Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong, China

People are scared of China. China is powerful and determined to make its way. In a very short time it has come from being a backward country to being the most powerful in the world. I have sought views about its intentions, objectives and what sort of response the world should make, if any, to the tabled Hong Kong legislation to curb disturbances. Those I have spoken to are totally divided. Half want to use soft diplomacy to slow down the pace China seems to be asserting itself over the world; half want to use more aggressive rhetoric to have exactly the same effect. Everyone I spoke to wants to be anonymous. Truth is, nobody knows what to do about China.

That is because we don’t know how China’s meritocracy works today. How much control does President Xi have? He appeared to be seeking the level of power Mao had, though presumably to do different things. Has he achieved it? What could stabilise him – and what, destabilise? There are surely plenty of people waiting in the wings for the presidency. Some may feel better disposed to western democracy. No one thinks any are less hawkish for China supremacy.

Pompeo’s announcement shows that Trump is determined to have a very public squabble with China because he thinks it will help him in his November election. It may well do so. The US is even more frightened of China than the rest of us. China is unknown to them, hence a threat. Now China is ramping up its control of Hong Kong. Perhaps it perceives Hong Kong’s apparent taste for democracy as something its increasingly educated population would enjoy. Perhaps it’s just fed up with so much disturbance of business by demonstrations. Perhaps it wants to test the strong armed approach to see how the world reacts.

When it comes to relations with the rest of the world, Hong Kong isn’t the last straw on the camel’s back of provoking opposition to strong arm tactics. Even if we get a United States President willing to observe the language of diplomacy and the behaviour of competitive reasonableness, there are several well-known confrontations with China to come. I don’t need to list them. What is certain is that adopting any opposition will not make the slightest difference to China’s behaviour. Why should it? China’s army is invincible. China’s political system, though undoubtedly creaking in places, suits a great many of the billion+ people who live under it. It is making them rich faster than they expected, something that usually secures political power, at least for a time.

Western democracy, meanwhile, is looking very flawed. The American political dream was over some time ago. The European one is struggling. The British one has gone on a 300-mile car ride, presumably in search of a Referendum. Covid-19 has driven people everywhere back from globalisation to country competition. Discipline has been deteriorating since people became rich – well, about half the people. As everyone will now get poorer from the virus, the already obscene divide between the rich and the poor will get wider. Who knows where that will end? An orderly, democratic political system seems an unlikely outcome.

The two ideologies are too far apart to find a simple reconciliation. The powerful want empires – the West can hardly be surprised at that. Today those empires will be partly geographical but mostly economic, for just as long as economics drives the voter / comrade. Lee Kuan Yew said that democracy requires an educated electorate to work properly. He didn’t define ‘educated’ in this context. I now think it requires education beyond what the average voter seems to have almost anywhere. Fact, reason and discipline are prerequisites. They are hardly the stuff of Tweets.

One thing is more or less certain. Aggression breeds aggression. For a weaker party to be an aggressor is downright daft. Negotiation may have limited success, as seems to have been the case so far with China. Even a ride in the Queen’s Gold Coach down The Mall to Buckingham Palace didn’t seem to work especially well. But the objective of growing global cooperation to save the planet from destruction should be a fairly compelling goal for all. It will not have escaped the notice of city dwellers in China that lockdown reduced pollution to the point where they could once again breathe. That may be a faster education for the meritocracy than we think.

A common cause can work if it is reasonably lasting. Coronavirus has the disadvantage that we all believe it will be solved fairly soon. Our struggle to solve it looks patriotic rather than global. The survival of the planet is another matter altogether. We need someone to lead it. If the West takes the initiative and succeeds it will be as big an influence on the world as untold riches.

But it does require a leader of tremendous stature and appeal.

Can we find such a one?