The world has been sucked into sharp tensions between the West and China.
Aided by ‘experts’, commentators, journalists and politicians, Western invective has provoked alarm and dismay. Chinese people wonder what China has done to warrant the accusations made against it. Western people nod their heads wisely in agreement at each new onslaught on China.
And now politicians and diplomats have COVID-19.
I started this blog, among other reasons, to put a case for China. China needs no defending from me or anyone else. But it seemed, and seems, wrong to allow so many untruths and half-truths to be heard by so many without a balance.
My friend Henry and I were chatting about this recently. He is from a family of diplomats. He has lived and worked in many countries also. “You are so naïve”, he said – very kindly. “This is all part of a Great Game. Nations have played this Game since nationhood existed.” “The Great Game” refers specifically to the confrontation during the 19th century between Russia and the UK over India and Afghanistan. Sounds familiar?
Henry is right. The Game continues, with different players, today.
The cartoon above appeared in Paris in 1898. Big powers (Western but also Russia and Japan) are dividing up a distraught China among them. For Chinese people, it portrays the darkest period in recent Chinese history. That period ended on 1 October 1949 with the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung. Internal turbulence continued until 1978. In that year, the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping set China on the path it follows today.
In 1978, China had about one quarter of the global population and about two percent of global GDP. It was the world’s tenth largest economy. 42 years later, China has 18 percent of the people in the world. Its GDP is now 15% of global GDP. China has the world’s second largest economy. These figures are an obvious reason for the West’s antagonism to China today. The West is not as economically successful as it used to be. China’s economy is growing fast.
Eleven years ago, Martin Jacques in his ground-breaking book When China Rules the World wrote: “The arrival of China as a major power marks the end of Western universalism. Western norms, values and institutions will increasingly find themselves competing with China…. The Western world is over; the new world, at least for the next century, will not be Chinese in the way that the previous one was Western.” “We are entering a new world of competing modernity, albeit one in which China…. will become dominant.” However, he also writes: “All this lies some way off.”
People of the Western world, “some way off” is almost here. From Western powers carving up China between them to China on the verge of dominating the world, has taken only 100 years.
The Empires Fight Back
It is not surprising therefore that the Western world is doing all it can – short of its typical resort to conflict – to regain its dominance. Sometimes the fight back is moderate, almost patronising, as in a recent article by Edward Lucas in the Times of London.
In other articles, especially from the USA, the language is more extreme. COVID-19 is a perfect way to put China down. European and other Western powers follow the USA’s lead if they think it is in their interests.
Struggles for national power and influence occurred regularly as the cartoon shows. Each side used whatever material it could find (or could credibly make up) to attack the other. When all else failed, war was often the result.
The difference now is that the whole world watches. In the past, politicians and diplomats played ‘games’ with each other. Exchanges between them were relatively private. Most other people knew nothing of what was going on.
Today ‘public opinion’, especially in the democratic West, means that those in power must show voters how diligently they protect their country’s interests. This means mobilising not just the Government but the media, academics and an array of ‘experts’ to give credibility to whatever line the leaders take.
During the Cold War, the West accused the Russians of brainwashing. Today’s Western leaders have learned to do the same.
But there is much more to it than that. The core lies in my post Miles Apart.
More to come
In future posts on this modern Great Game, I shall review several interesting books and other sources to analyse what is going on in more depth. For now, we all must be concerned about the way the struggle is intensifying. Yet, it is a waste of time and energy to worry about individual stories from either side. There may be a factual basis to some of the vitriolic public statements: while truth undoubtedly exists, we see little of it in biased media coverage.
We believe what we want to believe. It is crucial, though, to look at all sides.