“Let China sleep”, said Napoleon famously, “when she wakes she will shake the world.” How world leaders must be hoping that China had gone on sleeping. That China should pose such a problem is not a surprise. It is the western reaction to it that is a surprise. It shows both naivety in its leadership and exposes the fact that fear has gripped the western world ever since the end of the Second World War. Once one fear is exorcised another emerges. China is the third such fear since Hitler was defeated.
It is worth looking at these fears to understand where China fits in. The first, which lasted for forty years after the end of the second world war, was that there would be a third world war with the Soviet Union, a nuclear war which mankind would not survive. Growing up we were made very aware of this fear and that the destruction of the world that would take place should Russia and United States unleash their nuclear weapons at each other. Any number of books and films were made based on such a doomsday scenario and people, particularly in America, also built bunkers where they could shelter should there be a nuclear war. Fighting the Soviets was a constant preoccupation of the American population and John Kennedy even won his Presidential election in 1960 on the basis of a so-called missile gap between America and the Soviet Union.
On my shelf is a book by General Sir John Hackett, who was Deputy Chief of the General Staff, called The Third World War. It is a novel describing the world immediately after such a war had supposedly taken place with the west just managing to win. India, incidentally, is portrayed very disparagingly in the book.
Then, as the Soviet threat, faded Japan became a major concern. The difference was the concern with Japan was not military, it was economic. But the worry here was that Japan, having been disarmed after the war by America and therefore having little military expenditure, could use all its might to develop its economic power. American Presidents in the 1980s were making almost the same noises about Japan using its companies and its economic policies to undercut American business and trade as Trump has been making about China. The only difference was they did not do it via tweets and their pronouncements were couched in a language more nuanced than Trump’s incendiary remarks. They made them despite the fact that Japan and America are allies. Very simply, Japan was seen as getting its own back for being defeated in the Second World War.
The west could say it saw off both threats and once the Soviet Union collapsed the west was quick to celebrate it hailing this as the ultimate western victory, proving the superiority of the west, in the words of the American historian Francis Fukuyama, this was ‘The End of History’. Well if there is one thing the China threat has proved is that history has not ended, and its wheel keeps turning. China in many ways combines the economic threat of Japan and the military dangers posed by the Soviet Union. Its rise has also proved western strategists wrong.
The western assumption as Deng Xiaoping modernised China was that China would become like the west. But they had not properly understood what “the architect” of this new brand of thinking was aiming for. This combination of socialist ideology with free enterprise, dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics” meant the Party always retained power while the people could enjoy the fruits of capitalism. Fill their pockets so they would not worry their heads about such things as freedom of speech. And when necessary the Party could be ruthless as Deng Xiaoping was when he ordered the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
That Deng’s successors should put down the Hong Kong protests should come as no surprise. The China that Deng Xiaoping built and Xi Jingping is ruling has always had one central philosophy: anything seen as a threat to the control exercised by the Party will be crushed. Deng Xiaoping did what Mikhail Gorbachev could not do, open up the Soviet Union but still ensure the communist party remained in control. Xi Jingping will not allow anything to weaken that control.
There is one other major difference between China and the Soviet Union. The Soviets did try and export their philosophy of communism to other countries. This remained an active policy until well into the 1970s. Deng Xiaoping’s China has never tried to make countries copy its socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is only interested in demonstrating that if you are not China’s friend then you must be China’s enemy and in that case China will make you pay.
The west’s response to all this is take the moral high ground. No country is quicker and more adept at doing this than Britain. The British always like to see themselves as morally right. China’s Hong Kong crackdown has made the British weep about how China is destroying the democracy that the British gifted the islanders. The fact is the British did no such thing. Hong Kong was a colony where until well into the 60s life was lived under a very British-style apartheid system that had been a feature of British rule in other parts of the empire.
The whites enjoyed privileges in economic power and social life that the Chinese and other non-whites did not have. Nor was there ever a democratic government in Hong Kong. The British only began to very slowly and reluctantly move towards a democratic system just before it handed Hong Kong over to China. What Hong Kong had was freedom of the press and the British were not repressive in putting down dissent. Those who protested against British rule could always seek British justice which had always been a feature of the British empire. But that did not make Hong Kong under British rule a democratic enclave.
In any case even if Britain and the west had a credible moral card to play it would cut little ice with China. The only effective weapon would be to organise a broad-based coalition against China. But here it is China that is winning and organising a very effective coalition against the west.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way Muslim countries have remained silent about China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslims. This is a predominantly Turkish speaking ethnic group, more than a million of whom have been herded into so called ‘re-education’ camps. Despite this the Muslim countries of the world including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have not raised a voice. This in stark contrast to what they would have done had some other country treated its Muslim subjects in this way. The Chinese have never made any secret of their distrust of Muslims and in 2008, going round China after the Beijing Olympics, I was struck by the distrust and hatred shown for their fellow Muslims by the Chinese. But these Muslim countries know China’s economic power and have no desire to upset it.
China has also repaired its relationship with Russia. Richard Nixon could make much of the Sino-Soviet split to re-establish ties with China but that was then the two great communist powers of the world were engaged in an ideological struggle to establish its own brand of communism. In many countries Chinese-style communist parties sprung up. In India a communist party that rivalled the official communist party was set up and for many years proved more successful than the Soviet backed one. All that does not matter now because international communism is dead. And China is a state controlled by the communist party but practising capitalism. So, there is no conceivable conflict between these countries. The cold war rivalries have been consigned to history.
Now had the west handled its relations with Russia more skilfully then a strong alliance could have been built. But it has not. China has all the cards and there is nothing to stop it winning every trick. This is not a very encouraging thought, but I am drawn to this conclusion by the fact that there is no western leader who seems to understand where China has come from and where it is headed. They are good at producing all the right soundbites but no real policy that could tackle the China issue.