Don't fear China's success - fear its failure
By Bruce Anderson
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 20/01/2008
Although the chaos at Heathrow was an inauspicious start, it is important that the Prime Minister's mission to China should not crash-land. A formidable array of businessmen accompanied Mr Brown to pay economic homage, and rightly so. By the middle of this century, China could be the world's largest economy, and many of the greatest questions thrown up in the course of the century will be answered in Chinese characters.
Some already are. Chinese goods have controlled American inflation while Chinese savings have financed American consumption. China's demand for raw materials is not only underpinning world commodity prices: as the Chinese do not care whom they buy from and are happy to pay their cheques straight to Swiss bank accounts, it is also undermining the quest for good government in Africa. We can only hope that in private - megaphone diplomacy would be worse than useless - Mr Brown has tried to persuade his hosts that well-run countries can still produce oil and minerals.
But Britain needs China almost as much as China needs Africa. Free trade is in our DNA, so we should do everything to cultivate the Chinese market, while understanding the risks. Mr Brown's offer of London as a base for China's $200 billion sovereign wealth fund is a good start.
China is not a country at ease with itself. Apart from the inevitable strains associated with rapid growth and development, there are at least three others: anger, sex and fear.
The anger arises from historic humiliations. The Chinese, who think in millennia, are well aware that a century or so ago, British entrepreneurs had a different demeanour. Backed by the Royal Navy, they occupied ports, extorted concessions and forced the Chinese to buy opium.
Other great powers also trampled on China. This culminated in Japan's attempts to ravage the mainland and turn the Chinese into coolies and comfort-women. This explains the anger of the Chinese over Taiwan. To them, it is a part of China, which was turned into a Japanese colony, then an American one. We should be grateful that the Taiwanese government is now behaving more sensibly, because if it ever declared independence, China would probably go to war.
The Chinese see themselves as the greatest race on earth. They used to dismiss the Japanese as obscure fisherfolk, the product, according to legend, of the union between a Chinese princess and a sea-monster. The knowledge that China has been the least successful Asian nation for about 150 years, easily surpassed by the Japanese, is an open wound.
So is the one-child policy, intended to control population growth, which has created the sexual problem. In a society which values male children, there has been female infanticide on a vast scale. In some age cohorts, there are 20 million more males than females. How will the spare men behave, especially as many of them are being bought up as "little Emperors"? Traditionally, peasants regard their offspring as their pension fund, the only hope of a meal ticket in old age. So these only children have been anxiously watched over, cherished and spoiled. Even so, there may not be enough of them to support the non-working population. China might grow old before it grows rich. The one-child policy is a fascinating sociological experiment. It is unlikely to have a benign outcome.
Finally, fear: the government's fear of its people. The peaceful death of Chinese communism has removed the regime's sole claim to legitimacy and the number of protests and demonstrations has been increasing. Thus far, the government has tried to offer a substitute for democracy; econ-ocracy - using higher living standards to buy acquiescence. This is not a futile tactic. Only 40 years ago, tens of millions of Chinese were trying to survive on bark and grass. Now, most have enough to eat. That is a great leap forward, and will buy the government some time.
Yet econ-ocracy is only an interim solution. The Chinese are an individualistic race; they do not share the Japanese tendency to a group mentality. Eventually, the demand for rights and votes will become irresistible except by the most brutal repression. It is vital that such a conflict is avoided, but we have no means of influencing developments in China except by indirect attempts to promote goodwill.
Cultural and intellectual exchanges can reinforce economic ones. Oxford and Cambridge have scholarship programmes for Chinese students. One trusts that the businessmen on the Brown mission will all be tapped for donations on their return.
At best, however, this will have a marginal effect on the long march of Chinese history. We can only hope that it goes in the right direction. If China succeeds, there will be a price. The West would lose power. But Chinese success is much the lesser evil. Imagine what would happen if that huge and powerfully armed nation became a failed state.