China is a cultural equal, not a student for moral instruction

The title of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times op-ed, Xi Jinping faces his moment of truth in Hong Kong, is undoubtedly as much aspiration as observation, such is the English-language media’s ideological commitment to denouncing the Chinese system of government.

Colonisation by force to support an illicit drugs trade contributed confoundingly to Hong Kong’s wealth and standing today; but the willingness to forgive and forget our own inscrutable lack of political probity is seldom extended to our competitors in global affairs. Raising millions out of poverty is ‘whataboutery’ if you’re an unloved regime, whilst moral ambiguity in our own policy record seldom prohibits the end from justifying the means.

GDP per capita in mainland China has seen startling growth over the past decade, but remains modest; and there are 1.5bn citizens to provide with security, healthcare, social services, and retirement income — all of which will be more important to them than the media circus of a western election. Perhaps the political innovations of the self-styled free world have something to contribute to that project; perhaps they don’t. Ultimately, it’s for China, and its citizens, to decide.

Foreign observers should chasten their assumptions regarding the extent to which Hong Kong activists’ democratic principles align them against the politics of the motherland. Popular support for one country, two systems, isn’t a strategic compromise for near-independence; citizens of Hong Kong don’t share with their international supporters such a unifying consensus that Xi-ism is fatally flawed.

To the extent that western democratic principles are encoded in the Basic Law, as part of the handover, or remain a broader source of inspiration, there is a soft power in play. That will have to suffice. Supporting activists as a vehicle to frame media narratives around Xi, in terms marked with interminable calumny, suggests a goal other than analysis — and one that risks needlessly extending to the western grassroots the antipathy currently felt by the most hawkish among their leaders towards a credible competitor.

Self-congratulatory narratives in the west help people forget that all governments rule ultimately by consent; and, indeed, varying degrees of authoritarianism are afforded acts in every nation’s founding story — very often the most celebrated ones. It’s right to advocate for suppressed minorities in China, but American observers, by example, might have the humility to recall that the same year the nation was listening to the Beach Boys’ Surfing’ U.S.A., the Governor of Alabama was blocking three African American students from enrolling in a white school. If we’re to embrace that history as part of a process, why the absence of a process that’s permitted to other nations without the cost of moral invalidation?

The columnists and readers maligning the Chinese system of government in putative solidarity with its oppressed subjects in Xinjiang, or on the streets of Hong Kong, may find themselves on the right side of the moral divide more by an accident of their rhetoric, than by its true purpose; better known abroad than our political freedoms is our proclivity to use the language of social justice as a Trojan horse for proclaiming ideological superiority. The avoidance of truly civilisational conflict with a resurgent China will rest, in this nascent phase, on the willingness of European civilisations to cut the didactic bullshit, and treat the emerging superpower as a genuine cultural equal.


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