The west is dimly aware that China’s gangbuster growth is creating a superpower, but we’ve kept our heads in the sandby Tom Clark / May 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
It feels like an age ago after a sizzling Mayday, but it’s only been a few weeks since I found myself snowed in at the Holiday Inn near Heathrow. You could pick up the i newspaper, but a less-familiar alternative was also proffered to travellers: China Daily. One headline gives a flavour of the many front-page stories about Xi Jinping: “World leaders offer their congratulations.”
The west is dimly aware that China’s gangbuster growth is creating a superpower, but we’ve kept our heads in the sand about the political ramifications. Any old atlas of the British Empire or modern-day map of US bases reveals how trading giants get drawn into power games. Sometimes the link between financial and diplomatic clout is hard-wired into the rules: Kishore Mahbubani explains that when China becomes the world’s biggest economy, the IMF’s constitution will require it to move from Washington to Beijing. This change would come about even without any “great power” ambition, but as Isabel Hilton relays, there is plenty of that in Xi’s China. The country is creating international clubs and a calendar of summitry that puts China inside—and the US outside—the room.
Less examined, but more disturbing, is the effect that Beijing’s ascendant authoritarians could have on global thought. You can celebrate or shudder at the thought of “the American Century,” but ideas—individualism, shareholder capitalism, the rule of law—were carried on the back of American money and guns. Asia is, perhaps, less of a proselytising culture, a little more live and let live. But Hilton reveals how Beijing is now countering the institutions and concepts that threaten its grip, such as the free press, and enlisting its own émigrés and unwitting western universities to do so.
Not all Chinese ideas are bad, of course. Having rescued untold millions from penury without a crash, the People’s Republic may have something to teach the world about economic governance. The country can draw on a galaxy of thinkers—Rana Mitter picks out a few of stars—as rich, and more venerable, than Europe’s own. But for as long as dissidents are gagged, due process optional and opposition parties banned, many will fear Planet China. And it’s a mistake, warns Yuan Ren, to bank on a patriotic youth for a more liberal tomorrow. Rather, we’re going to have to get used to the thorny calculations and concessions which Kerry Brown illuminates in Australia, a democracy on the frontier of engagement with China.
Modern history provides ample ammunition for those, including Jeremy Corbyn (see Steve Bloomfield), who interpret the struggle for justice in today’s world as a battle against an imperial western order. But like all global orders, this one will pass; it would be naive to assume that what follows it will be any more benign. And within a few years, it could feel like an age ago.