Long gone are the days when The West could dictate terms to China. The balance of power has changed. Britain cannot afford to be too fussy about human-rights; we must do urgent business with the Chinese, writes Christian Walker.
We live in especially interesting times, internationally. This is because we are witnessing the rise of a new global power in the form of China; a rise which could culminate in the eclipse of American power (initially economically, later militarily) at some undetermined point in the future – all things being equal, certainly during the lifetime of our children. ‘What about India’, you say. Good point. A key reason for the focus on China owes to the unique challenges China’s rise poses to the global community – challenges of a very serious and fundamental nature, which are (thankfully) absent when considering India’s rise.
These challenges all point to one key question: ‘is China’s climb to global ascendancy going to occur peacefully?’ If we look at previous transitions of global power in history, the answer appears bleakly pessimistic – in the history of Man, there is one known peaceful transition of power – from the United Kingdom to the United States, after the Second World War. In all other instances, war of some kind has broken out between the revisionists (the rising state(s), seeking to change the existing global order to their favour) and the status-quoists (those who benefit handsomely from the existing global order, and will consequently act to defend it).
But this needn’t be the case. There are steps which would serve to massively improve the likelihood of continuing global peace – and which would be beneficial for both China, as well as ourselves. But these policies are not only difficult to implement, but also difficult to recognise as being necessary, owing to several misconceptions which many hold dear in the West. These misconceptions stunt economic growth, and make war more likely. So in an effort to counteract these two vices of the modern world, I am going to shatter some dearly held myths. You have been warned.
The Democracy Thing
It is odd how, even after Blair, Bush, Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still a generally held, bi-partisan view in the UK that democracy is a universal good. And this oddity is the first Great British misconception – specifically, that warm-and-fuzzy feeling we all experience when considering, and hoping for, democracy in China.
Allow me to explain the problems with this aspiration, through a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say the Chinese Communist Party collapses tomorrow, democrats take over on Tuesday, elections are held on Friday, and a new, democratically elected government of China is elected a week on Monday. In short, let’s presume that the most ideal (if unlikely) scenario for the West occurs – with a rapid transition to stable, western-style democracy, without any of the economic dislocation or spill-over of instability which one would normally expect from such a transition.
What happens next in this ‘ideal scenario’? Well, with the authoritarian but pragmatic CCP now out of the picture, we must first understand a little about the Chinese population who would now have a say in defining that policy – and whose opinions are often suspiciously absent when mainstream media ‘experts’ weep for the death of democracy in China.
The people of China are a polyglot lot; comprising of many cultures, differing ethnicities, and differing languages – but they are dominated, demographically as well as politically, by the Han, and (most) of those differing cultures and ethnicities, after thousands of years existing within the borders of China, are very proud to consider themselves ‘Chinese’. And it is this pride which gives cohesion to the nation of China, and serves to perpetuate and feed the virulent and extreme form of nationalism held by the vast majority of mainland Chinese.
This nationalism is largely, but not entirely, defined by the ‘century of humiliation’ China endured at the hands of Japan and the West, creating a deep-seated animosity, firstly and principally towards Japan (compounded by Japan’s activities in the Second World War), and secondly towards the West.
This sentiment would undoubtedly affect not only who would lead a democratic China, but also the domestic variables those democratic leaders would have to respond to, when forming their foreign policy. So with all this in mind, let’s briefly consider what the world’s newest democracy wouldn’t do – it wouldn’t grant Tibet its independence, and it wouldn’t stop oppressing the Muslim minority in the West of China.
Whilst Tibet could potentially be pacified through some decentralised, confederate system (which a democratic China could offer), the Muslim-dominated provinces would still agitate for independence from a government in Beijing seen as bring culturally and ethnically alien.
How a democratic China would approach these issues would probably depend on the population’s conception of ‘territorial integrity’ which, since Imperial China was carved up by Europeans to keep it weak, is probably the single most important issue for the Chinese people. So in this perfect scenario, China’s human rights record could potentially improve…but only toward particular ethnic groupings within China, and at the expense of other ethnic groups – hardly an improvement.
But what a democratic China would pursue is conflict. Firstly; conflict with Japan, whom the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population dislike to an extent rarely seen anywhere else in the world. And secondly with Taiwan, which is considered by most Chinese to be an errant province, undeserving of its quasi-independent state. China’s growing economic and military power leads to the inaccurate, but still widely held belief that China is a match for the United States (Unhappy China, published in 2009, promotes this notion, and was a best-seller within China), making US Security alliances with Japan and Taiwan largely irrelevant in China’s calculations. So far from engendering liberalism, peace, cosmopolitanism, et al., a democratic China would rather act as a responsive conduit for the nationalistic, self-aggrandising urges of the population.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
The second misconception concerns our perceptions of ourselves, and China’s perception of itself. We still think in terms of the Pax Britannica/Pax Americana age, of which we are all a product. We still think the world does, or will in time, conform to our vaguely defined ideals; and that China will, after feigning reticence, cow-tow in an appropriate fashion before the combined cultural, economic and military might of ‘The West’.
This is no longer the case, however, and it impacts greatly on our ability to ‘use’ instruments such as trade to affect changes in policy – when we use trade in such a manner, owing to the global marketplace and the impossibility in securing a common trade policy towards China throughout the west, we only hurt ourselves. And yes the Chinese know this; but even worse from a British point-of-view: almost everyone else in the West has also accepted it and quietly moved on, apart from us. Our frankly inflated perception of ourselves is harming us, because its so out of step with every other state in the West.
China’s self perception also makes it difficult to affect their policy. President H. W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and now Prime Minister Cameron have all made great play of criticising China’s human rights record. And their criticism is all real, and genuine – the evidence is the very real anger expressed by Chinese officials in response. Prior to his next chat with Premier Wen, Prime Minister Cameron should look at the list of names just provided, ask himself who the most powerful individuals on it are, and find out how much of an improvement in China’s human rights record they managed to secure during their time in office.
The answer is none whatsoever. Successive American Presidents, from differing parties, have all pursued a similar policy toward China over the course of some 20 years, and it did not result in any substantive policy change on the part of the Chinese.
There’s a very simple reason for this. China perceives itself not just as a Great Power, but as a power a little bit better than the rest of us. This belief is rooted in the concept of Tianxia, which was to varying degrees the system of governance maintained in Asia prior to the arrival of European explorers: a Sino-centric political order defined by superior Chinese cultural norms and precepts, other states would exist in a kind of voluntary vassalage – in supposed recognition of those superior Chinese cultural norms. This idea is more popular than ever before within China; the 2005 book, The Tianxia System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of a World Institution, describes how this order could be translated to the global level, as a means for China to govern the world, in a vaguely similar way to the United States does currently – with cultural hegemony playing as much a role as force.
But the fact that the book posits a future China with greater global cultural reach then United States currently maintains, where China essentially defines political discourse in all parts of the world, is a telling indicator of China’s confidence in this respect. The book was a bestseller in China. And this concept of Tianxia and the cultural superiority associated with it defines to a large extent how the Chinese see themselves in relation to the outside world. This is why the Chinese government and people really couldn’t care less what you think, about anything, and are visibly annoyed when you see fit to ‘educate’ them. This is why the United States hasn’t secured substantive policy changes from Beijing over the past twenty years; and it is why Britain can’t secure change now.
But that isn’t to suggest that the Chinese government isn’t listening. Chinese leaders certainly take note of who says what, and punish accordingly. As they did last week: after leaving Britain amid discussion of China’s human rights record, Premier Wen promptly went to Germany, where he signed trade deals securing thousands of green energy jobs in Germany, which dwarfed any of those he signed in Britain (£1.5 billion vs. £9 billion). Germany’s criticism of China’s human rights record is muted to the point of being non-existent.
Indeed, Premier Wen told business leaders in Germany that China would take no lectures from Europeans on how China should be led; Chancellor Merkel did not publically disagree with this assessment. The United States has also learned its lesson; after twenty years of fruitless prodding and nudging for reform, Hilary Clinton announced on the eve of her first trip to Asia as Secretary of State that the issue of human rights would not be allowed to ‘interfere’ on the more pressing issues such as regional security concerns, and managing the global economy.
The Dalai Lama, who had been given a medal by the previous President, was quietly received by the current President at the White House, for a short meeting – and no photo op. The State Department has also dropped China from its list of states with the worst human rights violations in the world. The deaths of some 150 protestors in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province in mid-2009 would indicate that greater respect for individual human rights on the part of the Chinese authorities was not the reason for this.
Chinese Pragmatism, Meet British Pragmatism
So, not only is democratic reform counterproductive for both the British national interest and world security, our ‘nudging’ for reform has a demonstrable history in both failing to achieve reform, whilst also costing us crucial and necessary foreign investment. But the real issue arising from all this is, how should we approach China?
Crucially, we must recognise the need to manage the rise of China in the only way we can – through creating an atmosphere of mutual respect with the government in Beijing, and integrating China still further into the global economy. Long ago, the free world had a choice – to either isolate and undermine the Beijing regime through refusing to trade with it, or to trade with it in the hope of moderating its tone; the time to make that choice is long past, however.
Inaction on our part has resulted in the choice being made for us, and we must accept that and move on in a manner which best advances the British national interest – but that is not to say the option chosen for us is wrong. Economic integration will make China ‘stakeholders’ in the existing pluralistic, capitalist-defined world order – so that far from undermining it, they will hopefully (in time) actively defend it; this will also have the attractive side-effect of encouraging an economic superpower to invest in Britain, and safeguard British jobs.
An unfortunate, but crucial ancillary to this is to recognise what should now be obvious; that a blinkered and ideological demand for greater democracy in China would undermine, not further these ambitions, in both the short and long term.
The rest of the West has already learned the lesson that, in International politics at least, the nice guy invariably finishes last – and usually causes more harm than good. Britain should beware the temptation of becoming ‘the nice guy’.