It seems like only yesterday that Russia was responsible for all the world’s ills. Over the last decade, we have come to understand Russia as a brutally repressive tyranny whose power-mad dictator works relentlessly to subvert American democracy while his fangs drip with the entrails of peace-loving people he has slaughtered from Ukraine to Syria. Now we can forget that. A new force has supplanted Russia in our national cosmology. Quite suddenly, our relentless search for enemies has led us to a new consensus: whatever bad happens, China did it.
The raw material for this new obsession has been floating around for a while. American military commanders have insisted for years that China’s naval presence in the South China Sea threatens our interests. Humanitarians have condemned China’s repression of protests in Hong Kong and mass detention of Muslim citizens. Diplomats worry that Chinese mega-projects like the Belt and Road Initiative are signs of global ambition. Until now, though, China has seemed a pale threat compared to the force of barbarism we call “Putin’s Russia.”
The outbreak of a global pandemic that originated in China has dramatically changed this calculus. Outrage at Russia has faded. As late as the beginning of this year, if an American newspaper’s front page did not have an article denouncing Russia, it was probably only because space was needed for one denouncing Iran. Yet almost overnight, the anti-Russia organ has fallen silent. A newer model has replaced it.
This new Wurlitzer blares a message that is not much different in tone or content from the old one, but with the word “China” replacing “Russia” whenever we identify the source of evil in the world. News outlets spend hours every day denouncing China. No one could have been surprised when a poll taken in March by the Pew Research Center showed that fully two-thirds of Americans now hold negative views of China — more than at any time since Pew began asking the question 15 years ago.
Our presidential campaign has turned into a debate over which candidate is more virulently anti-China. One of Joe Biden’s campaign ads shows Chinese soldiers marching in lockstep while a narrator asserts, "Trump rolled over for the Chinese.” Another ad says “Trump praised the Chinese 15 times in January and February.” The Democratic National Committee is urging pro-Biden candidates to hammer on this theme because in the current climate, "Trump’s failure to stand up to China is one of his biggest vulnerabilities.”
President Trump’s supporters are fighting back in a way that reflects the national mood: by insisting that their man hates China most. One of their new attack ads shows footage of Biden with President Xi Jinping of China, interspersed with captions like “Biden Stands Up For China While China Cripples America.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent its candidates a memo advising them to call the global pandemic “a Chinese hit-and-run” and to denounce Democrats as “soft on China.”
The instinct to blame others for one’s trouble lies within us all. It’s far easier than looking in a mirror to examine our own responsibility. Yet leaders in most other countries are more focused on resolving the current crisis than using it as a cudgel to beat China. Something in America’s collective psyche pushes us to blame foreigners for whatever ails us.
This impulse did not fade with the end of the Cold War. Rather than seek a less confrontational approach to the world after the Soviet Union collapsed, we doubled down on our determination to control events everywhere. Any country that resists becomes our enemy.
Bashing Russia was never just about Ukraine or Syria or interference in the 2016 election. It also was punishment for Russia’s success in upsetting our ambition to dominate Europe and the Middle East. Today’s burst of anti-China passion has the same root. The virus is just a convenient hook. Our real complaint is that China is working systematically to replace us as the dominant power in East Asia. If the virus had originated in Honduras rather than China, American leaders would not be joining in a chorus to denounce Honduras. It is fully submissive to the United States, so we have no pent-up need to be anti-Honduran.
Plenty about China — like plenty about Russia — deserves harsh criticism. The new hysteria sweeping the United States, however, is not aimed seriously at trying to push China in constructive directions. Nor does it stem only from anger about the virus. Democrats and Republicans alike have an interest in making us believe that the cause of our suffering lies not only outside ourselves, but outside our country. If China is the arch-villain, then America’s problems are not rooted in our failure to build a modern health care system, or endless wars that drain our treasury, or the lack of a social safety net for our vulnerable citizens, or our destruction of the natural environment, or the two-party system itself.
The narrator of “Moby-Dick,” seeking to understand what malign force is propelling him toward disaster, asks himself, “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it?” Today we know the answer for ourselves. Our entire political class agrees. The demonic force is no longer nameless or inscrutable or unearthly. It’s China. Embracing this reassuring delusion confirms our national innocence and allows us to sleep soundly.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.