In a week that has been marked by indignation and conflict over on-going vaccine shortages, the Chinese national media has its own view on the matter. “Vaccines have the potential to revolutionise the fight against the pandemic and reshape the global structure”, ran an editorial in the state-run Global Times. The week before, China Central Television showed a training video of Chinese soldiers stationed in the South China Sea practising useful English phrases – old chestnuts like “You are surrounded,” “Do not die for nothing” and “Lay down your arms or we’ll fire”.
At the same time, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been busily expanding the country’s economic interests. The only major economy to report growth in 2020, China signed an investment deal with the European Union late last month. While the EU has argued that the deal will provide them with leverage to address the human rights concerns endemic to the Chinese regime, the arrest of 53 pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong is not an auspicious start.
Perhaps the EU ought to have learnt a lesson from Australia, upon which China has imposed increasingly heavy tariffs since the government banned Huawei on national security grounds. These tariffs have only become more crippling since the Australian government criticised China’s human rights record and called for an independent inquiry into the origins of coronavirus. In Britain, serious concerns have been raised that Chinese businesses (answerable to the CCP) “have been quietly positioned at the head of British infrastructure” , while our own prime minister has recently scrapped an ‘anti-genocide’ amendment to Britain’s new Trade Bill. This amendment would have allowed us to revoke a trade deal with any country that the High Court ruled to have committed genocide – like the one that China, it is increasingly clear, has been perpetrating on its Uyghur Muslim population for years. Close economic relations with China are just as likely to make the West vulnerable to Chinese influence as the other way around.
To put it mildly – as Prof. Simon Deakin and Dr Gaofeng Men did in a recent article for Cambridge University – China “does not claim to be a liberal democracy”. It is not a democracy, and neither does the regime put any stock in so-called liberal values – liberalism places constraints on the powers of the state and advocates universal human rights, such as the freedom to protest and freedom of speech. This leaves us with three inconvenient facts: first, that the CCP’s political project is (territorially and economically) expansionist; second, that it has the resources (or the West has the vulnerabilities) to make this a serious threat; and third, that China’s political project is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal values of the West.
This leaves us with three inconvenient facts: first, that the CCP’s political project is (territorially and economically) expansionist; second, that it has the resources (or the West has the vulnerabilities) to make this a serious threat; and third, that China’s political project is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal values of the West.
None of this will be much of a revelation to anyone who has been paying attention. More worrying is the fact that the West, as things stand, is woefully unprepared to offer any serious opposition. Several political establishments across Europe and North America have fallen to populism. A recent poll suggests that France could be the latest government to shift towards the far right, while concerns have been raised in Poland that the country is following Hungary into authoritarianism. All of this is grist to the Chinese propaganda machine (and the storming of the Capitol this month was a potent symbol in that regard) but worse still are the ‘culture wars’ that have defined Western politics for the better part of a decade.
While the rise of the authoritarian right has made liberalism vulnerable, its abandonment by the left is far more dangerous. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have represented the impact of postmodernist theory on left-wing academia and activism over the past several decades as a departure from liberalism, in favour of obsession with “power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them”. In a recent essay for Al Jazeera, Ahmed Gatnash noted the “condescending attitude endemic among left-wing movements towards those who fight ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians […] whose international rhetoric (on Palestine, for example) they naively admire”. Though purporting to seek social justice, this new politics fails to recognise the necessity of liberal values, both to the social progress that has already been made, and to that which has yet to be achieved. Instead it ‘deconstructs’, ‘decolonises’, and rejects them, leading to the fatal pessimism about liberal democracy which China and other authoritarian states now exploit.
Writing in The Guardian last week, Owen Jones felt it necessary to convince his friends on the left to “condemn China over its Uighur abuses.” Only after spending the first half of his article distancing himself from right-wing figures who have spoken out in support of the Uyghurs – and re-framing the genocide as the consequence of “Islamophobia” alone with no reference to the authoritarian, ethno-nationalist regime – does he reach the conclusion that it is possible both to “oppose Western militarism and to stand with victims of state violence”. In a culture where liberal values are a worthless currency, it is necessary to divorce wrongs from their political context before they can be exposed to moral censure. At best, this approach allows the world to turn a blind eye to exactly what and who is responsible for these monstrous acts. At worst, the same language can be co-opted by ideological enemies of the left to justify those monstrous acts: earlier this month, Boris Johnson accused those who opposed his plans to forge ahead with a Chinese trade deal of “unthinking sinophobia”.
Though it is right and good that left-wing politics should recognise the atrocities in our country’s past and its flaws in the present, it should be possible to do so in a way that goes beyond the caveman logic of ‘Western society bad, other societies good.’ Liberal values once made that possible, by transcending the partisan politics of left and right. Though sometimes willing to criticise the specific actions of a violently repressive state, the left has deprived itself of liberalism and therefore of the necessary tools to more thoroughly reproach and condemn authoritarian and genocidal regimes. Unless Western societies can remedy that fact, the project of liberal democracy will falter and fail.
Though it is right and good that left-wing politics should recognise the atrocities in our country’s past and its flaws in the present, it should be possible to do so in a way that goes beyond the caveman logic of ‘Western society bad, other societies good.’
Pluckrose, Helen; Lindsay, James A. (2020). Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why This Harms Everybody