We should confront the challenge of superpower China head on
There are few absolute truths in world politics. Promises and pledges are subordinate either to the needs of a nation or the needs of an individual. Dishonesty is the currency with which power is bartered for and yet amongst this plethora of falsehoods there are a few truths that remain constant. The one fact that has been at the forefront of every political demagogue is China’s status as a superpower.
No one can doubt China’s credentials. In a little over twenty years the middle kingdom has become the middle man on the world stage. It has become the fastest growing economy, the epicentre for technological advancement and, most importantly, a nuclear power backed up by military might. Despite the fact that China is undoubtedly a superpower, countries around the world struggle to produce a coherent policy to deal with it.
Two months ago Dr Marcus Power of Durham’s Geography Department highlighted the main stumbling blocks for improved relations between the UK and China.
A highly-respected authority on the subject, Dr Power encouraged a conciliatory approach in the vein of France and Germany who have both made progress towards more open trade.
However, as with all rhetoric focused on improved relations with China, the subtext can be worrying. Inevitably, extending the hand of friendship will mean compromise usually in the form of turning a blind eye.
Dr Power touched on the complex issues of human rights and domestic policy. For many politicians this is the keystone of their approach. In order to reap the benefits of trade, to be able to harvest the billions of dollars which China generates, they must suspend their beliefs.
China is not a traditional superpower founded on free trade and democracy. It is an amalgamation of the worst bits of two systems, a mythical beast with the head of Reagan and the body of Mao. Exploitation and repression are still rife but now they have a human face.
China claims that it has lifted millions out of poverty with a state-controlled economy but the financial disparity between the urban and rural Chinese is growing. In short, GDP per capita may have increased but in the tradition of an industrial nation this money is making a small minority filthy rich at the cost of an impoverished majority.
Even more chilling is China’s manipulation of a western image to herald a new age of openness and freedom. A clear example of this was the Beijing Olympics when a Panorama reporter was supposedly given access to cover China’s preparations for the Games. He was shadowed by the police, harassed by state officials and even temporarily incarcerated for refusing to hand over footage which showed forced evictions around the Olympic construction sites. More recently, Liu Xiaobo was denied the opportunity to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Even after twenty years, the Chinese government is incapable of a small acknowledgment that maybe their attitude towards human rights is not quite right.
China has not made the fundamental changes that Western superpowers have been forced to make. The only thing that has changed in China is that they are churning out money faster than if George W. Bush broke into the Royal Mint. And for many politicians around the world, the emerald glow of a dollar bill is enough for them to abandon their principles in an instant.
So the choice should be simple, trade, wealth and prosperity at the cost of the democracy and human rights that we all benefit from. Dr Power seems to be tipping the scales in favour of trade but here our opinions differ.
It would be wrong to say this is a decision between redemption and damnation. Just like truth and lies are fickle in the world of politics, so are good and bad.
My real argument is this: a choice between trade and principles does not exist. As much as I wish these were the two options, we are beyond such a choice. Dr Power talked about colonialisation and the fact is we have already been colonised. Half of our national debt is owed to China, we rely on their manufacturing to support our service-based economy and their favour to have views heard on the world stage.
We have been in China’s pocket for a long time. So the real choice is this, do we continue meekly into subordination or do we go down fighting for the rights we have but never value? Only then will we know how to deal with China.