In 1904, Jack London, the most celebrated American writer of the time, was sent as a reporter to cover the war between Russia and Japan.
According to Daniel A. Métraux, editor of a collection of London’s writings on Asia (1):
London’s tenure as a journalist in Korea and Manchuria was a revelation to his worldview. As a white man he was a minority observing a war where Asia represented by Japan thoroughly outsmarted and overwhelmed numerically greater forces of the West represented by Russia. He soon realized that the West was not invincible, that Asians could through their own efforts defeat even Anglo-Saxons. The world that London had been brought up in had been turned upside down before his very eyes. The Caucasian was just one racial group among many others and was not in any way superior.
But it was not Japan, but China, the country that most impressed Jack London on his trip. Back in the USA, in an essay about China entitled ‘The Yellow Peril’, London described his first impression upon entering the country:
Everybody worked. Everything worked, I saw a man mending the road. I was in China.
And still in the same text, he reflected:
There is such a thing as race egotism as well as creature egotism, and a very good thing it is. In the first place, the Western world will not permit the rise of the yellow peril. It is firmly convinced that it will not permit the yellow and the brown to wax strong and menace its peace and comfort. (…) The Western world is warned, if not armed, against the possibility of it.
In 1907 London wrote a short story entitled ‘An Unparalleled Invasion’ in which he imagines the future economic might of China challenging the supremacy of the West:
Contrary to expectation, China did not prove warlike. She had no Napoleonic dream, and was content to devote herself to the arts of peace. After a time of disquiet. the idea was accepted that China was to be feared, not in war, but in commerce.
In this text, according to the logic of Jack London’s convictions, the ‘solution’ found by the West to the Chinese economic challenge was military: the story ends with the annihilation, by bacteriological warfare conducted by the USA, of a large part of the Chinese population.
Jack London embodies, in an exemplary manner, the fear and violence of white supremacy when confronted by the ‘yellow peril’. About himself, Jack London declared:
I am first of all a white man and only then a socialist.
This confession finds echoes today even in certain sectors of the Western left that, feeling threatened by Chinese economic and technological growth, warns of the danger of Chinese ‘imperialism’ and advocates the ‘containment’ of China.
China as a colony of the West—the Opium War
The British Empire tried to impose, wherever its power could reach, trade treaties in its favor, a strategy still successfully used today by western powers. But China, with a very restricted system of foreign trade, imposed several barriers to British ambitions. Opium was big business for the British Empire at the time. By 1850, between 15 and 20 percent of the Empire’s revenue came from opium. Historians Timothy Brook and Bob Wakabayashi, in their study Opium Regimes, wrote: “The British Empire could not survive without its most important source of capital, the substance that could turn any other commodity into silver,” i.e., opium. Historian Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, stated that “the entire infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium.”
According to this author:
It may have been that capitalism would have developed in Asia on its own without opium, but the fact is that it did not. At every stage of development, opium was crucial, first in the obliteration of ‘traditionalist’ obstacles to the market, second in the process of commodification and third in the creation of a class of consumers, and most of all, in the creation of the market itself.
Opium prepared the ground for capitalism by creating mass markets and proletarian consumers, while undermining the morale and morality of political elites throughout Asia.
In the concluding words of this book:
Opium was vital, both to the capitalist transformation of the local economies as well as to the finance of the colonial administrative structures which protected those economies, Opium was also important because it speeded those vital changes in the relation of production that were necessary for capitalist-style growth. Opium was the tool of the capitalist classes in transforming the peasantry and in monetizing their subsistence lifestyles. Opium created pools of capital and fed the institutions that accumulated it: the banking and financial systems, the insurance systems and the transportation and information infrastructures. Those structures and that economy have, in large part, been inherited by the successor nations of the region today.
But the Chinese Emperor, to protect his people, had decreed opium illegal and the opium commerce still carried out was very complicated and restricted. The British Empire’s response to the measures taken by the Chinese government to protect and defend the integrity of its people and territory came in 1839, when Queen Victoria sent the British navy to bombard China’s coastal regions, starting the first Opium War, which lasted until 1842. The second Opium War, which was joined by the French and lasted from 1856 to 1860, eventually forced China to legalize the opium trade and definitively open its borders to trade with the West, effectively turning China into a colony.
The exploitation of China and the opium trade was also instrumental in the accumulation of capital and the development of capitalism in the United States. Many of the ‘best’ and most respected families in the United States were involved with the various American companies that made fortunes from the opium trade, such as the Delano family, maternal ancestors of future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to James Bradley, author of the book The China Mirage,
the influence of these opium fortunes seeped into virtually every aspect of the American life. That influence was cultural: the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson married John Murray Forbes’s (an opium magnate) daughter, and his father in law’s fortune helped provide Emerson with the cushion to become a professional thinker. It was found in technology: Forbes’s son watched over his father’s investment in the Bell Telephone Company as its first president (…) And it was ideological: Joseph Coolidge’s (another opium magnate) heirs founded the Council on Foreign Relations. Several companies that would play major roles in American history were also the product of drug profits, among them the United Fruit company (…).
Still according to Bradley, it was the profits from opium that helped finance the construction of many American railroads, such as the Boston, Michigan Central, and Chicago railroads. And finally, the famous universities on the East Coast of the United States also owe a lot to the profits made from opium: much of the land on which Yale University was built was donated by the Russell family, another family whose fortune was made from opium. Columbia and Princeton universities have also benefited from donations from families whose fortunes are of this same origin.
The Chinese Immigrant Exclusion Act
The discovery of gold in California attracted many Chinese immigrants, and to the surprise of white workers, the Chinese workers proved to be more efficient, drank less, and saved more of their earnings. James Bradley cites the testimony of a U.S. senator at the time, George Hearst, about the Chinese workers in the gold mines:
They can do more work than our people and live on less…they could drive our laborers to the wall.
And not only in the mines, but also in the construction of the railroads, Chinese workers proved to be more capable and efficient than white workers. According to James Bradley:
During the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, white immigrants from Europe tried to bore through the hard granite of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and failed. Yet the Chinese, generally with smaller physical stature and strength, succeeded in the Sierras, laying the most challenging sections of the railroad. Governor Leland Stanford of California wrote President Andrew Jackson, ‘Without the Chinese it would have been impossible to complete the western portion of the great National highway’.
With the end of railroad construction, Chinese immigrants spread across the West, becoming farmers, owners of laundries, restaurants, hotels, and other small businesses. With their work discipline and frugal lifestyle, the Chinese often offered better and cheaper services and products than those provided by whites, who could not stand this competition, forcing the unions—dominated by white workers—to pressure Congress to expel the Chinese. Thus, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, making it illegal for Chinese immigrants to enter the United States.
White supremacy, which had succeeded in segregating African descendants by excluding them from its labor market, was now challenged on its own territory by another ‘inferior race’. In the face of the ‘yellow peril’ denounced by Jack London, the Chinese Exclusion Act was a U.S. Government’s action in defense of white supremacy within the United States.
The Japanese Invasion, World War II and the Chinese Revolution
World War II began earlier for China, in 1931, with the invasion of Manchuria province by the Japanese Empire in search of China’s natural resources needed for its industry. Beginning in 1937, Japan imposed on a significant part of Chinese territory one of the most brutal military occupations in the history of the 20th century. The delusion of Japanese racial superiority over the other peoples of Asia led to the murder of thousands of Chinese, Koreans, Indonesians and others, just as the delusion of the superiority of the ‘Aryan race’ in Nazi Germany killed thousands of Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Slavs and other ‘inferior races’ in Europe. But the destruction of China was perhaps unparalled: it is estimated that between 14 and 20 million Chinese died during the war of resistance against the Japanese occupation, which also generated between 80 and 100 million refugees. From 1931 to 1949 China was continuously in conflict within its territory, first with the brutal Japanese invasion, then with the civil war that ended in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese Revolution. One can only understand the greatness of the achievements of the Chinese revolutionary government from 1949 onward by considering the magnitude of China’s problems in this period. According to Shu Guang Zhang, author of the book Economic Cold War—America’s Embargo against China and the Sino-Soviet Alliance 1949—1963:
After decades of war, civil and international, the nation’s economy was at the edge of total collapse. Although no one could accurately assess the scale of China’s economic difficulties, it took little imagination to sense the severity of the problems. In 1949 China’s industrial production was only 30 percent of the recorded peak: the yield of heavy industry declined by 70 percent, light industry by 30 percent, and agriculture by 24.5 percent. The annual production of coal was a mere 3,243 tons, iron and steel only 150,000 tons, grain 113.2 million tons, and cotton 445,000 tons. The transportation system was hardly functional: more than 5,000 miles of railroads were crippled; 3,200 bridges and 200 tunnels were severely damaged; about 4,000 miles of vehicle roads were barely usable; airplane and boat transport were close to zero. Severe floods have swept a large part of the calamity. The physical damage of the nation’s infrastructure resulted in runaway inflation and severe disruption of trade, both domestic and international. Undoubtedly, the CCP had to reconstruct the shattered economy, bring inflation under control, and help the recovery of industry and commerce, which all became life-and-death issues.
It must be remembered that China did not receive any compensation from Japan for its immediate postwar reconstruction, nor was there the equivalent of a U.S. Marshall Plan to aid Chinese economic recovery, on the contrary, after the victory of the Chinese Revolution, the U.S. started an economic war against China to defeat its Revolution. Only the Soviet Union contributed in a limited way, due to its own problems at the end of WWII, to Chinese reconstruction.
Coming out of a dismal situation in 1949, in just 73 years, under the leadership of the Communist Party, China has become the world’s greatest economic power. In the words of John Ross, in his indispensable book China’s Great Road, this is:
The greatest economic achievement in human history in terms not only of its consequences for China but in the improvement of the overall condition of humanity.
For John Ross,
This is the fundamental reason that the ‘Western media’ and China’s ‘comprador intelligentsia’, has to suppress knowledge that China’s growth dwarfs that of any previous country in human history. It is because this unmatched speed and scale of China’s economic development was achieved by a socialist and not by a capitalist country and economy.
Still according to John Ross:
In the last twenty-five years, China has lifted more than 620 million people out of absolute poverty. That is, according to Professor Danny Quah of the London School of Economics, 100% of the reduction in the number of those living in absolute poverty in the world. No other country, therefore, even remotely compares to China’s contribution to the reduction of world poverty—a fact which places legitimate, and illegitimate, criticism of China in an appropriate qualitative context.
The War on China
Jack London revealed a profound truth when he wrote that “the Western world will not permit the rise of the yellow peril. It is firmly convinced that it will not permit the yellow and the brown to wax strong and menace its peace and comfort. (…) The Western world is warned, if not armed, against the possibility of it.”
The ‘brown’ for Jack London and white supremacy are the peoples of the Global South, Africa and Latin America who, united with the ‘yellow’ represent the greatest threat to the ‘peace and comfort’ of white supremacy and Western capitalist exploitation.
In fact, China has made an immense contribution to the development of Latin American and African countries, offering infrastructure investments, trade treaties, and an alternative to the privatization impositions of Western institutions committed to maintaining the neoliberal and neocolonial order, such as the World Bank and the IMF. And this recent news came to the dismay of critics of ‘Chinese imperialism’ in Africa:
“Chine is forgiving 23 interest-free loans for 17 African countries, after already cancelling $3.4 billion and restructuring $15 billion of debt from 2000-2019. Beijing pledged more infrastructure projects and offered favorable trade deals in a ‘win-win’ model of ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’.” (1)
In the face of China’s economic growth, of its political alliances with Russia and several African, Latin American and Asian countries, and of the advance of Chinese technology companies, like Huawei, the United States threatens a war against China, as predicted by Jack London in the short story “An Unparalleled Invasion”. And while the war does not happen, the United States desperately seeks to exclude China and its companies from global trade, as if a contemporary version of the Chinese Exclusion Act were possible, but this time with planetary reach!
Faced with the obvious decline of the U.S. economy, unable to keep up and compete with Chinese growth; faced with the shameful concentration of wealth in the US; faced with the increasingly patent inability of capitalism to give concrete answers to the urgent problems of environmental destruction and global warming; faced with the many uprisings that, especially in the Global South, have successfully challenged neo-colonial impositions and neoliberalism, it remains for the Empire to appeal to the last bastion of its self-proclaimed superiority: white supremacy. There are no more convincing and legitimate rational arguments for the maintenance of capitalism and its imposed hierarchies, nor for subservience to the Empire. It is only from irrational appeals to white supremacy that international right-wing and ultra-right movements can articulate themselves. Racist violence increases wherever the neoliberal order seeks to impose itself, as shwn in the coup d’état against the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia or in the Brazil of the Bolsonaro government.
White supremacy, capitalism, and colonial exploitation are closely intertwined in the history of the West’s domination of the planet. Since the Opium War the West has sought to subjugate China and take possession of its wealth. White supremacy has never forgiven China for escaping its ‘fate’ of being just another colony, of using its wealth for its own development. Since the Chinese revolution a new history began and a new future is now possible.
Franklin Frederick is a Brazilian writer and political activist.