China Power

The West’s Difficult China Choice

China, the West and the question of loyalty.

The West’s Difficult China Choice
Credit: Flickr/ Audrey

The great Chinese journalist Liu Binyan, referring to the constant clash in a previous time between commitments to one’s country and the government running it, referred to the idea of “a higher kind of loyalty.” Those that placed their loyalty in ways that the Party-state under the Communists considered erroneous suffered deeply. In the anti-rightist campaign of 1957, a whole generation of intellectuals experienced first-hand what the costs of expressing such “higher loyalty” were. Notions of what was in the nation’s interests had to align with the Party-state’s articulation. Dissenters were “disloyal,” “traitors,” and “renegades,” and they paid the price.

John Le Carre, in his great novel A Perfect Spy, wrote of this question of loyalty. Figures in the book were torn between adhering to ideals that were supposedly universal and countries that were particular and often didn’t subscribe to these values. This was a quandary that perplexed many during the Cold War, particularly those attracted by the abstractions that Communism — embodied by the Soviet Union — offered but which their own homelands abhorred. Figures as august as the playwright George Bernard Shaw in the 1930s or the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre years later found much that was laudable in the model the Soviet Union was using – a faith that was to be brutally disproved when news of what really happened in Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s became better known in the rest of the world.

The rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) raises this question of loyalty in a more complex and sharper way. China is not a direct ideological enemy the way the USSR was. In that respect, we are not living through a second Cold War. China under Xi Jinping is largely uninterested in the views of the outside world toward itself. China does not want us to become like it. It just wants us to be useful. The current situation is mainly confusing in ways that differ from the Cold War because the PRC is using what on the surface looks like a form of capitalism. Its leaders talk the language of markets, profits, and material development in ways that the business world of the West (meaning here Europe, the United States, and the multiparty democracies around the world) understands, and which the Soviet Union never did.

But it would be fatally misleading to believe that this same set of words mean the same thing when coming from the mouths of Chinese or Western leaders. To take one example, the “market” for Xi and those around him is a pragmatic tool to bring about a sustainable one Party system. That is certainly not the meaning imputed to this term in the West.

China, with this hybrid economic-political system, offers the ultimate devil’s gambit for multiparty democracies. China’s case is more subtle, and more profound, that anything offered by the Cold War where the choice was often stark and the boundaries clearly delineated. Surveys like those produced by the Pew Research Center in the United States show that Western audiences like the idea of getting economic benefits and enriching themselves through engagement with the opportunities the PRC presents. But they don’t like the political system that China has, and they find the current social and ideological values of the PRC alienating.

That creates a persistent and intractable schizophrenia. On the one hand, concepts like the Belt and Road Initiative and “win-win” cooperation with the PRC have created a wave of conferences, seminars, and forms of engagement and embrace between the west and China. As countries like the United Kingdom (because of Brexit) or Australia (because of simple geographical fact) find China becoming a more and more compelling potential commercial partner and source of investment, they have to find ways of balancing the material gains they stand to get from deeper involvement with the world’s second largest economy with the potential risks. The costs of disagreeing or arguing with China over values, rights, and other things increasingly threaten to lead to bottom line consequences.

The choice is becoming a starkly binary one: Either embrace the China opportunity, pursue material enrichment, and forget the more complex issues where there are clearly big differences – those broadly of values and strategic visions – or stand faithful to these, and see others who are more flexible and pragmatic reap the benefits while being ostracized. This has set up a painful emerging conflict in capitalist societies, where the promise is always to be moving forward to greater development, wealth, and prosperity, and where publics have almost impossible demands for a good standard of living but fewer and fewer means to make the money to support this (with Chinese opportunities figuring as amongst those with the most potential). Governments either work with China to get these opportunities and take the values hit, or they patiently explain to electorates why values are important no matter what the material costs, and see punishment come their way via the ballot box.

This sort of clash is not a comfortable place to be in – and the quicker someone works a route out of it, the better. For Beijing under Xi, buying the submissiveness and compliance of the rest of the world through material gain and inducements might work for the moment. But it will set up a raft of problems, from resentment to a rising price tag as greed rises, and even the vast coffers of the Beijing foreign currency reserves cannot placate everyone. For the outside world, too, cultivating an easy hypocrisy as they take so much from a country which, in their hearts, they clearly have either ambiguous or very antipathetic feelings toward, will eventually lead to a geopolitical form of self-hatred and self-harm.

Loyalty is a hard thing to make decisions about. There are the light and the difficult paths. But Liu Binyan’s generation, and the works of writers like Le Carre, show that it is a feeling, or an attitude, that should never be underestimated. Loyalty to values and to a sense of integrity to those values, and the identity that flows from them, are things no one should casually play with. It would be a catastrophe if Beijing felt through loans, investment, and trade it could buy the outside world. And it would be an equal catastrophe if that outside world, through laziness or complacency, felt it could tolerate or compromise with this sort of arrangement.

If the outside world grows both wealthy through but resentful of China, it is unsustainable. It won’t work in the long term. And China needs to understand that now, before it starts to impute its economic prowess with powers that it does not have, and never will.