Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

Sax Rohmer, penname of the journeyman British writer Arthur Henry Ward, wrote music hall routines, serial fiction and popular novels to make money. From a working class background and unblessed with great talent or connections, Rohmer was forced to develop an eye for what would sell. He struck gold with a creation that tapped into a rich seam of anti-Chinese racism, and exploited the prevailing Anglo-Saxon sense of racial superiority combined with a growing feeling of vulnerability vis-à-vis “the Chinese”.

By the time Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain Dr Fu Manchu emerged on the scene in London in 1912, the “Yellow Peril” idea had been around for several decades. Gina Marchetti’s classic study of romance and race in Hollywood film traces the popularization of the narrative to late 19th Century America. A dialectic characterized the “Chinese masses” as a threat to the lives of morally superior and yet physically vulnerable (by dint of their smaller numbers) whites. Yellow Peril discourse typically advanced a “semantics of spread”, with images of expansion, takeover and appropriation. Fears of an influx of Chinese labour to West Coast America, following major migrations during the gold rush of the 1850s, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a ban on Chinese immigration that was not repealed until the 1940s.

Such narratives have recurred over time and are not limited to the Chinese (consider fearful projections in some quarters about “Hispanicization”). Unsurprisingly, when it was later exported to the US, Rohmer’s work found a receptive audience, particularly in the screen version where Fu Manchu was played by Warner Oland (later reincarnated as Charlie Chan) and Boris Karloff in the 1930s. Christopher Lee reprised the role in a series of five films as late as the 1960s. In the early 20th Century Yellow Peril discourses resonated powerfully with British audiences too, although for a more nuanced reason than American fears of impending or imagined Chinese migration alone (despite British historical sensitivities about invasion). For the British, it was the alleged malevolence of the Chinese, reflected and reinforced by the Fu Manchu character, rather than sheer numbers, which triggered feelings of vulnerability heightened by a sense of decline, if not impending loss, of the Empire.

The character of Fu Manchu is spectacularly stylized, to the extent that he is the Yellow Peril incarnate. At one point in The Mask of Fu Manchu, the detective Nyland Smith comments in awe of his nemesis that “the spread of the thing is phenomenal”. As Ruth Mayer puts it in her investigation of the ideology behind the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu’s “volatility and intangibility, his expertise at masquerade, infiltration and impersonation render him at the same time impossible to locate and ubiquitous”. Racial stereotypes were an important feature of colonialism, strategies to cultivate the self-image of the colonizers while Othering their subjects. Constructing “the heathen Chinee”, to quote Bret Harte’s poem of 1870, was to justify acts of subjugation in the name of “civilizing missions” to force open trade, expropriate land or secure converts to Christianity. Chinese men, if they were considered as individuals rather than a mass of coolie labour (from the Chinese苦力meaning hard or bitter work), were portrayed as despicable, disgusting and physically, mentally and morally inferior. They could also be devious, villainous and inscrutable, as with Fu Manchu. Asian women were sexualised, available and in need of being rescued, a fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu’s Eurasian slave-girl Karamaneh.

Sax Rohmer’s own fantasies were served by a passing familiarity (which according to Christopher Frayling he greatly exaggerated) with the goings on and the characters of Limehouse, a riverside district in London where Chinese sailors, labourers and sundry merchants and associates resided. Known as ‘the Asiatic colony’, in the popular imagination (fed by Rohmer and others) Limehouse became synonymous with opium, crime and squalor, a microcosm of the “Far East” by the Thames. Rohmer, like many of his compatriots at the time, was fascinated with the “mysterious” Chinese underworld, secret societies, and the violence, drugs and prostitution that surrounded them. Movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) show the longevity of such fantasies. Edward Said argued that Orientalist fantasies were the externalized fictions of Europeans, essentially a made-up view of the world. Said didn’t study China (a regret expressed to Frayling which inspired the latter’s recent book), but the China scholar Colin Mackerras has shown how western images of China are consistent with Orientalist projections and the Orientalist schema. As Frayling says of the Fu Manchu series, “the stories were about us—they were not really about China at all”.

Racist stereotypes like Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril are repugnant and utterly anachronistic. And yet they underpin racist discourses, which serve as the basis of world views that are extraordinarily resilient and hard to budge. For instance,Emma Mawdsley’s analysis of UK broadsheets’ contemporary coverage of China’s engagment in Africa invokes striking stereotypes about “the Chinese”. Ono and Pham’s book on Asian Americans and contemporary US media speaks of the “structured embeddedness of the Yellow Peril”, which they find is deeply “entrenched within the cultural fabric of the US”. Frayling notes that “some of the most indelible visual images from popular culture were of ‘Chinamen’”. Unfortunately they were mostly Yellow Peril stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless, of the subservient Charlie Chan variety or played by white actors like David Carradine (who was cast ahead of Bruce Lee in the TV series Kung Fu). Another genre is the mocking “yellowface” impersonation of Asians by white actors, like Mickey Rooney’s lamentable Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It remains to be seen how the PRC’s recent rise to economic and political prominence, and increasing competition with the US, affects depictions of Chineseness. Racism doesn’t require or attract creative genius, as reflected by the limited repertoire of Fu Manchu’s fiendishness, and one wonders if the Yellow Peril will simply find another target without China’s economic clout (North Korea for instance, which appears to have replaced China as a source of Hollywood baddy). The Yellow Peril has changed little over time. Consider a complaint by Rd. EJ Hardy, Chaplain to the Forces in Hong Kong and published in the periodical Tit-Bits in 1896: “the peril is that China will manufacture things cheaper than Europeans can and dismiss us from trade in the Far East” (quoted by Frayling). This could easily come from the lips of any contemporary American or European politician. The target for Yellow Peril can change over time (it is hard to imagine, now that it has become a diplomatic and military bulwark against China’s rise, the fear and loathing Japan inspired in the US merely thirty years ago), but it won’t go away.

Land grab protests in Tianmu

When Hong Kong students launched their “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014, the comforting narrative of youngsters striving for democracy combined with the aesthetic of tents beneath the skyscrapers captivated the world’s media.

The scene in gritty Tianmu, a village outside the northern industrial city of Tianjin, couldn’t be more different to glamorous Hong Kong – nor could it be more typical of the widespread protests taking place on the Chinese mainland.

Without much fanfare or media attention, Tianmu’s residents have been protesting for almost as long as their counterparts did in Hong Kong. Instead of universal suffrage, the villagers have more mundane concerns on their minds: a fair price for their land. And in Tianmu, as in so many villages and towns throughout China, getting a fair price from local officials can be no less arduous than getting the central Chinese Communist Party to agree to free and fair elections.

For more than 70 days, several hundred people (and sometimes a few thousand) gathered outside government offices to demand the removal of the local party secretary, Mu Xiangyou, who they accuse of illegally selling off their land and pocketing the profits. The protests have only just begun to taper off.

Reports said that a public security official ordered the village committee to “find a solution”, but protesters have promised to return to the streets if their demands are not met.

Land disputes between residents and local officials are one of the main causes of civil unrest in China. Most incidents are directly related to the issue of unpaid or unfair compensation for land, since house-building and industrial development is a major source of income for local governments. Officials are known to collude with developers to sell land at prices well below market value; they sometimes employ thugs or cut utilities to force out people who are reluctant to move.

Corruption of this kind is common in China, where graft and clientalism are woven into the social and political fabric. Incidents in places such as Tianmu therefore tend to attract little attention and, as long as the protests don’t suddenly blow up, it is unlikely that Mu and his associates will be investigated or punished.

But Tianmu’s protesters are acting up at a sensitive time, just as elite party leaders appear near-obsessed with purging corruption among their unruly agents – and their protest reflects a dangerous situation for the central government.

Xi Jinping’s Beijing has responded to the outbreak of land protests with a number of measures. Its latest law clarifies citizens’ rights to sue the government for violating land agreements and compensation. State media say the law is aimed at promoting officials’ awareness of the “rule of law”, the rhetoric currently in vogue in Beijing.

But the new law is unlikely to change the status quo. The odds will remain stacked in favour of officials and their partners in development.

In theory, land acquisitions are restricted to projects that are in the public’s best interest – but in practice it is up to local officials to determine what the public’s best interests are. The obvious potential for conflicts of interest explains why protests over land are springing up all over the country. Compared to Tianmu, most of these incidents have been small and short-lived – but the problem isn’t going away.

Like others before them, the residents of Tianmu are using the party’s own anti-corruption language to voice their grievances. Intentionally or not, this is perhaps the best tactic in the current political climate. The legal culpability of local officials can be hard to determine because Chinese land law is so ambiguous, but even the most egregious misdeeds seldom end up in court.

The protesters’ best bet for success is to make themselves heard as widely as possible – increasing their numbers as much as possible and trying to grab the attention of China’s online community.

But China’s online public sphere is under more pressure than ever since the Xi administration decided to tighten its grip on physical and online space. Xi’s war on online rumours and influencers has had precisely the intended chilling effect, largely defusing Weibo’s once-great capacity to stir public outrage.

Some commentators, for instance the prominent American scholar David Shambaugh, see Xi’s various clampdowns as a sure sign of weakness. A confident government, the argument goes, would not be bothered with cracking down on academic institutions, putting the screws on the already heavily controlled internet, or targeting activists, including those working in previously “safe” areas such as women’s rights.

But anxiety and insecurity at the top are nothing new. Worries about real and perceived threats have been a constant feature of the party throughout its existence. The entire political system is based on the party maintaining ultimate authority and, as such, it is constantly looking for challenges and jealously defending its power.

Full piece with Samantha Hoffman here.

Framing China’s global engagement

In recent years China has invested heavily in new media operations to balance negative global media narratives. This is an important task. China’s global engagement is going to increase in coming years and its economic activities will bring its companies and people into greater contact with local populations in every corner of the world.

It is important for host countries, for China and for international society as a whole that these interactions are positive. Intensifying connections in any sphere can cause friction, and it is vital they are managed and sources of tension minimized as much as possible.

In this regard, the Chinese government, one of the most efficacious institutions in the world, can do more to address the concerns that some host populations have. I am not suggesting that the government make efforts to monitor the behavior of private individuals abroad, but concerns about the ways in which state companies operate, for instance, could be better addressed.

Labor conditions, pollution, lack of knowledge exchange and the general unaccountability of Chinese companies are real issues that can damage China’s prestige and reputation. And while China is at pains to demonstrate its respect for African nations’ sovereignty, less effort is made to learn and adapt to local cultures and norms.

Transposing practices and norms directly from the Chinese environment can be problematic considering the incredibly diverse range of places where Chinese companies operate. Demonstrating greater sensitivity to local cultures could go a long way to enhancing positive attitudes toward Chinese engagement. While less tangible than infrastructure projects or trade figures, these practical, grassroots activities are an important component and basis of “soft power”.

Full article here

Taiwan’s elections

Taiwan will conduct a huge democratic exercise on Saturday 29, the 9-in-1 local elections for some 11000 public offices, including six special municipalities. Unfortunately I have been so busy with teaching and preparing to examine two PhD theses, that I ran out of time to write a piece before the elections take place. At least I managed to share some thoughts with Austin Ramzy for his report for the New York Times.

On the other hand, there is already such an abundance of excellent analysis from a variety of angles, that my missing .02 will not be noticed. As usual, the blogs of Michael Turton, Ben Goren and Michael Cole have pretty much everything covered. And the CPI blog that I edit has the views of more than a dozen Taiwan specialists (including heavy hitters like Shelley Rigger, Dafydd Fell and John Keane).

On Twitter, there are a number of people to look out for, including: @austinramzy @JMichaelCole1 @michaelturton @ehundman @bangaoren @michalthim @focustaiwan and @jonlsullivan. Polls close at 4pm in Taiwan (that’s 8am UK time) and counts will start coming soon thereafter, although actual results might not be known until late in the evening. You can follow the counts live here (Many thanks to Ben for sharing this link with me).

Taiwan’s Identity Crisis

I have an essay in The National Interest today on the “disappearance” of Taiwan identity. In fact Taiwan identity hasn’t disappeared at all: it is a powerful latent force in Taiwanese politics that to some extent has been superseded by an economic cleavage into which it also feeds. It is a complicated situation, particularly for the DPP, and how the parties attend to it will have a big effect on their electoral chances and the extent to which the coming period will break from the Ma era. Michael Turton and Ben Goren have some thoughtful immediate reactions (including pointing out lacuna) to the piece.