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Inside China’s Silk Road glove is an iron fist

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WAS PRESIDENT CLINTON right? He thought by enabling China to join the World Trade Organisation in 1999 they would cease their authoritarian ways and become more like us. By us he seemed to imply his version of ‘liberal democracy.’ 20-odd years later that confident prediction looks rather mistaken.

At one level Clinton might have had a point.  Just before the lockdown this author had the pleasure of visiting Harrow School for an open day and arrived to find an array of young gentlemen, from China, making up over 80% of the congregation of aspirants. Many of the young boys were dressed in Edwardian costume, waist coat and all, standing out rather like actors in a Merchant Ivory film set. It is interesting to view the external perception of current sartorial eloquence.

Harrow’s intake will be unlikely to mirror those exploring the school that day but what is clear is the top British public schools and universities have become highly sought after by aspiring Chinese parents. One could also argue that as a result many have become dependent on Chinese customers. Is there other evidence that China is adopting western values?

China’s influence globally has undoubtedly increased markedly. Moreover its desire and self-confidence has almost perfectly mirrored a decline in Western self-confidence. The Chinese approach to society appears, however, completely at odds with our tradition in almost every respect.

China’s approach to liberty, freedom of the press and basic personal rights remains constant – such concepts are broadly alien to the leadership. Democracy, or even a free press and plural society in China, is barely on the radar with little obvious catalyst for change.

China’s reach over large tracts of Africa and Asia steadily grows while the West is exhausted and confused. The fall of Kabul and the impotence of the US in particular and Western Alliance in general will be noted as closely in Beijing as it will be nervously in Taipei (pictured).

China talks the indulgent Western language over ‘climate change.’ Its future is green save it commissioned 29.8GW of coal fired power in 2020 alone (that’s a third of the UK’s entire output commissioned in just one year) with another 73GW under construction. Britain, producing under 1% of the world’s carbon output, adopts a ‘net zero strategy’ which it appears serious about, regardless of cost or impact on market choice.

All along China seeks to centralise and control. While English public schools may be a favourite of the new Chinese autocracy, at home their private schools are being controlled and shut down, often summarily and without compensation. Beijing is seeking to half the Chinese private education market from 10% to 5% within the next twelve months by compulsory takeover. Competition of ideas will not be tolerated.

Perhaps the area of greatest immediate concern to the West is Chinese influence in the realm of public health. Increasingly the World Health Organisation (WHO) is under its influence. This has been clearest over Covid-19.

Brutal and illiberal lockdown may or may not have supressed the disease in Wuhan (Chinese data needs to be treated with a large pinch of salt) but with substantial Chinese influence within WHO almost all Western nations have copied to a greater or lesser extent the Chinese lockdown model which is alien to the Western tradition.

Increasingly NGO’s and global institutions like the WHO dominate the policy scene cajoling and marshalling global responses which often are authoritarian and opaque with, as a result, a one dimensional approach and commensurate lack a competition of ideas so critical to good decision making.

But behind all this undoubted increasing Chinese influence remains a dirty little secret. China is nowhere near as prosperous as many in the West believe. Sure, China’s economic miracle is indeed a wonder to behold, however China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and subsequent Cultural Revolution resulted in a base so low at every level, human, societal, political and economic, that some form of recovery was inevitable.

At one level China’s growth has indeed been extraordinary. To move from near global isolation pre-Nixon’s visit in 1972 to the global number two within fifty years is quite an achievement. However from another perspective the performance is not quite so impressive.

Size may matter at a geopolitical level but ultimately prosperity is more important. Compared with the US, with GDP per head of $63,543, China weighs in at just £10,500, somewhat lower than Costa Rica but a thousand dollars per head higher than Cuba. While averages are misleading to a point, with huge wealth disparity in China, the quality of life and indeed prosperity of the average Chinese citizens’ life does not compare with that of the West.

China is growing. It is becoming much more powerful, that is indeed true. But the awe and fear in equal measure of many of our policy makers is disturbing. The lesson is not to copy the Chinese model of command and control but to trust the individuality and creativity of our people. It is through the competition of ideas that civilisation succeeds.

If the West and Anglosphere in particular is to continue to prosper it should trust the instincts that built it so successfully over many centuries. It is the concepts of individuality, civil institutions and diffusion of power which so ably encouraged, artistic, scientific, medical, philosophical and aesthetic leadership which are so uniquely part of our Western Tradition.

China will be China. It is emerging from a period of great darkness under Mao and others. To believe it will become like us was naive in the extreme. More, we must beware that those in awe at its apparent success are looking at that in a very narrow geo-political lens, ignoring the tapestry that makes a civilisation successful and free. The approach to health and Covid-19 in particular suggests our western elite (and not just in the UK) are more in awe of the Chinese approach than is healthy.

The West has had a terrible week with the limits of its interventionist ability laid bare in Afghanistan. But if we are to rebuild what made our civilisation stand out and provide such unique prosperity, security and creativity we must avoid falling into the centralised illiberal trap. Clinton was wrong. China will never be like the West. But as China grows our leadership must hold its nerve and regain its confidence and build on the unique lessons of what made our society free and prosperous, not toss what is good away.

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Photo of sunset over Taipei city, Taiwan from elephant mountain by paulcowell from Adobe Stock. 

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