All posts filed under: China

China and the Question of Taiwan

There is no reasoning with someone who has built an entire worldview around the conviction that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, a particular country is the best in the world because they were born in it.1 Shaw’s stinging put-down was actually meant as a definition of patriotism, but it works just as well, or better, when applied to what Orwell once called “the great modern disease of nationalism.” No honest debate on world affairs is possible with an interlocutor who keeps switching into competitive mode, deciding in favour of their nation from the outset, and looking only for evidence to support that nation’s supposed superiority. In most situations, this is mildly frustrating; a benign disease. But when heads of state are suffering from the malignant version, then these failures of logic can become everyone’s problem. In modern-day China, nationalism is at its strongest when dealing with the idea—almost an article of religious faith—that the independent island nation of Taiwan is in fact a Chinese state and must be unified with the mainland as soon …

Dictatorship and Responsibility in Hong Kong

Thus, the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left without any possible leaders of resistance. So it was that ‘wisdom’ was instilled, that former ties and friendships were cut off. ~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1985). I Can moral life survive dictatorship? When a government intimidates its subjects; when it sows mistrust among them; when it penalizes virtue and incentivizes servility, how might men and women keep faith with themselves and their fellows? Citizens of democratic states tend to ponder such questions, if at all, with a detached, even theoretical, interest. Dictatorships happened then or, if extant, occur over there. But in the once-free city of Hong Kong such insouciance has vanished. For just over two decades Hong Kong lived the life of an anomaly. When Britain, in July 1997, renounced sovereign rule over Hong Kong, the colony became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the terms of the Sino-British Declaration (1984) and the articles of the Basic Law (adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1990), …

A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy

Liu Fang once had the job of policing the women in her village. She made sure that none of them gave birth to a second child unless their first had been either female or disabled. Whenever she found an unauthorised pregnancy, she would urge the woman to abort. Today, however, Liu Fang’s job has transformed itself. Now she encourages local couples to have a second child as a matter of national urgency. The orders from her superiors in the Chinese Communist Party are very clear on this. In a dizzying volte-face, the world’s most murderously anti-natalist regime has become its most pleadingly pro-natalist. The Party launched its one-child policy in 1980, at a time when misplaced Malthusian fears could be found far beyond China’s borders. India’s government was experimenting with a forced sterilisation programme, the authorities in Singapore were running a campaign telling citizens to “Stop at Two,” and in South Korea they were insisting that “Two’s Too Much.”1 “The battle to feed humanity is over,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968. “By 1980 the …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

China’s Stateless Nations

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to. ~Frances Hui Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality. The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find …

From “Who Gets What?” to “Who Are We?”

American politics can be conceptualized through two questions. The first is “Who gets what?” and the second is “Who are we?” Before and during the Cold War, the specter of fascism and then communism kept Americans aligned on fundamental questions of who we are. From the New Deal to the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s, questions of who we are were far less prominent than questions of who gets what. As Lee Drutman shows, the dividing line of politics was principally over economic issues. An unsteady class peace that took shape as “democratic pluralism”—the representation of workers throughout many realms of society—reigned. During this period unions were widely subscribed (35 percent in 1954) and served as a civic and associational pillar in American life. However, once the Cold War peaked, the dividing line in contemporary America became increasingly cultural, and the primary question in America shifted to “Who are we?” As the fear of foreign and existential threats retreated, so too did a sense of common identity and purpose. Without something to …

The Coming Post-COVID Global Order

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economics in the West, but the harshest impacts may yet be felt in the developing world. After decades of improvement in poorer countries, a regression threatens that could usher in, both economically and politically, a neo-feudal future, leaving billions stranded permanently in poverty. If this threat is not addressed, these conditions could threaten not just the world economy, but prospects for democracy worldwide. In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020, with developing countries overall seeing their incomes fall for the first time in 60 years. The United Nations predicts that the pandemic recession could plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day. The disruption will be particularly notable in the poorest countries. The UN has forecast that Africa could have 30 million more people in poverty. A study by the International Growth Centre spoke of “staggering” implications with 9.1 percent of the population descending into extreme poverty as …

Is China the Governance of the Future?

In his 2009 book When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques notes with satisfaction that “as a Chinese world order begins to take shape, the American world order is eroding with remarkable speed.” His widely praised book is highly complimentary to the present Chinese polity and to its president, Xi Jinping—Jacques sees the huge nation as an example to developing countries, especially in its creation of what he calls a “proactive, competent, and strategic state.” Jacques is one of the most enthusiastic boosters of China in the West, and his book aims to show that an increasingly dynamic China will soon lay a claim to global hegemony. Since its publication, he has increasingly acted as the country’s promoter, welcoming its growing strength and hoping it will take its rightful throne as soon as may be. His commentary does make clear, although without adverse comment, that China lacks democratic institutions. Nevertheless, his emphasis is on its efficiency and its strategic thinking—an ability, he writes, that the US, “locked in old ways of thinking” and with “hardened …

Analyst of Totalitarianism—Reading Simon Leys Today

Simon Leys was perhaps the pre-eminent Western chronicler of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it is worth returning to his work for its vivid first-hand accounts of life in Beijing during this period. But Leys was also interested in the process by which, under the right conditions and with the right ideology, a society can collapse into insanity and murder. His description of the Cultural Revolution showed how political hysteria and the legitimization of violence and hatred combined to ravage a nation. These developments, however, are by no means unique to communism in general or China in particular, and Leys explored similar themes in his retelling of the harrowing true story of a ship wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1629. His book on the topic, The Wreck of the Batavia, is a short masterpiece about how the small society that the ship’s survivors tried to construct in the wake of the disaster was plunged into apocalyptic madness and murder by a psychopathic leader operating according to his own deranged totalitarian ideology. The parallels to Maoism—although Leys …

The China Syndrome Part IV: Did China Fudge its Data?

Note: This is the concluding part of a four-part series of essays looking in detail at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at the circumstances surrounding the initial outbreak; Part Two looked at the discovery of human-to-human transmission and the immediate response; Part Three investigated allegations that the pandemic began in a “wet market” or that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan; this part examines charges that China falsified its pandemic data.  Allegations that China was falsifying its COVID-19 figures began to appear when its death and case rates were overtaken by even more dismal figures in parts of Europe and America. How could a repressive society like China possibly be getting this right while the West’s democracies were getting it wrong? As Western numbers climbed, commentators and politicians declared with growing certainty that China’s claim to have successfully suppressed its epidemic was simply the propagandistic lie of a mendacious totalitarian regime intended to fool its own citizenry and the rest of the world. Back in April, Bloomberg reported that, according …