We are in treacherous times. Everyone seems to agree: From Henry Kissinger to Barack Obama to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all have recently said that the current time is an ominous one. U.S. President Donald Trump has created disarray in the global order. Brexit looks increasingly impossible to deliver smoothly. Even countries as spick and span in their orderliness as Sweden have swung toward the more extreme spectrum in their politics. Suddenly the 1990s and the 2000s seem very straightforward. The era of the populists is looking increasingly clamorous and fractious, with the political temperature rising almost as precipitously as the physical one under the impact of climate change.
A distinctive factor of the current era is the new prominence and importance China enjoys. It might sound counterintuitive, but the fact that the United States and others are now focusing on China is a sign of this: It validates and confirms the country’s importance and status. Were China still a middle-ranking place, it would not figure so much in the global language of discontent and expectation. But now China has reached the major power club. And to welcome it, the world has prepared a long list of demands and complaints. Sometimes the old curse is very true: be wary of what you wish for; it might happen.
No one denies that in the long term, things look good for the People’s Republic. The democratic world has never looked more vexed and troubled. Yesterday’s stable systems look like they have run out of answers today. Populations are divided, and there seems to be no consensus. In Beijing and Moscow, strong, centralized politics seems to be winning. But Chinese leaders — with their powerful sense of history and appreciation of its immense length and complexity — would be wise to pause and consider before they take their next step.
At the moment, Beijing is making a series of assertive moves, enjoying the new space it has found for greater autonomy and prominence. China has increased the pressure on Taiwan, showing sharper and sharper power in closing down the island’s international space and placing increasing diplomatic pressure on it. In Xinjiang, reports are piling up of a monumental deployment of technology and state security to impose what most agree is an almost universal curfew that goes far beyond trying to route out small cells of radical Islam. In the South China Sea, China’s behavior has been muscular and resurgent. The often tepid dialogues China once had on human rights and other contentious issues are now largely dead, simply because Beijing no longer remotely feels it wants to be lectured to — and because of its new prominence, there is a sense that China does need to even play along any more. The days of this sort of performance – and that was often all it was – are over.
The calculation is simple. As China comes toward it centenary goal in 2021 and marks achievement of modernity with Chinese characteristics, Beijing can now have things on its own terms. The outside world now needs it – for investment, markets, stability, action on climate change, and, most remarkably because of Trump, some kind of continuation of the free trade consensus set up in the previous decades and now being ripped apart by Washington.
But to the more attentive, a new counternarrative is also starting to emerge, which stands against this tale of an ever more powerful China that can name its terms and act without restraint or pretense. As more and more people start to know far more about the China model, and to see it manifested in their daily lives, doubts start to grow. The sharp treatment of Taiwan, the actions in Xinjiang, the incredible, pervasive growth of the surveillance state in China and its annexation of almost every aspect of life without any institutional or legal restraint – all these register in some form and shape a little resistance.
In the past, issues about China were once disparate; now they are being linked and form the basis of a critical counternarrative. Suddenly, there is more sympathy for Taiwan, for example. More people in Europe and the United States are starting to be uneasy about the ways in which Confucius Institutes are allowed to operate in Western establishments without similar freedoms for Western equivalents in Chinese ones. They wonder why Chinese can buy, invest, and work so freely in their environments while it is so difficult for foreigners to do the same back in China. They wonder why Chinese lobbyists and activists are able to freely express their ideas in London, Sydney, or Washington, and seek to influence outcomes that matter to them there, when there is precious little space for this sort of activity back in China.
More and more will start to ask the simple question, where is the reciprocity? And they don’t want answers just in soothing rhetoric. They want to see real actions and measures that show there is reciprocity. The simple fact is a Chinese citizen can stand before the White House and curse the U.S. system and the president and suffer no consequences as long as they do so peacefully. Try that in front of the central leader’s compound of Zhongnanhai as a foreign passport holder and see how long one lasts!
No one denies China and the Chinese people their success. China is, and has always been, a great country, and a great culture and civilization. The emergence of China to greater prominence is a moment of great potential and human achievement. It has to succeed, and go well. The Chinese government holds a huge responsibility, along with everyone else, to get this right. Actions that create antagonism and tension, particularly at the moment, would be massively counterproductive. In the past, the Chinese government argued, rightly, that the United States and other powers “lost” them. These days, it is China’s authorities that stand in the position of “losing” the world’s sympathy and support.
To lose Western and global audiences would be a tragedy – a global one, not just a Chinese one. And that is why Chinese leaders, if they are wise, need to ask themselves constantly: is the present course of action on Taiwan, or Xinjiang, and or the South China Sea, really worth it? China has a world to win. Why lose it for this?