Anyone witnessing Xi Jinping’s state visit to London in 2015 would have thought that the Chinese leader came as a conqueror. Officials in distinctive blue tracksuits marshalled obedient crowds of
Time is running out for the West to stop China’s global takeover
There are bits of this I disagree with - the stuff about Trump, trade agreements, etc but it's interesting to see a growing awareness that China is asshoe.
Time is running out for the West to stop China’s global takeover
For decades we have turned a blind eye to Beijing’s crimes and kidded ourselves it won’t take advantage of our weakness, says Edward Lucas
Anyone witnessing Xi Jinping’s state visit to London in 2015 would have thought that the Chinese leader came as a conqueror. Officials in distinctive blue tracksuits marshalled obedient crowds of Chinese expats to wave flags for the visiting president. But it was British police who kept the streets clear of even the tiniest murmur of dissent. When Shao Jiang, a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre, dared to hold up two sheets of A4 paper with the slogans “Democracy Now” and “End Autocracy”, he was bundled away. Along with two Tibetan exiles, he was charged not with a minor public order offence but with conspiracy. This allowed the police to search his home under anti-terrorism powers, seizing his computers. Shortly afterwards, he received a warning from Google that a “state actor” had attempted to access his accounts.
That should have been a scandal. Peaceful protest is a fundamental right in a free country. A police watchdog investigation found evidence of extraordinary pressure exerted by the Chinese authorities on the Metropolitan Police in the run-up to the visit. Indeed, during the talks, the Chinese delegation even threatened to walk out if Shao was not detained. But the arresting officer refused to answer questions about the case and it was dropped for lack of evidence.
The episode reveals a central fact about modern China. The regime in Beijing does not just seek to control its own vast country, it wants to control the way other countries behave, too. Nowhere is off limits. Recent books have highlighted Chinese pressure in Canada (Claws of the Panda by John Manthorpe) and in Australia (Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton). Hamilton has co-authored a forthcoming book, Hidden Hand, about the way Chinese power is being exercised in Britain and Europe. Isaac Stone Fish, a leading American China-watcher, is researching the same topic in the US.
The locations differ but the tactics are always the same. China wields its economic clout to reward submissive governments and punish unhelpful ones. It offers generous inducements to friendly China-watchers and freezes out those who ask awkward questions. Anne-Marie Brady, a leading authority on the Chinese propaganda machine, is one of the few critical academics prepared to speak out. When her home and office in New Zealand were mysteriously burgled, police investigations got nowhere. When she tried to give evidence to a parliamentary committee, her testimony was cancelled on spurious procedural grounds.
It is easy to see China not just as confident, capable and determined but unstoppable. This is the contention of Has China Won?, a provocative new book by a Singaporean diplomat and commentator, Kishore Mahbubani. Written before the coronavirus outbreak, he argues that China is in many respects already ahead of the US, even if America has yet to realise it. China’s 1.3 billion people have a bigger share of global purchasing power than the US. It has a better system of government, greater global popularity and a stronger economy. On the one hand stands a plutocracy, deluded about its strengths and popularity, enfeebled by its greed, inequality and political dysfunction, and on the other a dynamic meritocracy run by brainy, patriotic long-term thinkers.
The examples he provides are striking. When China opened the longest route on its high-speed rail network, from Beijing to the southern commercial hub of Guangzhou, the service took just eight hours. Over a comparable 1,200-mile stretch in the US, between Key West in Florida and New York, the Amtrak service takes 30 hours. That was in 2012. Since then, American infrastructure has deteriorated further while China’s has soared.
China is also gaining the edge in artificial intelligence, robotics, life sciences and space technology. Unlike the US, it does not saddle itself with burdensome defence spending and foreign wars. It buys cheap “carrier-killer” missiles, each of which costs less than one thousandth of the giant warships that America believes vital for its global prestige.
The West was once admired, envied and emulated around the world for the freedom, prosperity and fairness it offered its people. Now, says Mahbubani, it has lost its soft-power advantage. The contrast between Donald Trump’s empty, bombastic “Make America Great Again” and the steely, efficient stewardship of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan for “national rejuvenation” is glaring. Social mobility — the heart of the American dream — is worse in the US than in China. Poor people in China get richer every year. In the US, the bottom half of the population has experienced stagnant wages for 30 years. For China, those same three decades have been the most prosperous and stable since 221BC. The US-led alliances that once glued the West together are fraying, while China slowly builds up a network of economic, political and security clients.
The economic and cultural conflict between the US and China might not escalate, Mahbubani concedes. And even if it does, the US may win. But China has won the first round, and has done so before many in the West realised that the competition for global supremacy was even under way. His book, out next week, certainly deserves a careful read. But his thesis is open to attack. The Chinese Communist Party has overreached abroad and is in trouble at home. The West is in a mess but its plight can be fixed.
The motto of Chinese diplomacy used to be “hide and bide”. Chinese diplomats could be choleric on occasion, particularly over issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, human rights or territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But their main aim was to project an image of China as a reliable and unthreatening partner. That era is definitely over. The new mantra is “wolf warrior diplomacy”, named after two gung-ho action movies featuring a heroic, Rambo-style Chinese adventurer. The new tone is confrontational and patronising, reflecting, as the official Global Times newspaper puts it, a changing balance of power:
The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China’s rising status in the world requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way. When the West falls short of its ability to uphold its interests, it can only resort to a hysterical hooligan-style diplomacy in an attempt to maintain its waning dignity. As western diplomats fall into disgrace, they are getting a taste of China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a journalist based in Berlin, got a taste of Chinese diplomacy when she moderated a UN human rights meeting in Geneva in 2018. The Chinese participants systematically disrupted the discussion, shouted talking points, intimidated witnesses and refused to identify themselves. “It really knocked me sideways,” she says. “It just didn’t let up. It was very threatening.” Since then her employer has received anonymous emails denouncing her as a racist. Closer to home a Chinese state TV correspondent, Linlin Kong, was convicted of assault after she slapped a steward at last year’s Conservative Party conference who had tried to stop her disrupting a meeting about democracy in Hong Kong. She claimed to be the victim of hypocrisy and discrimination.
China’s hold over the World Health Organisation is another case in point. The UN health body has been craven in its refusal to criticise any aspect of Chinese health policy, and in its official disdain for Taiwan. For Beijing, the status of the offshore republic is totemic: it must on no account be treated as an independent country. In a startling vignette, Bruce Aylward, a Canadian WHO official, squirmed and pretended not to hear when a journalist from Hong Kong recently dared to ask him about Taiwan’s exemplary response to the pandemic.
China has found that intimidation often works. But it is beginning to stiffen resistance. Relations with the US, which looked so promising a year ago, are icy. Though the trade war has reached an uneasy truce, American politicians are furious with China for stoking conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and for botching the original response, which enabled it to gain a foothold in Wuhan and spread abroad. The anger is bipartisan: Democrats and Republicans vie to sound more hawkish, in some cases verging on racism. As even Mahbubani notes, there is no longer any lobby in the US willing to defend détente with China. Corporate America is bruised by decades of Chinese state-sponsored intellectual property theft, the protectionist restrictions it faces in China’s domestic market‚ and competition from China’s business champions.
Even the EU, which has been jelly-like in its China policy, is stiffening up. This was meant to be the “Year of Europe” in China’s diplomatic calendar: a charm offensive to persuade European countries that co-operation would bring benefits on everything from trade (£600 billion last year) to climate change. It is turning out rather differently. The crisis sparked by the coronavirus has led to the cancellation of two summits and stalled trade negotiations. A further summit planned for September in Leipzig looks in doubt. If it happens, and if President Xi attends as promised, it threatens to be a showdown over his country’s mischief-making, not a showcase for co-operation. China’s response to the pandemic, combining public temper tantrums and politicised aid shipments, has sparked alarm bordering on fury in European capitals. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned its members to be ready for a “struggle for influence” and decried China’s “politics of generosity”.
The pandemic has exposed how much Beijing’s thuggish foreign policy has in common with its repressive approach at home. Not only are there signs of a cover-up about the origins of the virus, but the Chinese authorities bullied into silence the doctors who tried to warn about its danger. China has sprayed disinformation abroad, dodging blame, claiming credit and spreading confusion. The foreign ministry spokesman went so far as to claim that it was a US military delegation that brought Covid-19 to Wuhan.
For years the outside world has been willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in China: the occupation of Tibet, the cultural genocide of the Muslim Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang, the much less-noticed oppression of ethnic Mongolians, the crackdown in Hong Kong, the persecution of the underground Catholic church, and the savage treatment of dissidents. All this was regrettable, the argument went, but the bigger picture was positive, or at least tolerable. The most important thing was to play for time and not to overreact.
That disastrous approach was the hallmark of Barack Obama’s presidency. When China picked on other western countries, America did nothing. Obama shied away from confrontation in the South China Sea, to the point where these vitally important international waters have been turned into a fortified Chinese lake. Each new transgression of international law could have been met with a firm protest from his administration and decisive countermeasures. Now it is too late: China’s military and naval presence in the disputed region is so strong that countering it is impossible, short of a full-blown military conflict.
Books like Has China Won? make the mistake of exaggerating the Chinese Communist Party’s role in the country’s economic miracle. It is far from being the omnipotent source of prosperity it claims to be. What’s more, China’s 21st-century success story seems to have flipped under Xi’s rule into a catalogue of failures. Andreas Fulda, a professor at Nottingham University, says: “Xi has lost control of Hong Kong, destroyed the US-China relationship singlehandedly, and now owns Covid-19.” On the domestic front, he adds, “there are so many unresolved issues: the health sector is underfunded, the education sector is corrupt, pension funds are plundered by corruption, and food safety is a scandal. They kick the can down the road. But if you do that with lots of issues, the cans pile up and it only takes one to explode for there to be a chain reaction.”
The West is waking up to the true cost of China-centred globalisation. Oddly, this criticism is coming more from the right than the left, where kneejerk anti-Americanism still blinds many to the obvious. The real issue is not that China is invincible but that the West is divided. Ten years ago it was possible to see how a rising China could be constrained by a strong international alliance of advanced industrialised democracies. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would bring together north America and the European Union. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would do the same for the US and its allies in eastern Asia. Though the goal was rarely stated publicly, these economic agreements were about far more than stimulating trade by reducing tariff barriers. They were the building blocks of a new global economic governance, which would have touched everything from the 5G network and the future of the internet to environmental standards and protection of intellectual property. Faced with a united western block with a comparable population — 1.3 billion — and far bigger GDP, China would have had little choice but to engage with the US-led, rules-based international order.
But TTIP and the TPP failed, stymied by anti-Americanism in Europe, missteps in Washington, public weariness with the effects of globalisation and a lack of urgency regarding China. Now we have to try again to rebuild a multilateral economic, political and security international order with enough consent and clout to contain China’s meddling. That will help channel its rise towards co-operation rather than conflict. The task is urgent. The regime in Beijing has not won yet. But unless we wake up to the danger now, it could.
Edward Lucas is a Times columnist and studies Russian and Chinese disinformation at the Centre for European Policy Analysis