This is the reckoning we had to have. The rise of China was never going to be risk-free.
The coronavirus crisis has revealed what should have been plainly obvious: China and the West have been on a collision course.
While China has been on the march, the West has been asleep — seduced by China’s wealth and deluded into thinking that the Communist Party would either collapse, or abandon everything it stands for and embrace liberal democracy.
Remember the words of US president Bill Clinton in 1997: China was “on the wrong side of history”.
Why wouldn’t he think that? The West was still basking in the new world order: the triumph of liberal democracy over Soviet communism.
George HW Bush, the 41st president, addressing congress in 1990, hailed a new optimism “free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace”.
Bush said a new world was “struggling to be born … a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle”.
How wrong he was. Wrong about terrorism, wrong about justice and peace, and blind to China.
‘Hide and bide’ is advice for success
China was biding its time. It had learnt from the Russian mistake: don’t put political reform ahead of economic change.
Beijing was stoking its engines. Leader Deng Xiaoping had told his people that to get rich was glorious. But he also warned them to “hide and bide” — hide your strength, bide your time.
While some sinologists like Gordon Chang were boldly predicting the coming collapse of China, Beijing was embarking on the fastest, most prolonged period of economic growth the world had ever seen.
Over two decades it lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty.
It introduced a new phrase into geopolitics: “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Others called it authoritarian capitalism.
The Party made a compact with the people: we will make you rich but we will not make you free. And the people — a limited dissident movement notwithstanding — bought in.
More than a decade ago, historian Azar Gat, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, identified China’s model as the greatest challenge to the global liberal order.
“As China rapidly narrows the economic gap with the developed world,” Gat wrote, “the possibility looms that it will become a true authoritarian superpower.”
They weren’t becoming like the West, they were overtaking the West. They weren’t on the wrong side of history, they were making history. What’s more, the West helped them do it.
It was the power and ideas of the West that have underwritten China’s rise.
Does the CCP have a better model?
Historian Niall Ferguson says China has been the big winner of the liberal order: multilateralism, free trade, open borders.
He points out that in 1980, China accounted for 2 per cent of the world economy, now it is nearly 20 per cent — more than the US and Canada combined.
As America has been bogged down by war and financial collapse, the Chinese Communist Party could claim it has a better model.
Hide and bide, indeed. All the while the West was in hibernation, full of its own hubris.
The West went to sleep at the very time its power and reach was at its height. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire led to the West’s belief in “the end of history”.
Political scientist Joseph Nye — the man credited with coining the phrase “soft power” — warned about the dangers of American complacency in his book The Paradox of American Power.
At the end of the Cold War, he said, the US stopped paying attention to the world and turned its sights inward.
Even those who did look beyond America, he wrote, “became arrogant about our power, arguing that we did not need to heed other nations. We seemed both invincible and invulnerable”.
Political scientist and former Singapore ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani, in a recent book posed the question: “Has the West lost it?”
The short answer is, not yet.
A turning point for the West
But history is turning. Mahbubani says the West has been at the forefront of history for 200 years, but now must adapt to a world it no longer dominates. The “End of History mantra”, he says, did a lot of “brain damage”.
Having won the Cold War the West “went on autopilot”.
The September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global financial crisis of 2008 helped snap the West out of its slumber.
But when it came to China it was still complacent.
As China manipulated its currency, monopolised supply chains, ran up big trade surpluses, extended its economic and political reach into the Pacific, Central Asia and Africa, and as it launched its massive belt and road initiative — a 21st century Silk Road of investment and infrastructure spanning 70 countries — we in the West still believed China would inevitably become like us.
We would not listen.
Enter the princeling
The arrival of a new, strong, young Chinese leader marked a turning point.
Xi Jinping is a princeling — a Party blue-blood, the son of a Communist revolutionary hero — who has now installed himself as “president for life”.
No longer does China hide and bide: Xi seeks a new China dream. He wants China to return to the apex of global power.
The Chinese say: “If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.” Rather than indulge in liberal fantasies of a democratic China, we should listen to what Xi is actually telling us.
In a speech to Communist Party faithful in 2013, just as he’d assumed power, Xi warned that without socialism there would be “chaos”.
The party members, he said, must remember that generations of communists had been prepared to “sacrifice and shed blood” for the country.
He warned of the strengths of capitalism and said that China must prepare for a long period of conflict.
Xi also reminded the faithful that “forces at home and abroad” are trying to overthrow the party.
Now China stares down the West just as the West is at its weakest.
Beijing is pushing back as countries like Australia call for investigations into the spread of the coronavirus, which originated inside China..
Now, even the most complacent have finally woken to the greater China threat.
A critical juncture
China and the West are at a critical point: choices will be made. The West must wean itself off dependence on China.
It’s easier said than done. China is critical to the world, our economy, and peace.
But we must see the Chinese Communist Party for what it is. Not a natural enemy — but not like us, either.
The Communist Party has taken the best of market capitalism but China was never going to become like the West. It rejects anything that resembles universal values. Under Xi it has taken an even more authoritarian turn.
I speak from experience. For a decade I reported inside China, both from Hong Kong and Beijing.
I was under constant surveillance. My family was monitored. Our home was bugged. The Party listened to my phone calls. My colleagues and I were, on occasion, physically attacked and detained by police for trying to report and give voice to those brave enough to speak out.
One thing I learnt: some in China think the West is fundamentally weak.
While the West’s financial system collapsed, China kept growing. While the US and its allies became bogged down in endless wars, China extended its influence.
It has claimed and militarised the disputed South Sea Islands. It has continued to build its military and threaten Taiwan over any move to independence. It has locked up a million ethnic Muslim Uighurs and smashed dissent.
Let’s talk about coronavirus
Now it looks on as the West’s great belief in freedom falters in the face of the coronavirus threat. We are locked down, our movements monitored, as police enforce strict isolation.
We can argue it is necessary, but China sees weakness. To beat a virus that originated in China, we in the West have had to become more authoritarian, more like China.
So then where are we headed?
The pessimists fear inevitable war with China. Beijing is preparing for just such a conflict.
The optimists may still believe the world can make room for authoritarian China, that we can live together. They believe the peace can hold — that must be the hope. The alternative is horrendous.
But the coronavirus crisis must surely tell us that living in a world with a powerful China comes at an enormous cost.
By Stan Grant
Vice Chancellor’s Chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University and a journalist.