Is China a threat to the security and prosperity of an emerging multi-polar world or only to Western exceptionalism?
Following Tony Blair’s speech at the annual Ditchley Foundation lecture in mid-July[i], where he advocated higher military spending to defend Western values and way of life from China, came Sunak Rishi and Liz Truss outdoing each other in hard-line China rhetoric. Truss pledged stronger Commonwealth ties to counter ‘malign influence’ of China[ii], whilst Sunak claim that “China and the Chinese Communist Party represent the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.
Sunak therefore said he will[iii] close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK as they promote Chinese soft power. He will also build a new international alliance to tackle Chinese cyber-threats, expand MI5’s reach to counter Chinese industrial espionage and prevent Chinese acquisitions of key British assets.
Some commentators have said that these statements are merely campaign assertions to win the leadership of the Conservative Party. They will be forgotten or downplayed when the winner is in government. However, given widespread publicity of these views on television, press and social media, the demonisation of China as the Yellow Peril, bent on destroying the Western way of life, will have negative effects on how people perceived China.
In the UK, the British Foreign Policy Group[iv] 2022 annual survey showed that “support for cooperation on shared global challenges such as climate change has fallen from 38% in 2021 to 33% in 2022” and “support for Chinese students attending UK universities has fallen from 30% in 2021 to 25% in 2022”.
Singling out China as the sole threat to UK’s well-being is pernicious when, in the first instance, what we needed are better strategies to protect ourselves from all foreign influence and interventions. Our security, industrial and advanced technology strategies should be world facing, not just aimed at China. We should be protecting our critical assets, and even critical infrastructure, from any foreign ownership, not just China or Russia.
The attack on Confucius Institutes is particularly banal. If projecting soft power by providing language training and promoting Chinese culture is morally wrong, then the UK should remove all its British Councils from around the world. The Confucius Institutes are doing no more than what the British Council does in China. In fact, the British Council does a lot more in projecting British soft power.
Learning new languages and cultural exchange are vital in a multi-polar inter-connected world if we are to understand and trust, rather than fear, each other. Culture and values should not be weaponised into zero-sum paradigms of soft powers competing to eliminate each other.
Throughout history, when people met there was always cultural exchange and mutual learning. Instead of one culture assimilating the other, the learning gained is used to enrich one’s own culture. Demeaning the learning of Chinese language and culture because they project China’s soft power will have real world consequences in the rise of Sinophobia and racism against people of Chinese heritage in the UK.
The power of political rhetoric and unbalanced negative news reporting on people should not be underestimated. The British Foreign Policy Group 2022 survey also found that “81% of Britons actively distrusting China to act responsibly in the world”. Almost all of the 81% would not have conducted independent research and would have relied on the British press and social media for their information. China is far from perfect and some of its human rights practices are questionable from the standpoint of Western values. However, although it is right that Western media should report on China’s shortcomings, the general tone has been hostile and almost all negative.
Why should we in the West fear Chinese culture and values? Are we going to ban pandas from British zoos? Shall we ban Tai Chi too as it projects underlying Chinese philosophy and way of living? Why do Western leaders see China’s influence as malign? There are three possibilities.
Firstly, there are fundamental differences between Western and Chinese values. One significant difference is Chinese culture places greater emphasis on the greater good of society, whereas Western culture values individual liberty. This does not mean one value is right or better than the other. Neither are they mutually exclusive. Both values evolved from specific historical context and both are just as important today. Somehow, whether due to lack of understanding or wilful ignorance, the Western leaders have perceived Chinese values as a threat to our way of life.
Secondly, following on from the point above, are we so uncertain about the merits of our Western values, way of life and governance systems that we feel threatened by others who are different? As there is nothing inherently wrong with liberal democratic principles, such as freedom of speech, the right to assembly, the separation of powers and the rule of law, perhaps the problem is that we have failed to live up to our own standards.
The Democracy Perception Index (DPI) 2022[v] uses a metric “democratic deficit” to measure the “difference between how important people say democracy is and how democratic they think their country is”. The deficit scores for the UK and the US were 21 and 27 respectively (the ideal score is 100). Nearly half of Americans and about 40% of people in the UK felt their country was not democratic.
Thirdly, the arrogance of Western exceptionalism, the belief that only Western values, systems and rules are universal. In a speech at Mansion House in the City of London in April 2022, Liz Truss the UK Foreign Secretary warned China to play by the rules or face consequences: “They will not continue to rise if they do not play by the rules” [vi].
What then are these rules and why not advocate international law instead?
Rules are guidelines set by a group to govern how they might live, behave and work together. Rules are flexible, as they do not have a legal basis, and can be easily changed. Laws, however, are binding for all citizens of a country and are created by the legislature of a country. International laws are created through international agreements and are binding for countries that signed up to them.
When Western political leaders prescribed the international rules-based order, rather than international law, they are essentially saying abide by our ‘club’ rules, which we are imposing on everyone, or else. Also, whenever the rules are inconvenient, we will ignore or change them to suit ourselves. Countries in the global south easily see through the hypocrisy when Western powers do not live up to their own rules. Western credibility is further reduced when trade, investment and aid are offered, not primarily to benefit the recipient country, but as a means to counter China.
In a multi-polar world, where global south countries are gaining agency to act for themselves, the West can no longer assume that its values are superior and its rules must be followed. The Belt and Road Initiative, for all its flaws, now involves 146 countries and over 2,600 projects with an estimated value of USD 3.7 trillion.[vii] There is also a shift towards more investment in technology, digital connectivity (5G) and renewable energy. BRI investment in hydro, solar and wind projects was 35% in 2017. In 2020, it was 56%.[viii]
By not collaborating with China’s BRI, the West risks being isolated as new international standards are set for renewal energy, advanced technology and the digital economy.
Telling global south countries that they must choose our side and abide by Western rules is sheer hubris.
Surely, one of the values of liberal democracy is that sovereign countries are free to make their own choices.
Note: This article was written in July 2022 before Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which has worsened the dynamics between China and the West.
[i] https://yeowpoon.medium.com/a-response-to-tony-blair-strength-plus-engagement-approach-to-china-69bae1d042bf [ii] Liz Truss pledges stronger Commonwealth ties to counter ‘malign influence’ of China) [iii] https://twitter.com/RishiSunak/status/1551483420865347585?s=20&t=z9zm2et3KFNI5FuvREcxIA [iv] BFPG-UK-Opinion-Report-June-2022.pdf [v] Democracy Perception Index Report 2022 | Latana [vi] Truss warns China to ‘play by the rules’ or face consequences | Financial Times (ft.com) [vii] Infrastructure investment: the core instrument of BRI (insideover.com) [viii]China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Investment Report 2020 – Green Finance & Development Center (greenfdc.org)