In the figure of Xi Jinping, with his dominant political personality and assertive communicative style, many in the west have found the autocrat they always feared would one day confront them. For Xi and the people around him, combatting what his administration calls “western universalism”, and western attempts to infiltrate China’s politics through economic and cultural engagement, has been a major task.
Now the Xi threat has come right into our own back yard. A recent report by the British parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) defines the nature of Chinese intentions as “ambition at a global level – to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant”. This, it says, “poses a national security threat to the UK”. Its words align with those of the CIA and FBI in the US, who have in recent years regarded China as their greatest adversary.
“Threat” is a vague term, though, and covers a spectrum of issues. We can be threatened by bad weather, or an unwanted visitor coming to disturb our peace. There are small threats, big threats and threats that exist more in perception than reality. In many cases, too, you can be threatened by things and people that have no real ability to do the things we fear they will. Indeed, more often than not, the biggest threat is our own fears. There is much about China that is a problem, for sure. Under Xi, the Chinese Communist party has been ruthless in dealing with internal dissent, closing down space for what was once legitimate domestic debate, and placing media and non-governmental organisations under huge restrictions. Much of this has spilled over to the outside world, with state agents pursuing their enemies across the world, prompting claims of China having police based abroad.
Despite this, the ISC report imputes to China a level of coherent strategic intent and a threat so systemic and grave that it is flattering – at least to the people around Xi. In recent weeks we have seen plenty of evidence of how chaotic and divided even the upper reaches of the party can be: earlier this month the foreign minister, Qin Gang, went missing, and was soon after removed from power; and in recent days there has been an apparent purge of key military figures in sensitive sectors. But the threat could still be being exaggerated. One striking phenomenon in recent years has been that talk of China’s threat has increased almost in parallel with the decline of western self-confidence. The question is whether the former has caused the latter, or vice versa. I remember a banker in the City of London telling me during the 2008 global economic crisis that we had little to fear from Chinese money being invested in Britain, because it would need to be used in accordance with our rules and systems. That sentiment has evidently changed since then. Chinese investment is now seen as a key potential driver of Chinese state intentions and influence. Somehow, our confidence in our ability to engage with others, on our own terms and in our own space, has disappeared.
Attributing that shift to China would be to grant Beijing far more effectiveness than it deserves. The west has been the author of its own misfortune. It has dealt with a number of paradigm-shifting issues in the last 15 years, many of which have fuelled this erosion. The end of the interminable “war on terror” in Afghanistan was a particular case in point – a depressing retreat after spending trillions of dollars, leaving local people at the mercy of the very forces they had originally been liberated from. China watched this world-class demonstration of incompetence and inefficiency with a mixture of amazement and schadenfreude. So much for all those grand plans to spread liberty and democracy. The US and Europe cannot blame anyone else for that failure. But it is when looking at Russia that China’s leaders see the most powerful argument for being sceptical about western aspirations, and for proof of how far short of their objectives they can fall. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 struck a deep fear into Beijing, which was itself reeling from the 1989 protests, including Tiananmen Square. The west had a golden opportunity to show how post-communist rule could be better. But we know how it turned out for Russia – a decade of collapsing economic and human indicators, followed by the rule of Vladimir Putin and its dismal situation today.
The west doesn’t trust China, for sure. But China has every reason to distrust the west, too, having seen the outcomes of its well-intentioned meddling, and its lack of capacity to follow through and bring about change for the better. A bit of self-reflection in the UK and elsewhere in the west might bring some understanding of our own inconsistent behaviour, and the ways we often mix lofty talk about values with the much earthier pursuit of our own commercial and material interests. This has resulted in a China that is far more certain on its feet, working out its own pathway and carving out its own space in the world as never before. It might be inconvenient, but it is not irrational. China is a hard global partner, but it is not a mad one. The mindset of the UK has clearly been challenged by the question of how to deal with China in an era when, for the first time in modern history, the economic, geopolitical and military advantages are increasingly with Beijing rather than London. There is a proclivity to moralise, finger-point and divert ourselves with fairy stories about the wicked communist leadership in Beijing, when in reality there is a far more complex problem – and no easy solutions.
The MPs’ report makes plenty of recommendations. But one of the most effective and important it passes over in silence: that would be a clear and frank admission that the greatest threat to us from China is our own muddled, panicked state of mind, crediting a false level of coherence and strategic nous to Beijing in order to compensate for our own complacency, incompetence and lack of self-knowledge. Until we face up honestly to that, Xi and his colleagues will continue to have the upper hand, even as they grapple with domestic issues that are far more serious than any threats or condemnations emanating from the UK.