While many in Western countries have sounded the alarm over the danger of Chinese influence “infiltrating” and “infecting” politics outside of China’s borders, others are concerned that the reaction to Beijing’s efforts is the real threat.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of articles and studies of Chinese public relations campaigns to shape views across the globe, painting the efforts with a broad brush as a malignant form of “sharp power.”

Journalists and scholars cite the use of economic pressure or Chinese Communist Party-linked student organizations to force adherence to Chinese political views. Beijing’s insistence last week that international airlines must change the terms they use to refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau is one example.

While politicians have jumped to capitalize on such characterizations, others say a sober assessment of China’s actual aims is needed. An overreaction to China’s work to have more influence abroad, they say, might be the real danger.

China’s goals ‘defensive and largely unattained’

Speaking at Washington-based think tank The Wilson Center on Wednesday, Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese American writer and musician who spent decades living in Beijing, said the backlash currently underway is grossly disproportionate to any threat. China’s basic goals are actually defensive in nature.

“It’s looking to shape basic American narrative about China. Looking to deflect, to diminish criticism and ill-will,” he said. China wants Americans to come around to the view “that the Belt and Road Initiative is benign, that this whole China threat idea is nonsense.”

Not only are the goals largely non-threatening, according to Kuo, “even these defensive goals remain largely unattained.”

Panelist Robert Daly, chair of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, took a more critical view of Chinese efforts, but agreed that any reactions need to be proportional.

On the other side of the coin, there is also agreement among some that efforts underway in the United States to combat a perceived threat are in themselves an attack on important American values, and are fanning flames of prejudice.

Fanning racial prejudice

The consequences go far beyond a vilification of Chinese nationals, affecting Chinese Americans as well, according to Frank Wu, president of the Committee of 100, an organization which aims to both foster healthy US-China relations and promote civic engagement by Chinese Americans. The two goals, Wu says, are inextricably linked.

“The problem is the ‘slippery slope,’” Wu wrote in a yet to be published op-ed he showed to Asia Times. “People who hate, or even those who suffer from unconscious bias, do not pause to ask about your passport, and it wouldn’t be quite right if they did that anyway. They have long said, also with utmost sincerity, ‘You all look alike.’

“If someone is angry about the Chinese government or a Chinese company, the ordinary ‘man on the street’ cannot do much about either, far away in Beijing or Shanghai. They can, however, take out their anger on their neighbor or co-worker who happens to have an Asian face, even if they are mistaken about the exact ethnicity,” he continued.

This effect has been seen in recent years in high-profile cases of Chinese Americans wrongly accused of crimes, including two such cases in just the past several years. Sherry Chen, a long-time civil servant with the National Weather Service, and Xiaoxing Xi, chair of the physics department at Temple University, both had federal criminal cases against them dropped. In both cases they were accused of espionage in what many observers see as flagrant instances of racial profiling.

The reaction to China’s rise, some say, is in many ways reminiscent of the scourge of McCarthyism seen during the Cold War.

“The overreaction raises many specters from our own darker past from those times when we’ve lost sight of who we are and the values that we stand for,” Kuo said at the event on Wednesday.

Bashing China

George Koo, a columnist for Asia Times and Committee of 100 member, says that politicians often exploit misperceptions.

“Politicians get a lot of points for bashing China,” he lamented.

That aim may have been on display ahead of the Wilson Center panel discussion, when Republican Senator Marco Rubio lambasted the think tank for not discussing the political affiliation of a would-be Chinese participant. Huiyao Wang, founder of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization (CCG), is also a member of the United Front Work Department, an organization often cited in reports of Chinese influence operations.

Following the reports of Rubio’s letter, Wang was taken off the list of speakers and didn’t attend the event. The Wilson Center said that it was Wang’s decision not to attend. The CCG later issued a statement pushing back on the characterization of Wang’s work in an article published in Foreign Policy, which highlighted Rubio’s letter. Wang had not been fully aware of the event’s content, it said, and, while invited, had not formally committed to attending.

Rubio’s letter and the Foreign Policy article only serve to potentially “create confusion and misunderstanding about the contributions CCG is making to improve Sino-US relations,” the Group said.

“Rubio has managed to stop a productive dialogue between experts in the US and experts in China,” said Koo, adding, “We need more light on this issue, not more darkness. And people like Rubio, unfortunately, are turning out the lights and groping in the dark.”