Whataboutism and the China Debate

Whataboutism and the China Debate

I was on a panel recently at Australian National University called “What About Whataboutism?” It was about the way that everybody—hawks, doves, tankies, militarists, and racists—uses comparison in debates about China. The discussion with fellow panelists was very good, and you can catch the full audio for the entire session here.

What I’m writing here is a slightly amended version of my remarks on the panel, which really just tried to make two points.

The first is that analysis does political work. The second is that if you criticize China in a manner that is ahistorical or that doesn’t permit comparisons, your analysis will suffer—what you think and what you have to say will be distorted.

On the first point—analysis does political work. If you’re a consumer of analysis or a consumer of expert opinions—which everyone here is—it’s important to be sensitive to the political implications of the information you’re consuming. Not as a way of invalidating the information, but as a way of conditioning how you understand it.

There’s a ton of evidence that China’s been engaged in what both reasonable and unreasonable people call a cultural genocide in Xinjiang. And that evidence exists no matter how it’s presented. But whether we label it a genocide is A) its own debate, and B) the meaning of the evidence is completely up for grabs.

So in the context of a conversation about Uighur genocide, people have said to me, “Yeah, well, the US government genocided the native American population.” It’s not incorrect, but it’s decontextualized, and it doesn’t change what’s happening now. So why bring up that comparison? Well, that’s what we would call a tankie or a campist view, right. A tankie brings it up to serve a notionally anti-imperial political project that cares only about taking down American imperialism.

And the opposite problem is way more common. Making public noise about Uighur genocide happens to be one piece of a narrative puzzle that reactionaries and neofascists have been assembling to advance a clash-of-civilizations political project in the West (I address this in Pacific Power Paradox). One of the ways you know that’s what they’re doing is because the same people in the national security state during the Trump years—who were consolidating political power by presenting China as a super villain—were also literally supporting Chinese oppression of the Uighurs during the War on Terror years.

If Uighur human rights was the true motivation of the reactionaries, then they wouldn’t have been complicit in violating Uighur human rights the entire first decade of the 21st century. The US helped China build its surveillance state in Xinjiang, but it’s only outrageous now?

So the standard of drawing relevant, reasonable comparisons makes visible the politics of analysis here. Is comparing Uighur genocide to what the US did over a hundred years ago a relevant and reasonable comparison? Depends on how you do it but not really—the entire world system was different then—but even if it was a relevant comparison, its political purpose is not reasonable. Because whitewashing cultural genocide is not a legit purpose—that’s not ok now.

And then on the other side, is it relevant and reasonable to compare how a given class of people evaluate Chinese human rights violations now to how they evaluated it 10-15 years ago? Yes!

It’s relevant because it’s the same social milieu—and some of the exact same people. It holds constant across comparisons the thing that we’re analyzing—which is Chinese treatment of Uighurs. And maybe most important, it’s also the same reactionary project across time—great-power rivalry is an evolution from the war on terror—going from one construct to the other is a consistent story of militarism at the expense of democracy. You can’t tell that story if you can’t make that comparison.

Having said all that, my point is just that it’s really important to be sensitive to the political implications of analysis. Being conscious about the politics of critique makes you more measured and nuanced. Hyperbole don’t help nobody analytically.

And this brings me to my second point—which very briefly is that if you view China in a presentist, ahistorical, decontextualized way, you’re going to end up with bad analysis overall.

Comparison, if it’s relevant and reasonable, gives our judgments a sense of proportionality, and potentially validity. It’s a check against both threat inflation and threat deflation.

The PLA routinely violates the Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) of Japan and Taiwan. Sounds menacing, except that countries violate each others’ ADIZs sometimes. The US does it sometimes. The fact of ADIZ incursions without authorization is not weird; it’s not something to fear. But the frequency of PLA ADIZ incursions is, if not unsettling, at least begging for an explanation—that is abnormal.

But if you just decontextualize these ADIZ violations, it’s very easy to paint a picture that makes it look like China’s about to launch an aerial invasion of Taiwan any minute.

Similarly, the past couple years there’s been a huge threat discourse built up around China seeking a sphere of influence in Asia and the Pacific that directly challenges this abstract thing people call a “rules-based order”—because spheres of influence are built out of practices of control and exclusion that circumscribe sovereignty.

There’s a strong case to be made that China is doing this, or at least trying to. But my enthusiasm for fear-mongering about a Chinese sphere of influence is tempered by the fact that I have comparative knowledge about what spheres of influence are and how they work.

And I know that the US maintains a sphere of influence in the Pacific that it doesn’t acknowledge—it has a formal official very real sphere of influence that allows for the US to exclusionarily control the national security fate of Guam, American Samoa, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Well, the sphere of influence construct can’t be that menacing if we’re fighting to preserve one ourselves in the Pacific.

Comparison is what allows you to test whether you’re applying principles consistently. Because if you’re not, then you’re misestimating both the nature of the problem you think you’re facing and what ought to be done about it.

So be aware of the politics of analysis, and be aware that any analyst that uses whataboutism to deflect comparison or decontextualize information runs a high risk of distorting it.