Sunday, May 19, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Cold War 2.1?

The present relationship between China and the US-dominated Western world is complex

Update : 10 Feb 2024, 08:44 AM

As you read this column today, millions of people around the world are busy celebrating one of the year’s biggest festivals -- Lunar New Year, which marks the first new moon of the lunar calendar. 

This year, the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, falls on February 10, marking a 15-day-long celebration. The Chinese zodiac calendar is best described as a 12-year cycle represented by 12 different animals, most of which are real except the mythical dragon, which happens to be this year’s sign. 

The 12 years follow: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. One’s personal zodiac sign is determined by one’s year of birth. This year, that is, 2024, is the year of the Dragon; if you were born 12 years ago, in 2012, your sign of the zodiac is also the Dragon. You get the idea. 

Having lived in Singapore, I witnessed firsthand the significance of the celebration of the Chinese New Year. I was alerted soon after my arrival in Singapore many years ago that I should stock up before the celebrations start because most of the shops and supermarkets would be closed for three days. Things have changed as more Western supermarkets made their way into Singapore. 

The Chinese New Year is a mega cultural event with deep roots in Chinese history and an essential part of Chinese identity. My Singaporean colleague in Abu Dhabi would make it a point to bring me mooncake to mark the celebration of the Chinese New Year. 

Speaking of Singapore, culture, and identity, I cannot pass the opportunity mentioning that one’s identity has an exterior side as well as an interior side. Recently, the CEO of Tik Tok, Chew Shou Zi, a Singaporean, was grilled by the US Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas in a congressional hearing, insisting if Mr Chew was a Chinese citizen. "Were you born in China?"

No, Mr Chew was not born in China. Maybe his ancestors did before the migration of Chinese labour to the Malay Peninsula in the 1800s. Yes, he is Chinese by ethnicity, but by nationality, he is Singaporean, and one of the brainy ones who went to Haw Chong Junior College, a top educational institution. 

Then he proceeded to study economics at the University of London and later earned an MBA from Harvard. Never mind Mr Chew’s academic pedigree and professional experience. "You look Chinese, therefore, you are from China." That was the assumption of the honourable senator. 

Did the senator not know that of Singapore’s 5.92 million people, close to 76% are Chinese (citizens or permanent residents) by ethnicity? Secondly, Singapore does not allow dual citizenship. 

The senator even asked whether Mr Chew was a member of the Communist Party of China. How could a Singaporean be a member of the CPC? Did he confuse Singapore with Shanghai? 

The honorable senator too was a Harvard graduate -- both undergraduate with a magna cum laude and a J D in law. 

I am beginning to doubt the quality of education in the most prestigious American academic institutions. Or, a better explanation is that even the best of education cannot remove deep-seated, preconceived notions, better known as prejudices. 

But just for the sake of argument, what is wrong with being born in China? Some of the leading diasporic Chinese-born intellectuals are offering their criticisms of China. Are they kosher because they are on the American side? 

Some commentators likened the unrelenting questioning of Mr Chew by Senator Cotton to McCarthyism. For those who are unfamiliar, Joseph McCarthy, popularly known as Joe McCarthy, was a US senator from the state of Wisconsin who ran an inquisition against communist suspects in the 1950s in the context of the Cold War 1.1. 

Those were the days of purging the communists and their sympathizers in the US, almost taking a leaf from the Soviets, their arch-rival. 

What is going on is the brewing of a new Cold War 2.1 when China is the “other,” the rival. 

Senator Cotton is not alone in judging one’s identity by exterior, because that is manifest, and visceral. Many of us fall into the same mold. The interior identity is one’s intrinsic identity, being shaped by one’s cultural upbringing. 

But the issue is more than an issue of someone’s ignorance or prejudice about identity. The issue is the growing anti-Chinese sentiment, which is an aspect of the emerging Cold War 2.1. 

Some scholars have presented China as a civilizational state, with tens of thousands of years of cultural continuity, and the influence of Confucianism on its governance, which separates itself from the Western model of state formation. 

Since the late 1970s, the world has been impressed by China’s exceptional economic growth, praising its rapid industrialization and poverty reduction. While the US-dominated West expresses concerns about human rights violations, censorship, and environmental degradation amid its breakneck development. 

The last criticism is somewhat hollow because China has taken tangible initiative in reversing environmental degradations. 

The present relationship between China and the US-dominated Western world is complex, characterized by economic interdependence, trade, and investment, yet rivalries are brewing in technology competition, especially with regard to advanced microchips, because of their role in AI. 

Lest the readers be alarmed: The US and China trading in goods stood at over $575 billion in 2023. The Cold War 2.1 is not an inevitability.


Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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