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  • Yeow Poon

China - What Now?

July 2020

The rise of China is an enigma for us in the West. Over the last 40 years, China lifted 850 million [1] people out of poverty and grew to become the second largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the largest by purchasing power parity. It has done so without becoming an open liberal democracy, no universal suffrage and no competing multi-parties. Yet, in the last 10 years, the regime has enjoyed greater legitimacy [2] from its citizens than Western democracies [3].

So, how should we respond to the rise of China? Continue to engage constructively or confront China as a rival?

When China opened up, the prevailing belief was that as China develops it will naturally adopt liberal democratic values and systems. This did not happen. One reason would be due to different notions of the state. The legitimacy of Western countries as nation states depends on the validity of democratic processes that enable citizens to exercise their rights. However, China as a civilisation state [4] draws its legitimacy from "maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of Chinese civilisation … (and) the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family". After all, the Chinese word for country 国家means nation-family, unlike western countries where the state is generally perceived as an external intrusive force.

Western companies, abetted by Western governments, transferred their manufacturing bases to China which soon became the world's dirty factory. Then, as China grew richer, Chinese money was courted for inward investment. There were few concerns for the impact on local industries nor to strategic interests in their own countries. The stock market, shareholders value and CEO pay rises were all that mattered. True, China has infringed on copyrights especially in the early years, it protects its strategic economic sectors and some of its investments abroad are aggressive. Nevertheless, it always takes two to tango.

Now, as China develops into a superpower, it is perceived as a geo-political rival and economic upstart challenging the international order. China must therefore be confronted or better still neutered. To gain the support of the general public, China is demonised as a threat to national security, a shameless human rights abuser and a corrupt yellow peril bent on world domination. The US pivot to East Asia morphed into a trade war, a tech war and now cold war 2.0.

Yes, there are issues around China's periphery (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang) that need dealing with but … world domination? When the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohammad [5], was asked whether he was afraid of China, he answered:

"We always say, we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia."

Western fears of China's power appear to be based on their own colonial past, expecting China to do unto others, what they have done to others before.

Yes, there are also issues around human rights. From a western liberal democracy perspective that values individual liberty and freedom of speech as universal and absolute, China is an oppressive state, its citizens brainwashed or silenced through fear. However, "compared to Western societies, China places much less emphasis on individual rights and significantly more emphasis on the value of the individual in terms of his or her contribution to harmony in society" [6]. It's not just China, African societies [7] too have their own concepts of human rights, which were not taken into consideration when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made in 1948.

So, what now?

Certainly, we need to engage with China, not just over trade, but more importantly how to integrate a superpower with distinct history, culture and values into the international order which up to now is primarily Western-centric. We need to be clear-eyed, as it is not about appeasement, but we also have to acknowledge our own hubris [8]. When Covid-19 first appeared in China, we condemned the measures and said that the crisis could not have happened in an open, transparent society. Accepting that China's early response could be better, nevertheless, given a head start, Western liberal democracies, with a few exceptions, have fared badly compared with less 'open' countries in the East. If broader economic and social measures of human rights [9] were applied, the UK would be found wanting, as over the last 30 years, we have growing underbellies of poverty, homelessness, foodbanks and even malnutrition.

We need to practise what we preach. When the decisions regarding Huawei are nakedly political rather than commercial, when the UK can ignore the ruling of the International Court of Justice over the Chagos islands [10], our credibility is diminished and our insistence that others follow the rules are hypocritical. Freezing out China and decoupling the world into two conflicting blocs is not the way forward.

True, the engagement has to be reciprocal but not in a transactional win or lose way. Neither China nor Western countries are perfect, both defend their strategic interests and each view the other dimly through the lens of their own history, culture and values; too often coloured by ambitions, arrogance and prejudices.
Yet, if each can learn from the other, transformational change can happen that enables us to better deal with the local and global challenges of pandemic, climate change and technology advancement facing us in the 21st century.


[3] Since 1995 dissatisfaction with democracy has risen from 47.9% to 57.5% and from around 25% to nearly 50% in Anglo-Saxon countries

[8] See Pankaj Mishra discourse on flailing states on the flaws of liberal democracy as practised by the US and UK

[9] for a list of all types of human rights

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