China’s growth has spawned an anxiety industry to rival the infamous ‘Yellow Peril’ panic of a hundred years ago

China was at last awake… She was the colossus of the nations, and swiftly her voice was heard in no uncertain tones in the affairs and councils of the nations… China’s swift and remarkable rise was due, perhaps more than to anything else, to the superlative quality of her labour. The Chinese was the perfect type of industry. He had always been that. For sheer ability to work, no worker in the world could compare with him. Work was the breath of his nostrils. It was to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure had been to other peoples. Liberty, to him, epitomized itself in access to the means of toil… China rejuvenescent! It was but a step to China rampant.

The Unparalleled Invasion (1910), Jack London

Look out, because the Chinese are the masters now – or shortly will be. At least, that’s the impression that can be drawn from recent media headlines and new books. “Buying up the world – the coming wave of Chinese takeovers,” blared the cover of The Economist last month, followed up a few weeks later with a front page devoted to “the dangers of a rising China”. Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World was published last year and will come out in paperback in 2011. Last week, in The Financial Times, the headline on an article by Philip Stephens informed us that “a risen China reaches for power”. Unsettled yet?

Perhaps the most gloriously over-the-top contribution comes in the opening chapter of Ian Morris’s new work, Why the West rules – For Now, which contains an imagined account of Queen Victoria literally kowtowing before a conquering Chinese general at the East India Docks in 1848, before her beloved Albert is transported off to be a vassal in the Forbidden City. It’s a wonderful historical “what if?” And one of the reasons it resonates is because the scene speaks directly to our present mood of anxiety about the economic rise of China.

In 1066 and All That, W C Sellar and R J Yeatman wrote that in the wake of the Second World War, “America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .” The book was intended to be a parody of jingoistic, over-simplified British history teaching. But many writers and publishers, it would seem, do actually subscribe to the idea of there being a “top nation”. And at the moment, China fits the bill.

Western breasts have felt this pang of anxiety about a rising East before. In the late 19th and early 20th century – an earlier period of economic globalisation – there was a “yellow peril” panic in Europe and America. This was a time when America passed unashamedly racist immigration laws such as the 1875 Page Act and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act. Literature reflected the zeitgeist, too. In 1910, Jack London wrote a dystopian story set in 1975 called The Unparalleled Invasion, from which the introductory quote is taken, which depicts a newly industrialised China absorbing neighbouring states through relentless immigration. In the end, a campaign of biological warfare and genocide unleashed by the United States is presented as “the only possible solution to the Chinese problem”. This was also the time that the English pulp novelist Sax Rohmer began churning out his Fu Manchu books, in which the “yellow peril incarnate” is constantly kidnapping white women, committing murder, or plotting world domination (perhaps reflecting the famously strong Asian work ethic).

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the “yellow peril” mentality has returned. Aside from that charming man Morrissey, who recently labelled the Chinese a “subspecies” for their mistreatment of animals, there’s little overt racism any more. We have not seen anything resembling the grotesque stereotyping of Rohmer or London’s genocidal fantasies. And yet there is, nevertheless, a mood of angst – or perhaps we should call it “Changst” – over China’s economic expansion among many Western politicians, journalists, commentators and academics. There’s a growing feeling that China has transformed from a good-news story of economic advancement, to a bad-news story of potential threat.

The irony is that those most likely to be afflicted by Changst are neoliberals who were formerly the most vocal in their calls for China (and others) to go down the capitalist road. In 1989, as the end of the cold war came into sight, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay entitled The End of History (later turned into a book called The End of History and the Last Man), in which the author heralded liberal democracy and capitalism as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. A world in which Western political and economic ideals had triumphed, Fukuyama predicted, would be inherently peaceful.

And China’s market reforms under the Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s (and continued by his predecessors) were held up by Fukuyama as a vindication of that thesis: “What is important about China from the standpoint of world history is… the fact that the People’s Republic can no longer act as a beacon for illiberal forces around the world, whether they be guerrillas in some Asian jungle or middle-class students in Paris. Maoism, rather than being the pattern for Asia’s future, became an anachronism.”

But three decades after China ditched Mao and embraced markets, those former millenarian neoliberals have turned into 19th-century-style nationalists, obsessed with the global balance of power and increasingly dismissive of the idea that China’s economic growth can be peaceful. Today’s Chinese could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the West was enthusiastic about the Middle Kingdom’s embrace of capitalism only when it looked as if the West would retain the whip hand. The marketisation of China, with its 1.3 billion-strong population, was always going to turn the country into an economic giant. If it had not, those reforms would have failed. Western commentators must have (or at least should have) known this. Is it not hypocrisy to urge a country to go down a certain path and then break into a panic when it starts to arrive at the inevitable destination?

At this point, I should point out that there are many good reasons for Westerners to be critical of China. The Beijing government does much evil in the world, from propping up vile regimes abroad (from North Korea to Burma) to blocking international agreement on tackling climate change, as it did at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen last December. The evidence that the Chinese are responsible for a global wave of computer hacking, directed at Western targets, is mounting. And China is clearly running a mercantilist trade policy, keeping the value of its currency artificially low, in order to boost its exports at the expense of our nations, including manufacturers in the West.

At home it is hardly an open society, either. Beijing’s petulant and repressive behaviour last week in response to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo shows just what an unreconstructed authoritarian regime China remains. For all the advances in Chinese living standards in recent years, the ruling Communist Party is still as afraid of its own people as any tin-pot dictatorship. The suppression of Tibetan culture and the persecution of democracy campaigners by Beijing are appalling crimes that no one should seek to excuse.

Yet the criticism that the Chinese government is due for this behaviour is the same that is due to any state that acts towards its own people, or in the wider world, in such an uncivilised way. The problem is that the fear China inspires in the West at the moment is less a liberal response to its authoritarian sins, than a visceral reaction to China’s raw economic expansion, or the prospect of “China rampant”. In other words, Changst is about us and our insecurities, not them.

It is important to put the raw figures for China’s economic expansion into context. In 2007, a report for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by the late economist Angus Maddison forecast that China’s gross domestic product would overtake that of the United States in 2020, and that average Chinese incomes would triple to $18,991 (in 2000 prices) per person by 2030. But Maddison also calculated that the typical American in 2030 would have an income of $58,722. In other words, when China “rules the world”, its population will still, on average, have a lower standard of living than those in the West. Seen from this perspective, “rampant” China looks more like a big, relatively poor country desperately trying to catch up.

Perhaps the problem lies in our lingering “top nation” conception of history. Fukuyama was clearly wrong in his 1989 essay when he predicted that human history in the 21st century would become merely “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands”. But he was right that global politics does not have to be a zero-sum game, in which one nation’s prosperity comes at the expense of another’s poverty. We need to believe that peaceful coexistence with an economically prosperous China is possible. Because if we do not believe it, why should the Chinese?

It is rare for countries to proceed in a straight line to prosperity. As the Western world has experienced all too recently, capitalism tends to generate periodic crises. It would be remarkable if China were to experience uninterrupted growth of 10 per cent a year for the next three decades (which is what many economists project). At some point, there is likely to be a financial crisis and a recession. The danger is that Westerners, giving free rein to Changst, hand the autocrats of the Communist Party a pretext for blaming outsiders when things go wrong. One can hear the argument now from some Chinese demagogue in perhaps a decade’s time: “The West encouraged us to reform, but now we have done so, we have become a threat and they are intent on driving us back to penury”. Autocratic and insecure regimes tend to search for foreign scapegoats. We would be foolish to make their job any easier.

We should hope for a prosperous, democratic and, yes, influential China – for their sake and ours. Otherwise, we risk bringing on the very East-West antagonism we fear. Changst could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 – Ben Chu