Australia’s PM Scott Morrison has said that there’s a whiff of the 1930s about these times. Others have said that we’re on the brink of a new Cold War. I’d prefer to hope that nothing more ominous than a Cold Peace now exists between China and the West but, however described, it’s by far the most important strategic challenge the world faces and the forces of liberal democracy are losing fast: essentially because we’ve allowed China to do to us what they’d never allow us to do to them.
Thanks to our fundamental decency and goodwill, they’ve bought our businesses, adopted our technology, and partnered with our institutions; and with their numbers and their natural ability, they’re on track to become the world’s strongest economy within a decade, and the world’s strongest military not long after; yet the Chinese Communist Party’s intention was never to evolve, via an oriental version of glasnost and perestroika, into a federal liberal democracy – and in any event, Russia has reverted to Tsarism just as the world has realised that China now has a new emperor.
Rather, it was to “hide its strength and bide its time” till it could resume its “rightful place” as the world’s “Middle Kingdom”. Marxism-Leninism has reinforced traditional Chinese exceptionalism; and if anyone doubts that our destiny in a Chinese-dominated world is to “tremble and obey”, look at the treatment of Australia: routinely derided as a piece of “chewing gum on China’s boot”, that’s had our exports blocked and our ministers banned, all because we had the temerity to be the first to call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
The disappeared citizen reporters, who dared to express their own views from Wuhan; the interned and enslaved Uighurs, who won’t assimilate into the Han mainstream; the oppressed citizens of Hong Kong, who only wanted the “one country, two systems” that was pledged to them; and above all, the threatened people of Taiwan, whose “liberal democracy with Chinese characteristics” is a fundamental reproach to the notion there’s a totalitarian gene in the Chinese make-up, all these testify to the shape of the world to come – on current trends.
Of course, becoming tributary to China is not a fate we’re doomed to. Over time, a more strategic approach to trade and investment, that takes China out of supply chains, would reduce our vulnerability to economic pressure. More selectivity about who may study and who may partner with us, especially in high-tech, would minimise our exposure to intellectual theft. New strategic arrangements, such as the Quad, could raise the stakes against China further bullying its neighbours. And over time, our own Chinese-descended citizens might help to foster the liberal thinking in China, that a taste of market freedom so far hasn’t.
But here’s the big question: how can countries stand up for themselves, if they don’t believe in themselves? It’s become conventional wisdom that the coal-fired power stations that China can’t build enough of, are destroying the planet if they’re built in a Western country. It’s widely accepted, at least in Western educational systems, that the English-speaking countries, in particular, that have given the world its common language, its democratic institutions, its industrial revolution, and its emancipation of minorities are irredeemably oppressive. Not for a moment do I think that the pandemic was somehow orchestrated out of China, but all the fear and the confusion, the argument and the antagonism – over lockdowns, border closures and vaccine roll-outs – would have encouraged Beijing to keep pushing against an open door.
Belief in the brotherhood of man and the equal treatment of all, the best features of Western civilisation, and arguably the universal aspiration of mankind, are needed more than ever – but so is a sense of cultural self-belief and perspective, not just to see the good in others and the fault in ourselves. The risk is a new generation of “useful idiots” providing our competitor with the economic and cultural ammunition to use against us.