Is the West’s ‘Red Scare' About China Valid?

Is the West’s ‘Red Scare' About China Valid?
Jan 07, 2020 By Degen Hill ,

As China continues to develop and play a more prominent role on the global stage, multiple politicians, organizations, and committees in Western countries are using the term “red scare” in reference to the Asian giant. It’s important to understand, first, what is meant by this and, secondly, if it’s valid. Napoleon once said, “Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Well, China is awake, but the question is, should we be scared?

Is the West’s ‘Red Scare' About China Valid?

What is red scare?

Red scare” refers to a fear of a potential rise of communism or anarchism by a society or state. Unsurprisingly, it’s a term — which gets its namesake from the typically red flags of communist countries — used by non-communist, often democratic, countries. “Red scare” is used to refer to the fear of communist countries that have significant political, economic, or social power. It stems from the idea that such a country might use that power to disrupt other societies, influence their politics, or hinder their agendas.

The history of red scares

Around 1919, shortly after the end of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, red scare took hold in the United States. The nation was gripped by fear of socialists, anarchists, political radicals, and communists apparently set on upending American society. Although the fervor died down after a few years, it picked up again immediately after WWII with many, predominantly Republican Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, creating a fear among the public that national or foreign communists (Russians) were infiltrating and subverting US society and the federal government.

A series of international events also fed the red scare of the time:

-1893-1976 - Communist forces led by Mao Zedong took control of China
-1949 - the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb
-1950-1953 - The Korean War, in which US troops fought against the communist-supported forces of North Korea

These events and alarmist sentiments led many Americans to believe the “Reds” were plotting to take over their country.

Why the West fears China

Fear of China specifically, as opposed to communism in general, first came into prominence in 1999 when the US Select Congressional Committee published a report that made allegations of Chinese spying in the US. Although the report was later discredited by experts, we’re hearing the same rhetoric almost 20 years later.

As with the Soviet Union in the past, China represents an existential and ideological threat to the US and to the idea of freedom and democracy that many Western countries promote. China represents an “alternative” approach to politics, economics, and development that many developing nations are turning to, either because they genuinely believe in the cause or because they’re simply looking for Chinese investment. As a result, some Western countries naturally feel insecure, with their response seemingly being to label China a threat and promote another red scare.

The West’s concern about China’s growth, especially economic and technological growth, is understandable. Tom Plate, distinguished scholar of Asian and American studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said, “China will aim to dominate transnational economic sectors it views as central to its survival, such as energy, commodities and especially technology. It will beg, borrow, steal and, if necessary, invent every last piece of technology it needs.”

China is also pouring billions of dollars into global infrastructure projects and handing out loans to developing countries like they’re giving away candy. Unquestionably, China is looking to prove itself as a global economic powerhouse, and with that, for better or worse, comes the agenda of the Chinese government.

Fear of China has indeed increased across Western countries in recent years, among politicians, federal agencies, and even everyday people. Beijing’s rise is understandably viewed as one of the biggest economic challenges of the 21st century world order, but is it really an ideological and national security threat?

Repercussions of the China red scare

As the term red scare starts to become part of the mainstream vernacular about China, there inevitably comes a shift in the perception of China and the Chinese people. This could, and no doubt already has, fueled discrimination against students, researchers, and companies with ties to China and will continue to play a negative role in the already volatile trade relationship between the world's two largest economies.

Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk said recently that an overreaction to the perceived China threat in the United States “could turn into a McCarthyite red scare”, warning that such thinking will damage American interests. She further explained that a perceived China threat could result in a loss of Chinese talent coming to the US and hinder American innovation and development.

Using a term such as red scare, which incites fear of ‘the other’, is arguably not an ideal way to confront the West’s pain points with China. There’s no doubt that China’s sphere of political influence is growing and it has an enormous amount of money, people, and global influence, but instead of seeing that as aggressive and dangerous, it is perhaps best to develop a new consensus regarding policies and priorities required to deal with China in the new era.

It’s important to have a healthy amount of respect and fear for the biggest kid on the playground, and there’s an argument that to ostracize or disrespect him is counterproductive. One might even suggest that it would be advantageous to have that kid on your side, keeping him amicable and skillfully managed instead of provoking him and brandishing him “the enemy”. 

Whatever we think about China’s politics and ideology, there’s no doubt it has become a globally important actor in international politics and has a tremendous amount of influence, especially with its vast and largely untapped market potential. With that in mind, does inciting the term red scare really benefit anyone, or does the world need to shift its approach to how it deals with, and talks about, China?

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Keywords: Red scare about China


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Very interested

Apr 18, 2020 00:20 Report Abuse



Apr 14, 2020 02:44 Report Abuse



Mar 23, 2020 14:49 Report Abuse


An interesting article.

Feb 05, 2020 11:58 Report Abuse


I’d suggest that it’s dishonest to try and dismiss legitimate concerns about the Chinese politics systems as “red scare”. The context is very different between the McCarthyism of the 1950s and our contemporary issues with the PRC government. McCarthy was using his tactics to stifle dissent in his own country. Nowadays people outside of China are simply expressing that the fact that they do no wish to live under the totalitarian surveillance that is being built in China. The elephant in the room is that China is rapidly moving towards a techno-dystopia and everyone knows it, from Taipei to Berlin.

Jan 09, 2020 11:22 Report Abuse


Wow. Cool

Jan 08, 2020 19:30 Report Abuse