Tales of the Debt Trap: China, the US and the New Yellow Peril
The political and economic mobilization that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has given rise to a US-led counter-mobilization. The BRI is mainly about infrastructure building and investment in developing countries. The counter-mobilization is principally about the “Chinese debt trap”: China is said to indebt countries knowing that they will be unable to repay their loans and then seizes the defaulting country’s valuable assets. Tales of the debt trap are above all promoted by US politicians and media, they have no factual basis, and they invoke anti-China, anti-Chinese themes similar to those used in the West during periods of racist agitation against the “Yellow Peril.” Based on documentary research and fieldwork, we will discuss these characteristics, focusing primarily on the pervasive example that is spread about a supposed Chinese debt trap, Sri Lanka and its Hambantota Port, but will also refer to other claimed cases.

Barry Sautman, a Hong Kong University of Science & Technology political scientist and lawyer, has worked on ethnic politics in China, including policies, the Tibet and Xinjiang issues, and relations between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese. He co-authored, with Yan Hairong, Localists and “Locusts‟ in Hong Kong: Creating a Yellow-Red Peril Discourse(Baltimore: University of Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, 2015). They also research China/Africa political economy and interactions between Chinese and Africans, publishing 中国在非洲: 话语与现实 (China in Africa: Discourses and Reality) (北京: 社会科学文献出版社2017), as well as the “Chinese Debt Trap” and its supposed prime example, Sri Lanka.

Yan Hairong is an anthropologist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is the author of New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China (Duke University Press, 2008) and co-author with Barry Sautman of East Mountain Tiger, West Mountain Tiger: China, Africa, the West and “Colonialism” (Baltimore: Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, 2007) and The Chinese are the Worst?: Human Rights and Labor Practices in Zambian Mining (Baltimore: Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, 2012). Her current research interests include China-Africa links and the rural cooperative movement in China. Her intellectual interests include labor, gender, rurality and rural-urban relations, socialism and post-socialism, comparative social development, etc.

Faculty host: Jean Hong (
Speaker(s) Prof. Barry Sautman, HKUST
Prof. Hairong Yan, Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Date 4 Oct 2019 (Friday)
Time 12:00 - 1:30 pm
Venue Room 3401 (via lifts 17-18), Academic Building, HKUST
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
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