Waylaid Dialectic

February 14, 2021

Getting it wrong on China

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:52 am

I’ve got nothing against the people of China, but I’m no fan of the country’s government. It represses the rights of its own people. Its repression in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang is horrific. Our own security agencies are so opaque it’s hard to fully trust anything they say, but it seems reasonable to think there’s truth in the claims that China is a cyber security threat, and that Chinese money may be a threat to the political economies of our democracies. I’d be very happy if we lived in a world with a peaceable Chinese government that respected human rights.

And yet here we are. China’s big, it’s rapidly growing rich, it has nuclear weapons, and it isn’t going anywhere.

This raises the practical question: what are we to do? How should we engage?

The answers aren’t necessarily easy, but it is frustratingly easy to see how bad the West gets it wrong.

We are blinded by the inconvenient truth that we have (or at least Western great powers) have ignored the world’s needs, and the global rules based order whenever it has suited us (for example, Iraq, climate change and so on). How do we expect China to engage when we demonstrate time and time again that rules are for the weak?

We’d do much better too if we admitted that, from a Chinese perspective, our track record is so bad that even when we are genuinely concerned about something like human rights it no doubt appears as nothing more than strategic posturing on our behalf.

Maybe it’s too late to start, but if the West simply engaged internationally in a good faith manner, we might find it surprisingly easy to bring China into a constructively globalising world. Sure, they wouldn’t be perfect, but they might improve. And given our empty rhetorical tub-thumping is achieving nothing, it would be a start.

To give one simple example that’s on my mind for obvious reasons at present: why is Covid-19 such a problem? China’s tardiness in taking early action was a contributing factor. But then again the failures of the UK, US and Brazil to tackle the disease properly have amplified the pandemic. Yet Western politicians have tried time and time again shoulder all the blame on China. Is anyone surprised that, in this environment, China isn’t being entirely forthcoming with information as international investigators study the origins of the pandemic? If we really wanted to learn, we’d wait until the topic was less sensitive and then set up a genuinely collaborative learning-oriented process, rather than something that no doubt feels at the Chinese end like a massive bad-faith endeavour. Who knows, even in the best of times the authoritarian Chinese government might stymie real attempts at learning, but my guess is they’d engage more constructively if our own intentions didn’t seem so dubious.

Sincerity and good faith may seem like strange weapons to level against a large, well-armed, superpower, but compared to the impotent, unscrupulous squawking that emits from most important Western governments, sincerity and good faith could hardly make matters worse.

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