The Racism In China

Reihan wonders whether ethno-centrism, which is a polite way of saying racism, will be the deepest obstacle to Chinese success in the next generation. The fast-aging, gender-imbalanced society needs younger people to keep its economy going, and immigrants are the obvious solution. But culture stands in the way:

China is not terribly hospitable to ethnic outsiders, including members of non-Han minorities native to China. Observers tend to overstate the level of ethnic homogeneity in China, not least because the Han category masks tremendous cultural diversity. "Hanness" is as broad and contingent a category as "whiteness."

But as Frank Dikötter of the University of Hong Kong argued in his brilliant 1992 book The Discourse of Race in Modern China, traditional notions about culturally inferior "barbarians" intermingled with Western forms of scientific racism to form a distinctively Chinese racial consciousness in the 20th century. The "yellows" were locked in a struggle with their equals, the "whites"--and both were superior to the "blacks," "browns" and "reds." The dislike and distrust of Europeans was always mixed with envy and admiration. The disdain for dark-skinned foreigners, in contrast, was and remains relatively uncomplicated.

Maoist China railed against Western imperialism, and saw itself as a leader of the global proletariat of Africans and Asians.

Now, as China emerges as an economic and cultural superpower, those notions of Third World solidarity, always skin deep, seem to have vanished. It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China's labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn't bet on it.

If China remains culturally closed, the Chinese Century will never come to pass. Instead, the United States--a country that has struggled with race and racism for centuries, and in the process has become more culturally open and resilient--will dominate this century as it did the last.

It can be hard to see developments like the civil rights movement for African-Americans, or the fight for women's or gay equality, as engines of economic growth. But they are; and they remain one of the West's core advantages, unless we too succumb to atavism and xenophobia.