A new form of Orientalism makes the West susceptible to propaganda narratives from China that ultimately aren’t even primarily intended for them.
That Western societies are under pressure from Chinese propaganda is no news at all. What is less frequently appreciated is that our susceptibility to it stems from a long tradition of exoticizing the Chinese themselves—out of a tradition of Orientalism that, paradoxically, has today melded with homegrown authoritarian tendencies among Western populists, to create a fertile ground for Beijing’s efforts at influence games.
Orientalism 2.0 is characterized by a barely-concealed, fearful admiration of the recent achievements of the East. Indeed, China today has replaced Japan of the 1970s as the country which “does things differently” and is about to overcome the old democracies.
When China’s Premier Zhou Enlai was asked by Henry Kissinger in 1971 what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been, he replied cryptically, “Too early to say.” This hoary story encapsulates the whole dynamic: the father of Western Realpolitik meets the enigmatic Eastern sage; Western quarrelsome short-termism is contrasted with Chinese strategic patience; “our” superficiality clashes with “their” sense of history.