China’s rise – threat or opportunity?

From Green fears to Cold War fantasies, the West’s own cultural confusion explains why it cannot make its mind up about China.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

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This article is an edited version of Frank Furedi’s opening speech given on 12 July at The Battle for China, a Battle of Ideas satellite event organised by the Institute of Ideas in association with China Now, the UK’s largest ever festival of Chinese culture.

These days news reports about China rarely stick to a factual account of events. Instead they continually transmit the news that it is a country morally inferior to our own. A few days ago BBC news reported yet again from Beijing on the city’s high levels of pollution. A young BBC reporter clutching his pollution reader looked grim and astonished. His message was that athletes involved in high endurance events face impossible risks in this dangerous environment. The dramatic style of his report would have been appropriate to a news item on the outbreak of the plague. Pointing the finger of blame at the Chinese, he communicated the clear idea that these people are not up to hosting the Olympic Games.

Contemporary Western culture finds it difficult to engage constructively with China. Indeed, China today plays an unusual role in the Western imagination. It is one of the few issues that can bind together otherwise bitter political foes and groups that are usually adversaries in the West’s own culture wars.

Some on the right revel in the idea of reliving the Cold War, through the construction of a new powerful and sinister enemy. They hint that there is something unsavoury about China’s economic triumph and rising international profile. Often at a loss to know how to make this threat seem plausible, they project their own anxieties into the future. Thus it is suggested that China is secretly preparing for a confrontation with the USA.

In a world where industrial and economic espionage is the norm, the behaviour of the Chinese in business is treated as uniquely malign. Chinese global economic expansion is judged by criteria that are wholly different from those applied to other nations. Beijing’s international re-emergence is routinely presented as the rising threat of Chinese xenophobic nationalism and militarism. And China’s impressive growth is not celebrated as a symptom of the virtues of capitalism, but called upon as a reason for expanding the US military establishment.

It is not only backward-looking Cold War warriors who resent China’s ascendancy as a significant global player. Many on the Western left also dislike China, because of its record on human rights and its non-democratic institutions. However, such sentiments are inspired by something more than disinterested democratic idealism. The left’s critique of China has acquired a surprising degree of intensity because China is now perceived as the moral opposite of the West’s liberal cultural elites. At a time when production and consumption have acquired negative connotations within Western culture, associated with greed and waste and crimes against the environment, China’s drive to expand its economy and raise living standards is perceived as an affront to liberal sensibility.

China has become a kind of environmentalists’ vision of Sodom and Gomorrah. Its population growth, brash materialism and indifference to the dogma of sustainability go directly against the precautionary attitudes that dominate public life on both sides of the Atlantic. It appears that the cartoon Chinese villain Fu Manchu is alive and well in the Middle Kingdom – only this time he is using his fantastic powers to pursue a variety of eco-crimes. Of course China’s real ‘crime’ is that, unlike some its liberal critics, it is still unambiguously wedded to modernity. It has not yet adopted the risk-averse and precautionary culture that prevails in Europe and America.

Ours is an era that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these values are celebrated highly selectively – and China does not qualify. From the standpoint of our cultural elites the celebration of diversity does not extend to those who are fiercely focused on raising productivity and living standards through economic development. Those who celebrate ‘Diversity’ and ‘Difference’ prefer another China – one that is essentially underdeveloped, backward looking and weak. It is worth recalling that, throughout the first part of the twentieth century, China was often an object of the West’s pity. Pearl Buck’s novels such as The Good Earth presented a China that was every humanitarian’s fantasy – a powerless China steeped in exotic customs and ground down by a succession of corrupt governments. This is the kind of ‘diversity’ that is acceptable today.

Of course, from the standpoint of geopolitical relations the representation of China as a threat to the West makes little sense. Historically the rapid emergence of world powers tends to unbalance the prevailing global equilibrium and contribute to international instability. Thus when the USA displaced Britain as the world policeman, it upset the status quo. However, today China is essentially a status quo power whose interests are best served by the maintenance of an open global economy. China’s future is closely linked to the continuation of the present world order. In a perverse sense the Western critics of this nation directly benefit from the economic and social transformation of China, both in terms of the flood of Chinese capital that has helped to fund the West’s credit boom, and Beijing’s political support for a stable world order.

At this point in time it is not possible to predict whether China’s rise will ultimately turn out to be an opportunity or a threat to the West. But of one thing we can be certain. The West’s own divided and directionless culture inhibits it from engaging with China in a creative and constructive manner. Until the West decides whether it wishes to embrace or repel modernity, it will continue to express its own moral confusion through an incoherent orientation towards China.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

This article is an edited version of Frank Furedi’s opening speech given on 12 July at The Battle for China, a Battle of Ideas satellite event organised by the Institute of Ideas in association with China Now, the UK’s largest ever festival of Chinese culture.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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