Trans-Pacific View

How American Exceptionalism Gave Rise to the China Threat Theory

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Society | East Asia

How American Exceptionalism Gave Rise to the China Threat Theory

China, a legitimate contender to the U.S.-led world order, fundamentally challenges the doctrine of American exceptionalism – the basic tenet of U.S. national identity.

How American Exceptionalism Gave Rise to the China Threat Theory
Credit: Depositphotos

“With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City,” Kenneth Wherry, then the mayor of a small town in Nebraska, proudly proclaimed in 1940. It was a glaring display of race-driven paternalistic attitudes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nearing a century later, the United States’ China policy has yet to mature. 

Nowadays, the U.S. no longer views China as a fledgling nation blossoming under its generous tutelage; rather, China is seen as an ex-communicated protégé that has gone off the rails. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the road to the White House. With the 2024 election on the horizon, presidential hopefuls, political pundits, late-night talk show personalities, 24-hours news networks, and an electorate that is more polarized than ever are all gearing up for what is being billed as one of the highest-stakes U.S. elections in recent history. Yet, in an increasingly divided political climate, the need to “do something about China” seems to be the one and only thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon. 

President Joe Biden’s hardline approach to China is well established. In May 2021 – only a few months into Biden’s term – his Asia Czar, Kurt Campbell, made a profound declaration: the “period that was broadly described as engagement” with China “has come to an end.” 

It is no surprise, then, that unfavorable views of China have permeated into public life in an eerie echo of the 1950s Red Scare. The American fear of China is so pervasive that it seems to have grown past the point of rationality. One of the most memorable displays of this occurred in January, when Singaporean TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was incessantly grilled during a congressional hearing on his supposed ties to the Chinese Communist Party, an absurd display of both McCarthyite paranoia and racist ignorance. 

In March, TikTok was back in the spotlight as the U.S. House passed a bill that could lead to a nationwide ban of the app, with policymakers’ arguments boiling down to: it’s dangerous because it’s from China. Such fear-mongering rhetoric is not a response to any real development in China’s conduct on the international stage; rather, it is a symptom of the United States’ identity crisis. 

Since the beginning of the Cold War, American identity has been characterized by an absolute belief in American exceptionalism. This ideology asserts that the U.S. sits at the apex of modernity and has a unique place in history as the bastion of freedom. But to be the defender of the free world, the United States must be defending the world from something. During the Cold War, this enemy was communism. After the fall of communism in Europe, the “Axis of Evil” quickly assumed its place during George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Like how Batman needs a Joker, the uncomfortable conclusion is that American identity cannot exist without an enemy to define itself against. 

As the world moves on from the United States’ post-Cold War victory lap, American exceptionalism is more fragile than ever. Promises to spread democracy are belied by failed experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the subsequent turmoil the U.S. left in its wake. Domestically, the Global Financial Crisis has shattered faith in the stability of the U.S. economic system. Donald Trump’s presidency (and the very real possibility of a second term) has called into question the legitimacy of the United States as the “leader of the free world.” 

Rather than resulting in any productive reflection, the continual erosion of the basic foundations of modern U.S. identity has only redoubled the United States’ efforts to maintain its sense of exceptionalism, with a new enemy to reaffirm growing doubts over its legitimacy. And China is the perfect candidate.  

China once very neatly fit into the idea of American exceptionalism. Since the 18th century, China has been portrayed as an uncivilized nation developing under U.S. guidance, so much so that the “loss of China” to communism in 1950 was seen by the American public as an unforgivable betrayal by the Chinese. In the 1970s, renewed belief that China’s opening to the world would inevitably lead it to adopt a U.S.-style sociopolitical system was a key enabler of rapprochement in 1972 and continued to drive U.S. foreign policy well into the 21st century

Yet, China did not become more like the United States. On the contrary, not only has China defied expectations by doubling down on its rejection of Western models of governance, it has excelled in doing so, with its unprecedented economic growth hailed as a miracle. 

The “China Threat” narrative serves as a stopgap for the United States’ existential crisis. The narrative’s utility comes not from its objectivity, but instead from a psychological desire for security – distracting the U.S. from the uneasy fact that the China of today, a legitimate contender to the U.S.-led world order, fundamentally challenges the doctrine of American exceptionalism. It is the same reason why outrageously propagandistic headlines such as “These may be the world’s best warships. And they’re not American” barely raise an eyebrow for most Western readers. 

The United States (and, by extension, the West) must fundamentally change the way it thinks about China. China is not, and never was, the United States’ to own, shape, define, or direct. This old framework of thinking is rooted in American exceptionalism. What’s more, the U.S. must let go of its post-Cold War triumphalism. The days of hegemony are over, the End of History is a myth, and we have no choice but to co-exist. To meaningfully engage with China, the United States must reject the lie of American exceptionalism and evolve from cultural chauvinism to cultural humility.

It would indeed be an unimaginable tragedy to undo decades of globalization, development, and progress because of the fragile ego of a nation. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to do some soul-searching. 

Guest Author

Gabby Green

Gabby Green is the founder and executive director of New Global Normal, a U.K.-based non-profit that contributes to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 17. Gabby is a graduate from the University of St Andrews with a First Class MA (Hons) in Economics and International Relations. Her dissertation, entitled "The China Threat Narrative: A Genealogy" received a distinction. In Autumn 2024 Gabby will commence a Double Master’s degree in the Global Political Economy of China and Europe at the London School of Economics and Fudan University.