China’s Race Problem

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An interesting take from Reihan Salam:

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.

I don’t really think speculation about who will “dominate” this century is a great way to think about things. Almost certainly in 2079 the United States of America will have less relative power than it does today, and that will almost certainly be a good thing—it will be because people in China and India and Brazil and Indonesia are richer and because Europe continues on a path of peace and integration. What’s more the reality is that countries with very divergent immigration policies (the US on the one hand, Japan on the other, or even compare Sweden and Denmark right next door to each other but with very different immigration regimes) can all be quite successful. But I agree with one of the key themes here. Precisely because the United States has struggled with racism throughout its history, we’re now much better socially and politically equipped to handle ethnic diversity in an amicable way than are many other places.