It is not possible to understand China without understanding race and racism. Specifically, without understanding whiteness.
Yet far too often the conversation around the rise of this new superpower is in primarily geopolitical terms, about authoritarianism versus democracy, about human rights — or whether we’re going to war.
But race is at the heart of it all.
We were reminded of this this week when China described the AUKUS deal – between Australia, the UK and the US – as a race-based military bloc of white countries.
China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, says that’s how it appears to people in other countries. What he means is non-white countries.
A story of humiliation
The Chinese Communist Party has a deep racial consciousness. He is there to remind his people never to forget the hundred years of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers – white powers.
Yes, this humiliation was also done by the Japanese, but the Japanese themselves cannot be separated from the whiteness project.
In his book, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking, scholar Michael Keevak traces how the Chinese stopped being white.
He says that in early interactions between Europeans and Asians, the Chinese were actually portrayed as white.
This was before racialized thinking was popularized in the 18th century.
It was then that scientists began to divide the world into color groups. Color denoted civilization. At the top were white Europeans, at the bottom blacks and everyone else, ranked on a sliding scale.
Keevak says Asians – including Chinese and Japanese – have started to “go dark”.
They lost their whiteness, he says, “when it became clear that they would remain reluctant to participate in European systems of commerce, religion and international relations”.
The fall of the Qing Empire in the 19th century accelerated a racial reckoning for the Chinese.
It was a dark night of the soul; it would tip China into a century of industrial-scale upheaval, revolution and violence.
And it also brought China face to face with white power. The Qing Empire was humiliated by Britain, a small island that now occupied Chinese territory.
The 19th-century writer Yan Fu was influenced by European liberal thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill and the father of economics Adam Smith, and saw China’s future emulate Western liberalism.
Perhaps the most influential thinker of all, Liang Qichao, also saw the Western idea of history as a march of progress – and progress meant modernization.
Liang is known as the godfather of Chinese nationalism whose acolytes included the Chinese communist revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong.
He coined the phrase “the sick man of Asia” to refer to the fallen state of China. He said they woke up from a thousand-year-old dream.
As Liang embraced Western ideas, he also advocated for the unity of the “yellow race”. He used the term “minzu” to describe the nation’s people.
Seeds of resentment and “yellow peril”
The First World War was another calculation. During the Paris peace talks, China felt abandoned. The Chinese territory occupied by Germany was not returned to China but to Japan.
The seeds of resentment have been sown.
Historian Jérôme Ch’en writes: “From 1842 to 1942, China had been treated by the West with suspicion, ridicule and disdain…”
Liang Qichao – who had looked West – now turned sour. He was an official observer in Paris, but returned believing that following the West would lead China to disaster.
At the same time, the world was alerting to the “yellow peril”.
Australia had its own whites-only policy, excluding non-white races from the country.
Racial politics also shaped China’s great enemy, Japan.
The Japanese made fun of the Chinese by calling them “yellow”. As Michael Keevak points out, Japan saw itself on an equal footing with Western powers.
His imperialism reflected the imperialism of the white colonizers.
In the West, the Japanese were still considered “people of color,” says Keevak, but “maybe not as yellow as the Chinese.”
For three centuries, power and whiteness have been synonymous. From the British Empire to the American century, white nations have exported violence, committed genocide, stolen land, and made it all legal.
China, like so many other non-white nations, has felt the sting of white imperialism.
The end of whiteness?
Chinese leaders saw their struggle in racial terms. Mao Zedong presented himself as a revolutionary leader of the non-white world.
Its military strategies have been adopted by the Viet Cong, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Deng Xiaoping traveled to Europe as a young man and saw racial discrimination against Chinese people. Its economic revolution was built by beating the West at its own game.
Xi Jinping lectures the West on his own hypocrisy. He is still fighting the Opium Wars against Britain, the fall of the Qing – the great humiliation. His dream is to bring China back to the pinnacle of world power.
China is now seen as a threat to the West. A threat to the so-called rules-based world order that is itself rooted in a race-based order.
Much of the commentary on China ignores the issue of race. So many commentators discussing China — mostly white voices — lack the racial knowledge necessary to begin to understand how race and racism influence China’s rise.
In some ways, Xi’s China may represent the end of whiteness. Except that the Chinese Communist Party itself reflects whiteness.
The irony is that Xi has also become what he opposes. He is a Han nationalist – his idea of Chinese power is Han ethnic superiority – persecuting non-Han and non-white people in his own country.
If whiteness is power, Xi Jinping is its champion.
The pursuit of white power, in darker skin.
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and host of Q+A on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. He also presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.