Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry. He is 67 next month and wants, as his legacy, China to overtake the US as the dominant economic and military might on earth.
To achieve that, Xi has accumulated enough power to make a Roman emperor blush.
Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the Communist Party; the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army; the president of the People’s Republic of China; the chairman of the Central Military Commission; the chairman of the National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China; the chairman of the Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission; the chairman of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission; the chairman of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission; the chairman of the Central Commission of Internet Affairs; and the director of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission.
Other rising powers – Britain in the 19th century, the US in the 20th century – have used military might to obtain economic dominance and vice versa. But at all times they represented to some extent the Enlightenment values of separation of powers, of freedom of thought and expression, and allowed, indeed encouraged, a free market in politics so that opposition parties could exist and challenge existing order.
These values are anathema to Xi. The latest expression of his contempt for even a modicum of democracy is Beijing’s announcement that any protest in Hong Kong would be treated as subversion or terrorism and subject to overwhelming repression. This tears up the 1984 UK-China Treaty, where sovereignty of Hong Kong was given over by the British, and shows Xi’s contempt for international law.
Yet voices in London are silent. Because so much money has been made out of China since globalisation took off 40 years ago, many have forgotten China remains a communist dictatorship every bit as bad as Stalin’s Soviet Union. China has its gulags where the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo was sent to rot to death as soon as the democratic world recognised him as a champion of human rights.
If Stalin sought to eradicate the identity of Ukraine, Xi is doing no less to Chinese Uighurs in northwest China where many are kept in concentration camps. Stalin used the “useful idiots” of the global left to paint a glowing picture of Soviet oppression. Xi has his “useful idiots” in the ranks of retired politicians and investment fund managers or business executives who are paid as board members, consultants, or just enjoy huge salaries and bonuses from trading with a China that denies all trade union rights.
I first went to China in 1982 to try and find out if there were any hopes of independent trade unions being created. It was a fruitless mission. All I saw in Guangdong province, now the powerhouse economic region up the Pearl River from Hong Kong, were millions on bicycles, lots of lorries and a few big black cars with drawn curtains in which the communist elites travelled.
Later as a minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I was responsible for relations with China and visited as often as I could, marvelling at the revolution in living standards.
But as welcome as China’s economic growth has been, the nation under Xi is now a threat to global security and stability and is now in an objective alliance with other nationalist populists like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Brexit isolationists in the UK and the presidents of Turkey and Brazil. They want to weaken international rule of law, human rights and the values of an open society that rejects xenophobia.
It is clear now that Xi is making mistakes. Firstly, he thought Trump would be as compliant as all previous US presidents in seeking to curry favour. Trump’s politics are vulgar and crude but he has an instinctive feel for where many of America’s workers and middle classes are. They feel that the Wall Street-dominated administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, and Barack Obama sacrificed main street and hard-working America by allowing one-way trade with China. China was allowed into the World Trade Organisation without respecting any of its rules.
The great hope that as China grew richer it would become more free – the belief that capitalism equals democracy – has turned out not to be true. The Democrats are even tougher on China. Joe Biden calls Xi “a thug” and Democratic foreign policy experts are united in saying the US can no longer turn a blind eye to Beijing’s search for global domination without respecting global rules.
This is a problem for Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab who head the pro-Beijing faction in the cabinet, and China boosters like Lord Jim O’Neill, chair of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. If Trump is re-elected or if Biden is president, Washington will become tougher with China while the British establishment remains in its kow-tow posture to Xi and Beijing communists.
Second, China is now behaving like an imperial colonising power. Its crude military pressure on its neighbours, demanding they must accept China as master of the seas, has gone too far. Even little New Zealand is supporting Taiwan’s bid to work in the World Health Organisation.
Thirdly, Xi’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic with his arrest of doctors who raised the alarm in December, his bullying of the World Health Organisation to keep secret the outbreak in its early stages, and his allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese to fly in January to Europe to spread the disease is increasingly seen around the world as a crime against humanity.
China spends millions on disinformation campaigns. The democratic world which challenged Stalin’s lying propaganda after 1945 with effective countermeasures has been asleep.
We need a global campaign to hold China to account. This is not about siding with Trump or about economic boycotts or stopping trade or travel or losing any respect for the talents and hard work of Chinese people of all ages, including the hundreds of thousands studying in our universities.
It is time to wake up, alert populations, and spend serious money on targeted campaigns to inform the world, including the 1.4 billion Chinese, that democracy, freedom of information and open economies are not going to disappear – unless we stop fighting for them.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister for Europe