- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
At a press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, a reporter asked a question that seems to come up whenever China attempts to do anything of global significance: Is China a paper tiger? His question pertained to China’s controversial new air defense identification zone, and the government’s failure to respond when the United States defied it by flying two B-52 bombers through the area. At the briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson deflected the question, saying: "The word paper tiger has its special meaning. You should look it up."
Well, we did. And guess what: Everyone has a different definition.
Journalists seem to never tire of comparing China, in one way or another, to a paper tiger. Is China’s economy a paper tiger? Are its cyber threats a paper tiger? How about its banks? Or it’s ability to innovate? The list goes on. Apparently, everyone wants to make a paper tiger out of China. Ironically, it was Mao Zedong who helped popularize the phrase that journalists have now come to rely on when disparaging the country he shaped. But in Mao’s usage, it was the United States, not China, that deserved to be called a paper tiger. In a 1956 interview, he had this to say about U.S. imperialism: "In appearance [U.S. imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain."
The paper tiger, according to Mao, has two distinguishing characteristics: It’s shallow show of strength and its disengagement from ordinary people. "The wind and the rain" refer to the masses, both in the United States and elsewhere, who will batter the tiger until it finally crumbles. Could this apply to China? To find out, we took Mao’s ‘paper tiger’ interview and replaced all mention of the United States, Americans, and imperialism with the words "China" and "Chinese." Here’s an excerpt:
"Now [China] is quite powerful, but in reality it isn’t. It is very weak politically because it is divorced from the masses of the people and is disliked by everybody and by the [Chinese] people too….
At present, [China] is powerful, but when looked at in a broader perspective, as a whole and from a long-term viewpoint, it has no popular support, its policies are disliked by the people, because it oppresses and exploits them. For this reason, the tiger is doomed. Therefore, it is nothing to be afraid of and can be despised. But today [China] still has strength, turning out more than 100 million tons of steel a year and hitting out everywhere."
For what it’s worth, China churned out 716.5 million tons of steel in 2012.
Anyway, Mao’s definition isn’t the only one out there. Years before Mao popularized the phrase, Amelia Earhart used paper tigers as a metaphor for fear. In 1998, Osama Bin Laden described the American soldier as a paper tiger, "unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled." Philosopher Paul de Man used paper tigers as a metaphor describing anxiety around the emerging field of literary theory. (He concludes that one should just call a cat a cat.)
Merriam Webster defines "paper tiger" simply as "one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual," which is probably what journalists mean when they use it. Still, the phrase has been used so liberally and so often that, like Mao’s original tiger, it begins to lose its teeth. Perhaps it’s time for a new definition — one from Bill Watterson’s much loved comics: As Hobbes, Calvin’s striped cartoon companion, once defined "paper tiger," it’s simply "a tiger with a newspaper route."