Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > “Yellow Peril” Morphs into Chinese Borg

Feb 28, 2013

“Yellow Peril” Morphs into Chinese Borg


You remember those Chinese hackers, the ones we are all supposed to be so terribly worried about just a few days ago? They’ve disappeared from the headlines; apparently we’re not supposed to worry about them any more, at least for now. But they’re bound to be back back in the headlines sooner or later, and probably sooner. So we ought to take a close look at the story.

The joke is on the hackers, says Washington Post wonk blogger Ezra Klein. They’ve been suckered in by a great myth -- the myth that there’s some secret plan hidden somewhere in Washington, the script for everything that the American government and American corporations do. The Chinese think that if they hack enough computers, somewhere buried in that mountain of data they’ll find the master key that unlocks the plan.

The joke is that there’s no key because there’s no plan, says Klein. Everyone in Washington and in corporate America is just bumbling along, buffeted by each day’s endless compromises and unexpected twists and turns that make our system run.

I imagine Klein is describing the American system pretty accurately. But I suspect the joke is on most Americans too, including many in positions of power, because we too have been suckered in by a great myth -- a myth about China that’s a mirror image of the myth Klein says the Chinese hold about us.

All the headlines I’ve seen about the alleged hacking suggest that there’s some great monolithic monster out there -- some say it’s the Chinese army, some say the Chinese government, some just call it “China” -- doing the electronic snooping. Its tentacles are everywhere across America (though they’re especially dense inside the D.C. Beltway), scooping up vast amounts of precious data (the story would hardly matter if the data weren’t precious) and feeding it all into some superbrain that is plotting something.

Who knows what? We certainly can’t know. After all, the monster is Oriental; thus, as an age-old American tradition tells us, inscrutable.

But the Chinese monster surely knows what it’s plotting. It must have a plan. Otherwise why go to all the trouble of doing all that hacking? And the plan must be nefarious. I mean, we’re talking about foreign spies here. Whatever they’re up to, it’s always no good. Whoever heard -- or more likely saw, in the movies or on television -- a story about foreign spies who didn’t pose a threat to us?

If the spies are inscrutable Orientals, who think in ways we can’t ever understand, they are all the more threatening. And if those Orientals are agents of the world’s largest nation – a nation so vast we can scarcely comprehend its size, much less its motives – why that’s the most threatening image of all.

Wait, it gets worse.

I’m writing this a few days behind the headlines because I’ve been traveling. You learn a lot traveling. For example, from reading the nation’s most respected, influential newspapers I had learned that the Chinese hackers are a threat to our national security. But in the airport I learned that I had a lot more to worry about than that.

On every newsstand the message leaped out at me from Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “YES, THE CHINESE ARMY IS SPYING ON YOU” -- spelled out against a blood-red background in big bold yellow letters. Very yellow.

It’s appropriate that my destination was California. I’m writing this piece in the state that did more than any other to promote the notion of the “yellow peril” and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s and 1890s.

In light of this sad history, I was hardly surprised that there would be so much fear of the Chinese spying on our government and corporations. But now Bloomberg tells me that the “yellow peril” is coming after little old me -- and you and you and you -- scooping up all the most personal private data that each one of us has stored on our home computers.

Who would have imagined it, even in the heyday of the “yellow peril” panic? No matter how much you fear the foreign evildoers at your doorstep, it seems, there’s always more to be afraid of.

If the Chinese are absorbing data from each and every one of us, they are obviously looking for more than just Washington’s master plan. Surely they know that nothing on personal computers in Keokuk or Kankakee can yield the mythical key. No, it’s obvious that they want everything that America has to offer, absolutely everything, wherever it is.

I mean, think about it. China keeps on expanding in every way imaginable -- just like the Borg. So, like the Borg, it must intend to absorb us all. Absorbing our precious data is merely the first step in the plan.

And while we Americans merely bumble along chaotically, the Chinese Borg must have a plan. All this hacking can’t be happening at random. Even Ezra Klein, who usually makes his living promoting healthy skepticism, assumes that everything in China is guided by some master plan.

Indeed, that’s the vital difference between the two great powers, Klein concludes, and the key to America’s superiority. Since we don’t have any great plan, when things get screwed up (as they inevitably do) we are flexible enough to get along pretty well anyway.

But the Chinese depend so heavily on “the plan” that when it gets screwed up they are stuck. In other words, the Chinese are just too regimented, as if the whole nation were one big army. As in any army, when things get snafu’d no one knows what to do next, because the underlings have never learned to think for themselves.  Everyone must simply follow orders. Resistance is futile.

Which brings us back to the “China as the Borg” myth. But this Borg isn’t brave enough to confront us boldy, declaring with supreme self-confidence, “Resistance is futile.”

No, this is a Chinese Borg. So it must be not merely inscrutable but sly, devious, duplicitous. Real (read: white) Americans have always been fascinated by what they imagined went on in the alleyways of our Chinatowns, the kitchens and back rooms of our Chinese restaurants, and -- the most fascinating mythic realm of all -- the smoky, gauzy netherworld of the opium dens.

We could never know what they were doing. But whatever it was, like the deeds of foreign spies, it could bode no good for real Americans.

Now, it seems, that inscrutable “yellow peril” has morphed into a perilous yellow cyber-Borg, aiming its e-tentacles at each and every one of us. For lovers of political mythology, China is the gift that keeps on giving.

Seriously, I’d bet the farm (if I had a farm) that the joke is on us. Of course China has hackers who scoop up as much data as they can from us -- just like the American hackers who are aiming their e-tentacles at China. When the New York Times first reported that the Chinese hackers were probably working for the army (probability was all they could offer) their only source was “American intelligence officials who say they have tapped into the activity of the army unit for years.” I should hope so. That’s what we pay them, with our tax dollars, to do.

And just as our government and military analysts sift and organize the spy-collected data in endless ways, constantly arguing about what it all really means, no doubt the Chinese do the same, bumbling along in the same way with the same random, chaotic results.

It’s spy versus spy. I imagine it has been going on ever since the Sumerians faced off against the Akkadians well over four thousand years ago. It’s the obvious thing for great powers to do too. And for all those four millennia, I suspect, every spy has tried to convince his (or her; see “Homeland”) boss that s/he’s got the master key to the enemy’s grand plan. How else can a spy hope to get promoted or given a juicier assignment?

Mad Magazine’s “Spy Versus Spy” cartoons captured the essential comedy of the game for a whole generation of youth growing up in the heyday of the cold war. No doubt, if the Sumerians or Akkadians had a Mad Magazine the basic joke would have been the same.    

But while my generation was laughing at “Spy Versus Spy,” our elders were avidly supporting a government that was heading toward the Cuban missile crisis, when the president’s closest advisor (his brother) could only estimate the rough odds on avoiding an all-out nuclear holocaust. No joke.

So while we laugh at the funny side of the Chinese hackers” panic, we also need to take it, and talk about it, very seriously. Understanding its deep roots in American mythology is a useful first step. Resistance to even the most deeply entrenched myth is never futile. 

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