China: the big bad dragon?
Sinophobia seems to be all the rage.
In the past year, Beijing has replaced Moscow as the main source of menace in the eyes of western politicians, news editors and media commentators.
Whether it is TikTok, Huawei, Hong Kong, the South China Sea or Taiwan, you can’t miss the narrative of the China threat.
The shift started before the COVID pandemic that almost certainly originated in China broke out, but it has accelerated rapidly since.
US President Trump tweets regular attacks on China and used his video address to the UN General Assembly last month to portray the country as the source of all the world’s problems from COVID to Climate Change.
His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a highly provocative keynote speech in July entitled ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’ revived the rhetoric of the Cold War to argue that 50 years of American engagement with Beijing had failed, and he came closer than any American leader in many years to calling for regime change in China.
And they are not alone. Conservative British politicians have got in the act too with the Chair of the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugenhadt leading the charge.
What lies behind this?
Has the Chinese regime changed and become a growing threat or is there something else at play here?
President Trump heaping the blame China for the pandemic is clearly a poorly disguised attempt to divert American voters’ attention from the failings of his administration that has seen the virus take over 200,000 American lives.
But even before the advent of SARS-CoV2, Trump used talking up the China threat as a political tool as he tried to deliver on his campaign promise to restore American industry by pressuring US companies to bring production back home by launching a trade war with Beijing and using executive orders.
The attempt to choke the leading 5G technology company, Huawei, and the blatant attempt to force a takeover of TikTok by an American company seem to be driven less by security concerns and be more about the commercial hobbling of successful Chinese competitors.
The irony seems to be lost that this is being done by the state that Edward Snowden revealed to be using big tech to spy on huge numbers of people around the world as well as in the US.
And it is not just Trump.
Republicans and Democrats alike say China poses a growing threat and the Pentagon has shown it is keen to do its bit too by ramping up spy flights off China’s coasts – some allegedly using their transponders to disguise themselves to radar as civilian airliners, which, given airliners have been mistakenly shot down in the past, is irresponsible and dangerous. On top of this, the US Navy has reinforced its numbers and activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims and Washington is increasing arms sales to Taiwan.
Though China is still nowhere near as powerful as the US, it is undoubtedly true that as the country has grown richer over the past few decades, it has also become stronger militarily and has used its economic heft to increase its influence in the world – as every other country, including of course the US, has done throughout history.
So no surprise there.
It should also come as no surprise that the Chinese state is repressive and will brook no internal political challenge – whether from democracy activists or separatist movements in Tibet or Xinjiang. Human rights organisations have been trying to get western politicians to listen for years, yet only recently do they seem to have a got their attention.
The nature of the regime in Beijing has not fundamentally changed, despite the procedural changes that would allow President Xi Jinping to stay in office beyond two terms.
What has changed is the state’s capacity for control and repression using modern information technology.
Xi’s China is also now being accused of exporting attempts to restrict freedom to other countries.
But, again, the use of what the Chinese Communist Party calls united front work to influence attitudes towards the Chinese state has always been part of its foreign policy toolkit and never went away.
There is almost a tone of nostalgia in the West these days for the era of Deng Xiaoping whose foreign policy counsel was to “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”.
But, of course, this was also the same Deng Xiaoping who ordered the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 where the army killed hundreds and ordered the ‘punitive’ invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
But one thing that has really changed in recent years and does not get talked about so much in the West, but has clearly not gone down well, is that China is no longer willing to just serve as a source of cheap consumer goods for western countries.
China wants to move up the value chain, as economists say, and Chinese companies have become serious competitors in areas western countries long regarded as theirs, such as telecommunications and artificial intelligence.
So it looks like the US, with some of its allies in tow, has decided to try to use national security as an excuse to undermine the competition, rather than try to compete commercially.
How better to do that than portray Chinese companies as the uniquely nefarious arm of the Chinese state and label that state as communist and expansionist and throw in some Cold War language for good measure.