Never mind Euroscepticism, Beijing is the new Brussels!
A series of ‘cock-ups’ and ‘cover-ups’ by a cabal of unelected bureaucrats in a distant Capital which has engulfed the world in a pandemic has given Britain’s now retired Eurosceptics and de-globalisers a new subject to rail about. And mostly for good reasons…
As the days of Cameron’s ‘golden era of Sino-British’ relations become distant memories, the whiggish optimism towards China is quickly replaced with Sino-scepticism if not outright hostility. Who would have thought that warm words and pints in Cameron’s local pub couldn’t have changed Xi Jipping’s mind on human rights? Neither did the branches of MacDonald’s on Chinese high streets have any Westernising impact on China’s polity. Cherry-picked westernisation has been the CCP’s approach. But how much did the western leaders care to raise human rights issues with the Chinese officials alongside their precious trade talks? Did they, for instance, see the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in ‘re-education’ camps, as a cause worth the risk of upsetting their Chinese trade partners?
The once indisputable link between Capitalism and Democracy is now undeniably broken. When Milton Freidman predicted that the spread of liberal economics will inevitably lead to political liberalisation and democracy in the early 60s, he could not have envisaged how the Chinese authoritarian alternative would come to dominate the world economy. Although, Freidman’s assertion was disapproved even before Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms by Pinochet’s neoliberal economic policies in Chile. What was then officially termed as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ would now be better summed up as ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’.
Yet the election of Trump undoubtedly signalled a turning point in the West’s attitudes towards China and globalisation. Not only did he manage to ride on a wave of discontent from the deindustrialisation of America’s provinces, but he also gave the impression of a western leader no longer willing to put up with China’s ‘unfair trade practices’. For years, the Chinese have demonstrated an almost aggressive level of trade distortion through industrial subsidies and soft loans from state banks (not to mention successive devaluations of their currency), thus allowing Chinese exporters to produce and sell at below production costs and outcompete the Americans. Such were the tensions that by 2018, the US and China were involved in 32 trade disputes in the WTO, 22 brought by US and 10 by China.
Now the virus has intensified the deterioration of the US-China relationship and its echoes are reverberating in Britain. A few weeks ago, a couple of Tory MPs, Tom Tugendhat (Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee) and Neil O’Brien, have set up the China Research Group (deliberately echoing the famous ERG). The group promises to “promote debate and fresh thinking” on China and has tracked interest widely in the Conservative party from Damian Green to Mark Francois. This only goes to show that scepticism towards Beijing is no longer confined to the hawkish NeoConservative right and is becoming a more mainstream concern. An obvious thorny issue at stake is the Huawei deal which Downing Street will find even harder to sell to the backbenchers after the CoronaCrisis. Particularly, when some Republican senators are trying to block the sale of the latest generation of American fighter jets to Britain over Huawei involvement into the 5g network, not to mention Pompeo’s warnings about risks to future intelligence sharing. Once the Huawei deal is killed off, questions could then be asked about the reliability of Britain’s Chinese ran nuclear power stations. Soon there may come a moment for Britain to have to choose between China and its ‘Special Relationship’ with the US.
Even the poster boy of European liberalism, Macron, has signalled a shift towards self-sufficiency. “We have to rebuild our agricultural, Sanitary, Technological and Industrial independence,” he told his compatriots. Another phrase he has recently started using is ‘Economic Sovereignty’ which is difficult to comprehend in the pre-Corona mindset of globalisation and interconnectivity. Perhaps, he is signalling an end to commercial reliance on China. The tables may be turning. Deglobalisation is on march!
After the crisis, whether or not there is an inquiry into the origins of the outbreak as the Australians want, muscles have to be pulled together in the international corridors of power to ensure that Beijing backed candidates would never again get elected as heads of international bodies like Tedros did at WHO with quite literally fatal consequences. Future historians wouldn’t look at the legacy of Tedros too kindly as he naively trusted Chinese officials too much and failed to raise alarm bells early enough. To recover its credibility, the WHO must pressure China to address the issue of its unhygienic wet markets. The lessons of Corona mustn’t be forgotten like the lessons of SARS.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. We are indeed ‘living in interesting times’ as the ancient Chinese curse goes.