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Biden: Be Careful The United States Is Not Reviving The ‘Yellow Peril’ Myth – OpEd

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One of the most insightful pages of Wikipedia relates to “Yellow Peril”. This page covers the history of the political, psychological and cultural metaphors and ideology conceived by the West to depict the Oriental and non-white Other – in particular the Chinese, but also including Japanese and other East Asians – and of the danger to the Western world. 

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Drawing on the work of scholars and contemporary sources from western mass media of the time, the page and contents provide the reader with knowledge of a long standing but still highly influential and emblematic myth founded on racial stereotyping.  Among the main subjects of discussion in the page are:

  • Origins in Germany, Russia, Canada and the United States
  • Boxer Rebellion – western perception and colonial vengeance
  • Cultural fears and racial annihilation concerns
  • Xenophobia in Europe, the US, Australia, South African, New Zealand
  • Pragmatic racism, socially acceptable Asians and race wars
  • Sexual fears and literary, cinematic and comic book yellow peril

Although quite comprehensive, the page only provides an aperitif or starting point to this phenomenon of racial and national stereotyping which underpins much of western foreign policy making today. The page refers to the following other pages in Wikipedia for related discussion

  • Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States
  • Anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States
  • Anti-Korean sentiment in the United States
  • Anti-Mongolianism
  • Dusky Peril
  • Red Chinese Battle Plan
  • Sinophobia
  • Stereotypes of East Asians in the Western world
  • The White Man’s Burden
  • White Australia policy
  • Xenophobia and racism related to the COVID-19 pandemic

What is missing from the Wiki coverage is how political leaders, media and think tanks from the West – intentionally and otherwise – are resurrecting or rekindling this myth to converge with their political assessment that China is the existential threat to the West.

Examination of the page and its references on how the yellow peril ideology originated and was concretized during the last 150 years shows how key players of the myth are political forces, economic and business interests and western media. These drivers of western hegemony have, and continue to capitalise on emotion driven xenophobia and the fear that western civilization and supremacy is being undermined or challenged by people and countries of a different skin colour and culture. 

The Bared Hands Behind the Myth 

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Among the most prominent initiators of the racist and socio-cultural and economic stereotyping of the Yellow Peril have been members of the ruling elites whose pitch to the western public in the late 19th century bears striking resemblance to the ones used by some Western leaders today in their attempt to rally their constituencies and larger world against what they allege to be an ‘expansionist’, ‘rule breaking’, ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘genocidal’ China. 

From the Wiki page (the references are omitted here):

To justify European cultural hegemony, the Kaiser used the allegorical lithograph Peoples of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions (1895), by Herman Knackfuss, to communicate his geopolitics to other European monarchs. The lithograph depicts Germany as the leader of Europe, personified as a “prehistoric warrior-goddesses being led by the Archangel Michael against the ‘yellow peril’ from the East”, which is represented by “dark cloud of smoke [upon] which rests an eerily calm Buddha, wreathed in flame”. Politically, the Knackfuss lithograph allowed Kaiser Wilhelm II to believe he prophesied the imminent race war that would decide global hegemony in the 20th century.

Today the same good vs evil juxtaposition and yellow peril concerns calling for the defence and preservation of western exceptionalism and western style democracy is apparent in the social media chatter that accompanies western mainstream media coverage of China news and events  – the thrust of which is intended to provoke condemnation of authoritarian Beijing through amplification of the fear mongering engaged by political leaders of the West.   

As noted by Caitlin Johnston, Australian independent opinion writer 

“The US empire uses “freedom and democracy” as a pretext to conquer and kill in exactly the same way European colonialists used the pretext of spreading Christianity and civilization to save the godless savages. And it does so for the exact same reasons.”

(https://twitter.com/caitoz/status/1556056135055994880?t=UA_0qkZetOhAWMUTHiphpw&s=08)

Exploiting Covid 19 and more

Canadian academician, Dr. Anita Jack-Davis in an article on “Coronavirus: The Yellow Peril Revisited” when commenting on what is taking place in Canada’s race relations  provides insights into another recent dimension of the Yellow Peril – that related to Covid 19 virus and constructions of the Chinese as “diseased”. (see https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-the-yellow-peril-revisited-134115). 

From this, we can discern the strategy behind US President Trump’s repeated reference to the virus as the “China virus” in an attempt to blame China’s leadership for the virus’s impact on the United States. Trump’s rhetoric on “kungflu”, “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese disease” in his rally speeches was not only aimed at fanning anti-China sentiments. It was also to invoke an additional narrative to the Chinese “Yellow Peril” menace now associated with China’s Xi and the Chinese Communist Party as the greatest danger to the western ‘free’ world led by the United States.

Although Republican President Trump has been succeeded by Democrat President Biden, it is clear that the change in political guard in the United States does not denote any change to the racially driven mindsets of some Western leaders. 

Besides recently identifying China as the US “biggest geopolitical test” of this century” (there is another 78 years before the century runs out!) Biden’s preferred trope for now is of China and the Chinese “eating the lunch” of the US unless Americans get their act together. 

What will further reincarnation of the Yellow Peril myth look like as China continues its long march of independence, development and progress?   

Lim Teck Ghee

Lim Teck Ghee PhD is a Malaysian economic historian, policy analyst and public intellectual whose career has straddled academia, civil society organisations and international development agencies. He has a regular column, Another Take, in The Sun, a Malaysian daily; and is author of Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.

One thought on “Biden: Be Careful The United States Is Not Reviving The ‘Yellow Peril’ Myth – OpEd

  • August 17, 2022 at 3:29 pm
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    Congratulations for writing the Truth.
    I think the world need such writers that can think from both sides.

    Kanbawza Win

    Reply

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