Get access

‘China Anxiety’: Discourse and Intellectual Challenges


  • Yongjin Zhang

  • Earlier versions of this paper were presented at an international conference on ‘China Rising: External and Internal Impact’ at the National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (15–16 March 2011) and the ‘China Rising’ conference at the University of Bristol (5–6 December 2011). The author is grateful to participants of these two conferences for stimulating discussions that contributed to developing some ideas in the paper. The author would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their critical comments, which helped improve the analytical quality of this published version.


This article discusses what the author refers to as ‘China anxiety’, manifest in the current Anglo-American discourse on the rise of China. It is argued that beneath the hype and hyperbole, anxieties can be detected that are no longer only about the prospect, but increasingly about the purpose, of China's rise to power. The author suggests that there is a particular and deeper ‘cauldron of anxiety’ which causes, and is caused by, a certain intellectual disorientation among those participating in the discourse. The rise of China remains a puzzle, as it presents a number of paradoxes, contradictions and ironies. The article examines two specific propositions and debates, on the return of authoritarian powers and on the future of the liberal global order. The author argues that a rising China raises a number of important questions about the way in which the transformation of China has been represented in the dominant Anglo-American discourse and the knowledge of China that such representations construct. The article concludes with the insight that China's pathway to power poses fundamental challenges to some intellectual premises and political wisdoms widely accepted in the West.