It has become something of a truism to say that China will rise to a position of global dominance in the twenty-first century. All the evidence seems to support the thesis and we are flooded with the most fantastic figures charting the rise. Harvard political scientist Graham Allison treats us to a selection of these in his recent book Destined for War. He tells us that China’s GDP was less than $300 billion in 1980, a figure that had risen to $11 trillion by 2015. The country’s total trade with the outside world came to just $40 billion in 1980, but in 2015 it was $4 trillion—a hundredfold increase. Allison has plenty more shockers up his sleeve: “For every two-year period since 2008, the increment of growth in China’s GDP has been larger than the entire economy of India. Even at its lower growth in 2015, China’s economy created a Greece every sixteen weeks and an Israel every twenty-five weeks.” In fact, since the Great Recession of 2008, 40 percent of all the economic growth in the world has occurred in just one country: China. Allison quotes Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, for the coup de grâce: “It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”
If Lee was right, then there can be only one outcome. “This world will be China’s,” says the brother of Ye Cheng, the Communist Party billionaire who now controls Australia’s Port Darwin. It is time for China to “change the world where rules are set by foreigners,” according to Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group and China’s second richest man. China will “lead the entire world on political, economic, military, and environmental issues,” in the words of president-for-life Xi Jinping. But when men like this use the word “China,” they mislead us. It will not be the Chinese people who rise to inherit the earth, who wake to shake the world. It will be the Communist Party.
Chinese citizens have been indoctrinated for decades with the idea that Party is country. The idea was introduced by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping soon after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. He realised that as long as the state and the people were seen as separate entities, then the door would remain open for recognition of the Party’s many historical crimes—and also for recognition of the ongoing subjugation of the people by the Party. He wanted to make sure that citizens would never again rise up as they did in 1989. As China-watcher Clive Hamilton explains: “For many new Chinese arrivals in the West, one of the hardest concepts to understand is the distinction, essential to democracies, between the nation and its government. When they do grasp the difference, they are open to becoming critics of the party-state without feeling they are betraying their homeland.”
The problem is that people in the West don’t always understand the distinction themselves, and so they will regularly criticise “China” when referring to the authoritarian policies of the Communist Party. This leads firstly to defensive reactions from patriotic Chinese, and secondly to criticism from Westerners highly attuned to issues of racism. Accusations are flung back and forth, confusion reigns in both East and West, and all the while the Communist Party quietly extends its influence across the globe. So how concerned should we be? Party officials have soothed us for decades with talk of China’s “peaceful rise,” and Xi Jinping has even sought to qualify the famous Napoleon quote. “Today, the lion has woken up,” he declared in a speech in Paris a few years ago. “But it is peaceful, pleasant, and civilised.” All this smooth talk has certainly convinced US presidential hopeful Joe Biden. “What are we worried about?” he cheerfully asked a recent audience.
They could have given him a hundred and one answers. Today, the Communist Party stifles criticism and dictates policy far beyond Chinese borders,3 controlling NGOs and businesses, silencing dissidents, and filling Western university boards with CCP sympathisers.4 Academic institutions are increasingly reliant on Chinese money—$12.55 billion in student tuition fees in 2016—and so it’s easy to buy their silence. “We don’t talk about Taiwan independence,” says Perry Link, Professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. “We don’t talk about the occupation of Tibet. We don’t call the June 4 Massacre ‘massacre.’” The same subjects are off-limits for British lecturers, who have been warned by staff from London’s Chinese embassy that they should never talk about “the three Ts” (Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan). Those who do stray into the forbidden areas of discussion are summarily punished. Funding was removed for visiting scholars at the University of California San Diego in response to the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the university. The Communist Party considers him to be an “enemy element,” and it will not tolerate its business associates maintaining any kind of relationship with him.
The Party’s iron grip extends to society far beyond academia. Many foreign companies with business interests in China have been forced to apologise for referring to Taiwan or Tibet in the ‘wrong’ terms. The German manufacturer Leica made the mistake of referring to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in one of its adverts, and was forced to issue a full apology. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz was forced to apologise for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post. The quote itself was as banal as you might expect: “Look at the situation from all angles, and you will become more open.” But Party stooges quickly registered their displeasure online, and so Mercedes-Benz deleted the offending post, adopted the penitent posture, and issued the ritual confession: “We will promptly take steps to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, our international staff included, to help standardise our actions to ensure this sort of issue doesn’t happen again.”
This craven behaviour is making the Party confident—so confident, in fact, that it has begun arresting the citizens of other countries. A Swedish citizen was abducted in Thailand and flown to China after publishing books critical of the Chinese authorities, and a British citizen from Hull was snatched in Beijing airport and jailed for comments he’d made on Facebook. He was on his way from the Philippines to the UK and only stopping off briefly in the airport, but he ended up spending two weeks in prison for the crime of “not being a friend to China.” The Party’s thugs have physically assaulted journalists in the US for publishing anti-CCP content,5 they have kidnapped and tortured booksellers in Hong Kong, and they have attempted to murder independent journalists in Australia. They locked British businessman Peter Humphrey into an iron chair inside a steel cage and drugged him in order to elicit a confession. They hounded New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady, punishing her for researching the CCP’s foreign influence by sending their goons to break into her home in Christchurch, tamper with her car, burgle her office, and send her threatening letters.
You might argue that this behaviour simply shows that the Communist Party wants to gain power abroad to increase its own standing—its prestige or “face.” The projection of a strong image will allow it to more effectively protect the country and be taken seriously by big players like the United States. But the kidnapping of journalists and publishers on the other side of the world reveals another attitude entirely. The Chinese authorities apparently believe that the citizens of all countries come under their jurisdiction. This is more than aggressive nationalism, this is imperialism.
Drunk with self-confidence, the Party is now attempting to fully absorb Hong Kong. The territory has been a “Special Administrative Region” for the past 22 years—officially part of China but at the same time ruled by its own government. This is in accordance with an agreement between China and the United Kingdom that is supposed to last until 2047. But, in 2017, the CCP declared, to Britain’s surprise, that the legal document signed by the countries had “no practical significance.” Having become so powerful that it no longer concerns itself with international law, the Communist Party is now reclaiming the region. CCP officials have been appointed to the Hong Kong government, and legal changes have been made to bring the territory under greater mainland control.
The newest change is a proposed amendment to an extradition law allowing criminal suspects to be moved onto the mainland. This law would officially apply to those facing sentences of seven years or more, but that is little consolation to the people of Hong Kong. They know that the Communist Party routinely conjures serious charges out of thin air when it wants to imprison its political opponents. No one takes the Party seriously when it claims (as it often does) that China is a country ruled by law: the claim is fatally undermined by a 99 percent conviction rate. Everyone knows that this amended law will be used to silence the Party’s critics in Hong Kong. And if you are extradited to China then you finished—in some cases literally. At the very least, you are certain to be tortured in police custody. The people of Hong Kong are not taking this lying down: they have gathered for mass protests in recent weeks. Unfortunately, there may be little they can do. The bill has been suspended for the moment, but it will inevitably be reintroduced at some point.
As a “Special Administrative Region,” Hong Kong is an unusual case. But the Party adopts the same imperialist approach further afield, and without the mask of international agreements. Much of the world has been intimidated into pretending that Taiwan is part of China simply because the Party says that it is—even British Airways lists the country as a Chinese province, and Taiwan’s Olympic competitors are made to perform under the banner of “Chinese Taipei.” Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s minister of foreign affairs, explains the reality of the situation:
Taiwan is a sovereign democratic state. … We elect our president and legislators, have our own armed forces, issue passports and visas, and conduct international relations with other countries. Taiwanese enjoy all kinds of freedoms: speech, press, assembly, religion, political participation, the rule of law, and, since May, same-sex marriage. … The great majority of Taiwanese have zero interest in being part of a police state that monitors its citizens with social credit surveillance, puts Uyghurs in mass internment camps, suppresses religion and dissent in Tibet, throws human rights lawyers in jail, and limits access to the internet.
Xi Jinping is not listening. He has stated that Taiwan “must and will be” unified with the mainland, and his tone is urgent—he says that the “problem” of unification cannot be put off for another generation. He calls on the Chinese military to be prepared to fight “bloody battles” to achieve this. All the signs indicate that the Party will not stop at Hong Kong and Taiwan. Pressure is now being applied to foreign governments to deport Uyghurs to China, where more than a million members of the ethnic group are being held in concentration camps. Xi Jinping has decided that Uyghurs are a problem, much as the Nazis decided that Jews were a problem, and he expects other countries to submit to his authority on the issue. Incredibly, the governments of Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos have all complied, sending their Uyghurs to China for torture and incarceration. If the cowardice and appeasement continues, then soon enough the lion will sink its claws into Western countries. Indeed, this is already the plan: He Yafei, deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, told senior Party cadres that “China” (by which he means the Communist Party) will “carve out a bloody path and smash the West’s monopoly and public opinion hegemony.”
So what kind of world can we expect to live in, once the CCP is in control? We might get some idea from the social credit system that Jaushieh Joseph Wu mentioned. An increasing number of Chinese citizen—by 2020 it will be all citizens—are subject to a rating system whereby their behaviour dictates their score, somewhat like a malevolent version of the 2016 Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.” The Party monitors individual behaviour through extensive surveillance, both on and offline. All manner of innocuous activity can drive down an individual’s score—even playing video games. When a declining score passes a certain threshold then travel plans and bank loans are blocked. Citizens with low social credit scores were prevented from buying airline tickets 17.5 million times in 2018. Those with the lowest scores simply vanish into the labyrinth of the Communist Party’s internal security system. We might imagine that no similar arrangement could ever be put into place outside China, but unfortunately the evidence suggests that the Party is already quietly setting it up.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project has provided the perfect cover for the Chinese authorities to introduce their own video surveillance system to most of Pakistan’s major cities. In fact, CCP-controlled Hikvision cameras can now be found scattered throughout Stansted and Glasgow airports and the London Underground. The Party has direct access to the data from any one of these camera systems. The same issue has cropped up with regard to China’s telecoms infrastructure—Huawei has been banned in many parts of the world because of fears that “backdoors” in the equipment could allow Beijing to carry out unauthorised surveillance. Tourists to the western Chinese province of Xinjiang must now submit their phones to border guards, who install surveillance apps and download personal information before allowing the tourists to move on.
The Party has also launched the “Belt and Road” Initiative, a hugely ambitious programme involving infrastructure development and investment in 152 countries. To date, the Initiative has enabled CCP enterprises to gain control of 76 ports and terminals in 34 of these countries. It has enabled the Party to gain footholds across the world by investing heavily in states that will never be able to repay their debt: the Sri Lankan government, for instance, ended up owing so much that it could not end a large Chinese port project at Hambantota, and so the authorities had no choice but to give a CCP-owned firm the rights to the port on a 99-year lease. Now special arbitration courts are being introduced at “Belt and Road” sites, where they will promote an “alternative” (read”Communist Party”) legal system.
In his bestselling book When China Rules the World, the journalist Martin Jacques suggests that we will see the rise of a new global political system in the twenty-first century—one radically different to the current arrangement. Jacques foresees a tributary system based on a romanticised view of the Qing dynasty, which was the last of the old empires in what we now call China. Representatives from surrounding regions were required to make regular journeys to the court of the Qing emperor to pay tribute. The twenty-first century version would involve national leaders journeying to Beijing once a year to perform the same ritual kowtow.
These are not just the predictions of one man looking in from the outside—Communist Party leaders have confessed to the very same dreams. Lee Kuan Yew told Graham Allison that hundreds of Party officials came to him over the years to seek his advice, and they all shared the same nostalgia for “a world in which China was dominant and other states related to them as supplicants to a superior, as vassals came to Beijing bearing tribute.” Graham Allison knows of a Shanghai deputy mayor who says he looks forward to the day when every upper-middle class family in Shanghai has an American houseboy.8 This unlikely vision begins to look less unlikely when we remember the power and influence such visionaries hold—power and influence that is growing rapidly.
The time has come to take the Chinese Communist Party very seriously indeed. Successive Western governments have dealt softly with their counterparts in Beijing, hoping for the gradual emergence of a Western-style democratic regime. We convinced ourselves that if you leave lions alone then they will become completely different animals. Now we must deal with the consequences of that mistake. The Communist Party will never change, it will only get worse—and already it begins to threaten the liberty of people all over the world. We need a new approach. Wang Dan, one of the exiled student leaders from Tiananmen Square, has found cause for hope in the recent US-China trade war. “In the 1990s,” he told the New York Times, “when Washington linked the granting of China’s most favourable trading status with human rights, the Chinese government bowed to the pressure by relaxing its political control and releasing me and several other dissidents. But once trade and human rights were delinked, the situation there deteriorated drastically.” Perhaps we could cage the lion by refusing to compromise on human rights, and by insisting on the association of political reform with trade.
But equally important is the support of the Chinese populace. We must decouple Party from people, making it clear that the former threatens us, not the latter. Language is crucially important here. If ‘the Communist Party’ and ‘China’ are separated in the political discourse, then Chinese citizens will be liberated to criticise the Party themselves, just as Deng Xiaoping feared. Another Tiananmen Square movement will become possible. Once this happens, then we can avoid a repeat of the 1989 massacre by ensuring that the international community stands with the Chinese people throughout. If we provide continual support and coverage, ignoring the Party’s inevitable barrage of bribery and bullying, then we may be able to avoid the Orwellian future that Xi Jinping has planned for us all.
Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield and currently working on a book about the nation-state system, cultural universals, and global governance.