Forget prosperity bringing democracy, Beijing’s grip is tightening at home and abroad
The dream is over. For two decades the conventional wisdom has been that China’s economic rise comes at no political cost. Indeed, it was argued, prosperity would bring democracy.
The pandemic has laid bare our mistake. First, the death and destruction caused by the coronavirus stem directly from the deceit and bullying that is the hallmark of the Chinese Communist Party. The authorities have given no clue to the outbreak’s origins, other than to quote conspiracy theories blaming an American military delegation that visited Wuhan in October. They have silenced brave local doctors and journalists who tried to give warning of the danger.
The mainland regime’s obsessive desire to make Taiwan into an un-country meant that the World Health Organisation, supine towards Beijing, ignored the offshore Chinese democracy when on December 31 it sounded the alarm, telling the UN body that something more than pneumonia was spreading there.
In mid-January, the Chinese authorities were still denying that there was any clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. Worried about losing face, they let a huge festival go ahead in Wuhan that drew tens of thousands of people. When the Beijing authorities did finally lock down the plague-stricken region, they banned air links with the rest of China — but not between Wuhan and the outside world.
Earlier action could have forestalled the global plague. We are all paying the price for that. Worse, the Chinese leadership is moving into the vacuum left by the United States, accelerating towards Xi Jinping’s goal to be the world’s most powerful country by 2049. Not only has China dodged blame for the pandemic, it is taking credit for dealing with it. At home it highlights stunts such as the rapid building of 10,000-bed “hospitals” — actually prefabricated quarantine wards. Abroad it practises “facemask diplomacy”: the provision of lavish shipments of medical supplies (often sub-standard, or dressed up commercial shipments) to hard hit countries such as Italy. More is to come. The poorest countries in the world will be hardest hit by the pandemic. China’s squeeze on them will tighten further, with the promise of new infrastructure or debt relief in return for political compliance.
In The People’s Republic of Amnesia, the journalist (now academic) Louisa Lim wrote the definitive book on the state-sponsored policy of wiping out memories of the massacres at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in 1989. Now, she says, the propaganda machine has changed gear: instead of rewriting history at home, the Chinese Communist Party is rewriting the present, and for an international audience.
Writing in Foreign Policy, she calls this “a new front line in the global information war”. The current issue may be the coronavirus, but “the bigger battle is over who will control global flows of information and the future of journalism itself”. The free press and our social media platforms — both, incidentally, banned in China itself — are both the target and the arena.
China’s sophisticated, long-term strategy, pursued since 2009, makes Russia’s gimcrack mischief-making look like a sputtering Lada trying to race a bullet train. The regime has been systematically laying the foundations for influence over, and eventual domination of, the global discussion of anything related to China. It combines a mammoth state-sponsored media empire, clandestine efforts to manipulate social media through anonymous and bogus accounts, and cohorts of witting and unwitting accomplices.
Tactics include buying lucrative advertising supplements in cash-strapped commercial news outlets and offering free content to broadcasters. Critical voices inside China are silenced; those outside are intimidated. The tone shifts with bewildering speed. One day the foreign ministry spokesman is tweeting anti-western conspiracy theories. The next day officials are unctuously stressing the need for international co-operation.
A good illustration of how this works in practice is the marginalisation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama used to be a welcome guest in western chancelleries. Now he is a pariah. On a recent trip to Europe his most high-level public meeting was with a handful of brave Lithuanian MPs (they remember foreign occupation, and how the world overlooked it). The Muslim world has all but ignored the dreadful treatment of co-religionists in western China. Taiwan, which has dealt with the coronavirus far more humanely and effectively than the mainland state, is systematically excluded from international affairs.
All this is part of a bigger and daunting picture. The veteran Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani has just published a book, Has China Won?. His analysis of the Chinese leadership’s success is a bit glib, but his main point is that we in the West, in particular the United States, have squandered our lead. Conceit, greed and short-sightedness have corroded our economic, political and social model. China’s integration into our supply chain, and the prowess of companies such as the telecoms giant Huawei, make “distancing” exceptionally difficult. As Charles Parton, for decades one of Britain’s top China-watchers, notes, we do not have a strategy for dealing with China. But China has a strategy for dealing with us.
Time is short. Look at the way the Chinese leadership treats its own people. Then imagine how they would like to treat us.