Britain’s handling of the Chinese state visit displays a central confusion of intent: can it be right to restrict civil society for the good of a nation?
‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer,’ must surely have been the quiet adage behind the treatment of Chairman Xi Jinping in London last week – or so the British Prime Minister would like his citizens to think.
The journalist Peter Hitchens has brought up a number of old press articles comparing the attitude towards George Bush’s visit in 2003, during which effigies of the American president were toppled in Trafalgar Square (an homage, apparently, to the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad), to that of Chairman Jian Zemin’s visit in 2000, during which the crowds who lined the Mall had their bags searched for Tibetan flags. Now we have the spectacle of Chairman Xi Jinping’s visit, last week, during which every effort was made by the state to suppress spectacles of public discontent, including peaceful demonstration against the Chinese regime. The support lent to the Chinese propaganda machine and suppression of protesters will doubtless result in the Met losing some court cases, taking one for the government by admitting its conduct was wrong and losing a bit more credibility while those in charge await knighthoods.
Hitchens has, however, overlooked that we’ve actually done Mr Xi a great disservice by denying him a bit of the Western cultural experience for which China – and especially the Chinese elite – genuinely hungers. There is an issue here of attempting to make things comfortable on ones’ own terms while not understanding the terms of the other. Our society is just that: a nation of political and economic elites complementary to a nation of fat peoples on the dole. Each group, sub group and individual holds a uniquely self-assured balance of healthy expression and submission within the structure (except for some immigrants) – and an egg on the limo might have become one of the few mutual experiences that Mr Xi and and Mr. Cameron could have bonded over at Chequers – man to man – head boy to head boy, old boy. Certainly – the two would have strained to provide and accommodate for the others’ utterly different frame of perception in just about everything else beneath the laws of physics.
We all know that sometimes the British state must do things which its own laws do not allow (that’s why we have people like James Bond). Maybe it was worth it. Just this once. Just for this occasion. Maybe it was vital that a visiting head of state of should not be confronted with that most fundamental symptom of a functioning civil society: fat people in canvas plimsols and Amnesty International t-shirts with nothing better to do with their time than to shriek tenuously understood diatribes at a speeding motorcade before heading to Starbucks for a good old cup of Made-in-China tea and a bit of self-congratulatory philosophising based on internet-assembled abstractions about how the West isn’t working. On any other day, they’d have been waving red flags.
Do the vicarious non-interests of these conscientious warriors really warrant the shaking of fragile diplomatic bridges between the UK and the brightest ascending star on the planet?
No – of course not, but that isn’t the issue.
These little compromises are symptomatic of Her Majesty’s Government fumbling on a more fundamental level. They throw light on the hypocrisy of an administration trying to be everything to everyone and really not managing to be anything to anyone: pretending to govern for the people while getting the police to do your dirty work, pretending to care about human rights in Brussels while grovelling before China in London. If David Cameron is so worried about Chairman Xi’s limo contracting salmonella, then he should man up, get out the water-cannon and give the poor sods lining the Mall something real to protest about. This whole cloak and dagger nonsense with the police compromises irreparably the fabric of our society in order to save face with people who have come to admire our society.
Of course, there is an axis of power which dictates a proportional level of admiration afforded to a visiting head of state regardless of his political creed. But there is another, unspoken, axis which Cameron does not want us think about: that of scarcity. It is this axis which dictates the level of toadying afforded to a head of state. On this axis China ranks unbearably high; high enough to surpass the USA in terms of pull. Understand this:
power = wealth x scarcity
China may not be small or vulnerable like the Falkland Islands, nor serve unique political purposes like Israel, but it can do what no five-year-term Western leader can dream of: generate inaccessibility to its internal wealth.
By having a central authority which governs in the nation’s interest (unlike semi-independent nations of the EU and the old US wife to which we already have a blood loyalty), China is now the society debutante; an object of un-exploited value. Moreover, China knows the value of not slutting herself out to the first Western bidder. China is so valuable, in fact, that most of the nations who court her will compromise their own operational ethos; swallow their own words; alter their own nature and grovel like teenagers before the prom queen. And that (schoolboys take note), is precisely why they shall fail to seduce her.
The bitter comedy in all this is that China actually wants to be seduced by someone.
The source of China’s colossal power abroad, in terms of social dynamics, is not the economy of civil society from which Western political and economic power has evolved, but rather a form of synthetic freedom in which, while consumers may chose between one product or another, the supply end is licensed and sanctioned so that those who climb higher in the corporate hierarchy must also move towards the centre of the Communist Party; a system which places even its least statist cadres at the centre of the state’s bullseye and thus forces them to take responsibility for the colossal, nebulous structure of China’s ideological narrative and all the retroactive definitions which must follow in a nation still beholden to the vestiges of the cult of Chairman Mao. That’s how the Chinese state has to roll – isolated from the people and with one arm twisted behind its back in a double bind. One wrong move and you’re back to fixing tractors in the countryside.
The problem may be simple, but the solution is likely to be complex. I wouldn’t be so crass as to speculate that the solution should come from the bottom up, either – not least because there is one single fact, to which all Western appeals to logic and argument must give way: China has no civil society. They don’t understand what it is. The measure of an individual’s power in China is the measure of his endorsement by an institution which backs him. I could go into why this causes me to characterise China as a ‘female society,’ but that’s another article.
There is no way to impress the fundamental tenets of Western power upon China while simultaneously suspending that system in their honour. You cannot ever, ever express the civil sense of the Occident with the marshal sense of the Asiatic without it looking profoundly stupid – and China has to be drawn, fascinated by seeing that we (the less powerful party), do not sell out on our principles for anyone.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the marshal sense, if you are calibrated by a society which operates on that basis. There are respects in which we can benefit and even learn from this colossal power and submit in awe of what they have done; the British dog should have no desire to strain at the Chinese leash on occasions like this. But there are also absolutely non-negotiable respects in which we are leading a blind master, and in which it is lethal to misdescribe the terrain to him.
Alas, David Cameron must answer to British voters who don’t understand this, and wouldn’t understand the value of our Western inheritance unless they lost it – so he got China to build a few nuclear power stations, picked up the bill and that’s close enough to a fling for the man to brag to his society of a ‘success.’ I get that – It’s tricky. He’s in as much of a bind as a Communist Party free-marketeer, but one side in this exchange has started acting against its own conscience, it has thus demonstrated irrefutably that it is the weaker side. It either lacks conviction or it lacks direction. In evolutionary terms – it has admitted its own non-viability. Alas, it is Cameron who has shown willing to take the fall on his principle.
I remember the words of my violin teacher in a cold prep-school practice room when I was nine-years-old. I had trudged up the frosty pathway from dormitory to lesson, knowing I hadn’t practiced my Elgar.
The man was terrifying, for some reason. I now realise what that reason was: he was absolutely right. Thus, he would have been differently, but equally, grotesque if he had cut me slack as if he were the Matron – who could grant children license to fall within a structure of submission to her institutionally powerful mercy. But when you’re right; when you represent what works for humankind, whereas you may cut people some slack, it is your sacred duty to humankind never to operate on the terms of those who don’t come dressed to your table. If you do, you lead them further down a path to a dead-end and they will eventually reproach you.
Chaiman Xi, the benign dictator, needs to learn as much from Western leaders as Cameron needs to court China the superpower, but I’m not entirely sure Cameron really believes this. Even if Cameron even hears this, he probably assumes it to be some kind of self-deprecating courteous nicety from his guest.
The tragic irony is that a character like Chairman Xi is, I suspect, probably much like Cameron in that both would rather retreat into a philosopher’s cave than to live in a mighty palace of steel and glass, lit by nuclear energy (certainly there is good reason to suspect that Chairman Mao was this way inclined). I’m certain that Christendom has many of the answers as to how this can happen without compromising the stability of his administrations yet, in our dread of the most frivolous turbulence, the West is distorting the picture for China’s elite for fear of losing face. Thus, the meeting ground becomes a meaningless safe-zone of purely economic understandings involving power stations and the most absurdly contrived trip to the good old working class pub perhaps ever in history.
I wonder if they ever actually broke the ice with each other. The Chairman’s family are a kindly lot (I met them once. They introduced me to the delights of 1950s Soviet Kareoke songs in a North Korean Restaurant outside Peking). I would hope that they got their children to engage in some fun riding around together in Go-Karts or something but, if they fear the public reaction as much as it appears they do, then maybe even this degree interaction between the two parties would be micro-managed. I suddenly have a ridiculous image of the Cameron children and the Xi nephews going slower and slower around the circuit – knowing that they must never attempt to overtake or fall behind the other until they all come to a complete standstill before the cameras of the world’s media.
How bleak the world must look, then, for Chairman Xi – who cannot even implore the empty Chinese heaven for answers as Christendom turns to ash in his path.
By the way, it’s not as if Britain even succeeded in being the perfect host on what they thought were Chinese terms anyway. The same paper which publishes Peter Hitchens’ article, The Daily Mail, also published a photograph of Chairman Xi’s wife having a makeup malfunction. To Chinese sensibilities, I am sure it is this which will offend above all else. You can’t imagine how rude this would be considered in Peking. Even opponents of the state are not shamed in this way. If the long arm of the British state could have bribed, bullied or done anything during the visit (again – not that it should have), it might have been better to stop that article. I wonder if any outraged British citizen would have had the humility to stand up for freedom by protesting about the censorship of something so mundane? Probably not. If the issue is not sufficiently powerful that protestors wish to be associated with it in the limelight of the leaders’ stage, then the protestors retreat into the darkness of the auditorium – unable to admit that their protest is, ultimately, hedonistic. That’s why they are sitting in Starbucks, not a state limousine. Another amusing talking point for Mr. Cameron and Chairman Xi, perhaps. I can tell you that uneasy is the bum that sits in the state limousine – and not just after five courses of North Korean grub.
Penned @ Caffe Notte, on the strength of two tumblers of sinus-blowing Punch.