Before you define your next China policy, learn from Lu Xun

Chinese nationalism has had its share of wishful thinking. But in recent decades, the West has fallen into similar traps, although its humiliations – the 2008 financial crisis and the flat-footed reaction of most Western countries to the Covid-19 pandemic – have been comparatively minor humiliations.

True story

But humiliations they have been, and nothing shows this more clearly than the way some of the West’s governments have reacted to China’s handling of the pandemic. To quote one of the more civil criticisms  – by Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party -, “the world would have had more time to prepare for the pandemic if Chinese leaders had been more forthcoming”. No worries, though, he switched into another gear right away:

For too long, nations have lamely kowtowed to China in the desperate hope of winning trade deals. Once we get clear of this terrible pandemic it is imperative that we all rethink that relationship,” he said.

Politics, that much is true, must never let a crisis go waste, and there are reasons to “rethink” the West’s, and possibly the world’s, relationship with China.

But China only bears a limited share of responsibility for this global crisis. If people in the West don’t understand that, they don’t understand their own political class.

We don’t need to reconsider our relationship with China because its role in the pandemic was questionable.

We must reconsider our relationship with China because we must not tolerate the way Chinese authorities treat Chinese citizens. Human rights violations often hit “national minorities” like Tibetans or Uyghurs hardest, but the political malpractice doesn’t stop there.

We must reconsider our relationship with China because in Hong Kong, Beijing has shown complete disregard for the rule of law, within Hong Kong’s autonomy (that’s nothing new, China has never understood the concept of autonomy anyway), and complete disregard of international law.

We must reconsider our relationship with China because in the South China Sea and other international waters, China has adopted a policy of annexation.

And we must reconsider our relationship with China, because with his “Resist America, Aid Korea” speech in October, Chinese CPC secretary general and state chairman Xi Jinping has made China’s disregard for international law official, by suggesting that Maoist China’s war against the United Nations had been a “war against imperialism”.

There may be some reason to believe that many within the CPC believe that the speech has been a non-starter, because they haven’t dwelled too much on it in the media since, and because the faces of many of the leaders during Xi’s speech appeared to speak volumes. But there is no reason to believe that Xi’s speech wasn’t an honest attempt at rewriting history, at the expense of truth. This attempt must be taken seriously.

All that said, when reconsidering our relationship with China, we must not walk into the Ah-Q trap. This is something we might learn from China indeed: the way Chinese intellectuals used to be self-critical was part of China’s more recent successes, just as China’s more recent pompousness and triumphalism may earn it serious setbacks.

The same is true for us, and especially for those who consider themselves our “elites”. For decades, China has been described as an opportunity too big to miss, and to justify throwing valuable Western-made technology at it. To make this foreign-trade salad more palatable to the general public (and arguably also to the propagandists themselves), China-trade advocates added that trade and engagement with China would lead to improvements in the country’s human rights practice, or its economic and social system.

“The party is over,” a long-forgotten “expert” crowed in the 1990s, in a huge, long-forgotten book. Others suggested that the CPC might become a “social-democratic” party. But nobody seemed to ask the CPC people if they had any such intentions, at least not seriously. And if they did, they only heard the answers they wanted to hear.

There was never a doubt that China’s political system is a dictatorship. And when that dictatorship began to succeed economically and technogically, quite a number of Western intellectuals, and especially business people, began to admire that dictatorship:

I have fantasized–don’t get me wrong–but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don’t want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.

Don’t get me wrong either. I don’t think Thomas Friedman argued in favor of the introduction of authoritarianism, let alone totalitarianism. But he didn’t apply any logic – and he’s no exception among Western intellectuals. He’s full of ideas and without a plan when it comes to these issues.

Because if we could be China for one day, we could be China every day. And then we would be the kind of society that we now want to reconsider our relationship with. (OK, maybe not Friedman.)

But the worst thing is to think of ourselves as Santa. The guys who only want the best for China, etc.. I’m pretty sure that half of my fellow Germans, in as far as they have misgivings about China, don’t worry about China’s human rights record. They worry about its economic clout, and the preparedness of a lot of Chinese people to work harder, for less income, then we would.

That’s legitimate self-interest, but nobody should confuse this interest with something like international solidarity. To do that, to suggest that “we are nice, we are generous, we’ve done everything for them, and they are bloody ingrats” is typical Ah-Q thought.

No, guys. Our bosses threw our technology at China, technology developed with support of public institutions we paid our taxes for. That’s what our bosses usually do. Sometimes at the Chinese, sometimes at other promising markets. But as our bosses’ greed for profits from China knew no limits, they fooled themselves, too. Occasionally, they complained once it went wrong. But this wasn’t “Chinese” greed – they only picked up what was thrown at them. And even if they never told us that they would make good use of it, with or against the law, daily practice could have shown us in a year that this transactional model wouldn’t work – at least not for the West.

China – not just the CPC, but most of the Chinese people – have always told us that their rightful global place was at the pole position.

They have always told us that they would “re-take” Taiwan, once they had the power to do so.

Every bloke in the street told us that Hong Kong was no stuff to negotiate about – it had been taken by the imperialists, and had to be retaken by China. Besides, those Hong Kongers shouldn’t think of themselves as “special”. Yadayada.

We played along, one year after another. We still do. I’m afraid we’ll continue to do so. Our governments, for example, keep participating in the diplomatic charade to this day that, for some incomprehensible reasons (depending on what individual Western nation’s memoranda with Beijing have made up out of thin air), Taiwan wouldn’t be quite a sovereign country.

In short: it was hard to get China wrong, but we managed anyway. And if we don’t stop suggesting that our intentions in this relationship had always been honest, we won’t get our next China policy right either.

To reshape our relationship with China, let’s learn from Lu Xun first.

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