Leader: Revenge of History
On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the centenary of its creation. At that time, China was mired in what it calls the “Century of Humiliation”: the period when this ancient civilization was in decline, abused and manipulated by Imperial Russia and Japan. Now, as the world’s ascending superpower, China intends to take revenge.
In the wake of Covid-19 – which it initially suppressed – China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2028, five years ahead of schedule. This remarkable growth has had positive consequences, including lifting around 850 million Chinese people out of extreme poverty. But contrary to the expectations of Western politicians such as David Cameron and George Osborne – who spoke of a new “golden decade” for Sino-British relations – economic liberalization has not been accompanied by political liberalization.
[See also: How Joe Biden’s $1.9 trn stimulus could further destabilise US relations with China]
President Xi Jinping has abolished term limits, making himself the most powerful leader in the country since Mao Zedong. It has intensified the persecution of the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang through re-education and forced sterilization camps. He destroyed the last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong in defiance of the “one country, two systems” model.
Overseas, as John Simpson, the BBC’s global affairs editor, writes, China has “forged a powerful alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and huddled against countries resenting the West, such as Turkey, Iran and North Korea. He persuades others – Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – to view China as a more attractive trading post for the United States.
By 2024, the People’s Republic of China will exist longer than the USSR. Because of its breakneck economic growth and technological capability (and population of 1.4 billion), China is a far more formidable geopolitical enemy than the Soviet Union ever did. In the world of international relations, analysts have long feared an open conflict between the United States and China. Harvard historian Graham Allison warned in his widely debated book Destined for war (2017) that the two countries could fall prey to the “Thucydides trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, “when a great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result”. The spark could come from Taiwan, over which China is claiming sovereignty and has threatened to seize by force. On April 30, Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, warned that tensions with China were “America’s biggest problem, the world’s biggest problem.”
[See also: We are living in a world made by Xi Jinping – and Britain is desperate to find its place in it]
For the United Kingdom, this clouded prospect rightly calls for a realignment. The government has announced that Chinese tech giant Huawei will be banned from the UK’s 5G network and has offered citizenship to 350,000 UK (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong (with an additional 2.6 million eligible residents. ). But Britain remains compromised by its dependence on China. The state-owned China General Nuclear Power has a 33.5% stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant under construction in Somerset (the first in the UK since 1995). Additionally, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has become the largest operator in the North Sea, boasting on its website that it accounts for “over 25% of UK oil production and 10% of energy needs. from the country”. . In 2012, the chairman of the company, Wang Yilin, declared that “large-scale deep-water platforms are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon.” The Chinese sovereign wealth fund, meanwhile, holds a 10% stake in Heathrow airport and 9% in Thames Water.
For decades, rather than adequately investing in infrastructure, the UK has outsourced the task to foreign or private companies (which makes it possible to avoid borrowing from the government’s balance sheet). But China’s autocratic turn has shown the folly of this approach. In a new era of great power conflict, the UK can no longer depend on the kindness of strangers.
[See also: What China’s Five-Year Plan means for the rest of the world]