Judaism and the Enlightenment, with a greater emphasis on the individual, human rights, and personal freedom. These cultural differences have had a huge impact on the different political values and governmental systems of China and the West. China’s collectivist model of government is firmly rooted in Chinese cultural traditions, just as the West’s libertarian model is rooted in Western traditions. Understanding this and accepting ideological differences is essential for a more tolerant, inclusive, pluralistic and peaceful world. Such a mindset is certainly far more rational than persisting with the dangerous sense of exceptionalism and entitlement stemming from a frontier or imperial history.

In this context, the West should learn to abandon its “frontier of freedom” narrative, with its “I win, you lose” mentality. This is the antithesis of the Confucian “win-win” philosophy and is doomed to perpetuate international tensions and hostilities. China’s emphasis, rooted in Confucianism, is on harmony and giving both sides “face”. This approach is much more conducive to peaceful coexistence and is a significant cultural difference that very few in the West appreciate. It needs to be given greater prominence if the legacies of the frontier and imperialism are to be countered. The current Western trend toward greater tolerance, inclusivity and pluralism needs to overcome its last obstacle — the intolerance of different political ideologies. This challenge is the real final frontier.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.