Time to Face China Together

05.07.20 Publication:

In June 1989 China used tanks and bullets to impose its will on young protestors in and
around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing thousands. In July 2020 today’s Chinese
government uses different tools: in Hong Kong, it has this week imposed a draconian new
security law giving it unlimited powers to arrest and convict people for offences that are
undefined, and immediately arrested hundreds of its critics; in the mainly Muslim western
province of Xinjiang, it has for the past three years thrown a reported 1 million people into
prison camps, without trial, and sent some to factories around China as forced labour. China
may be the world’s second biggest economy and second superpower, but it remains a
ruthless, brutal dictatorship.

This is not new. But with Chinese trade and foreign investment so important, and
increasingly with Chinese technology so competitive in quality and price, it has been easy
for foreign governments to ignore. And although the realities of the Chinese Communist
Party’s dictatorship are not new, the country is now displaying its ruthlessness more openly.

Nor is China’s imposition of its own laws and practices on Hong Kong new. Under the
international treaty signed by Britain and China in 1984 under which the former British
colony was returned to China in 1997, the then Chinese government agreed to a formula of
“one country, two systems” that was supposed to allow Hong Kong to operate under its
own government, laws and judicial system until 2047.

At the time, many warned that China would not be able to resist imposing control
over Hong Kong a lot sooner than that, and they were right: kidnappings of dissidents by
Chinese spies and overt interference in the city-state’s quasi-democratic government have
over the past several years sparked waves of mass protests which prompted many to
speculate about when China might send in its tanks and troops so as to regain control. Now
they have their answer: the new law, passed in Beijing without consultation with Hong
Kong, gives China the power to arrest whomsoever it wishes.

This is just the latest in a pattern of behaviour by China’s President Xi Jinping since
he rose to power in 2012. In a series of steps, his government has laid claim to sovereignty
over the entire South China Sea, brushing aside rival claims by other littoral states including
Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines; it has stepped up its’ ships’ incursions into the
territorial waters of a group of islands in the East China Sea which have been under
Japanese sovereignty since 1895; and only last month its forces clashed with Indian soldiers
on the two countries’ undefined border high in the Himalayas, leaving 20 Indians dead.

In some ways this is not surprising. China has been a superpower for more than a
millennium but went into a kind of sleep for two centuries from which it is now awakening.
Put simply, its belief is that as Asia’s superpower it is entitled to the sort of freedom from
rules and constraints that the western superpower, the United States, has enjoyed ever
since 1945. Like America, it believes in international rules, and unlike America’s current
president it even believes in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations: but it
believes those rules and institutions should merely control the behaviour of lesser

Yet there is one aspect of its current behaviour that is surprising. In today’s complex
world, even superpowers cannot expect to achieve their goals without the help or at least
acceptance of friends and allies. Despite Donald Trump’s relentless efforts to alienate them,
America still has a large network of friends and allies. China does not, and it doesn’t seem to

We will discover more about this in the coming months and years when countries
that have borrowed huge sums from China under the “Belt and Road” infrastructure
programme find they cannot afford the debts and try to renegotiate. For the moment,
China’s attitude can be described (as it was in a recent London seminar by a former senior
MI6 officer) as being like a stadium chant associated with Millwall, a London football club
whose supporters and players have had a reputation for violence: “Everyone hates us but
we don’t care”.

The right response, for Europeans, Americans and others, is to show that we do care
but also to rebuild our network of friendships and alliances. China will keep on pushing at
the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. No single country can fight back. But together,
countries can and must do so.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay