China and West head for new Cold War – Joyce McMillan

This is a turning-point in global politics that raises questions for greens and social democrats, writes Joyce McMillan

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017 (Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017 (Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

One fine day just a year ago, in July 2019, I was lucky enough to attend my niece’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh, at the splendid McEwan Hall. It was a wonderful day, as hundreds of brilliant young people – and some not so young – filed up to receive their degrees. No one could fail to notice the striking numbers of young Chinese students making their way up to the podium. Internationalism is the norm in modern higher education, of course, and one of the keys to its transformative power; it’s also something we have come to take for granted as part of the “business model” of our higher education institutions, even if its consequences, for both universities and cities, have sometimes created tensions.

And I thought of that bright day again, this week, when I heard the UK Government announce that it would reverse its decision of six months ago, and ban the Chinese company Huawei from Britain’s mobile phone networks, with all Huawei kit to be stripped out of our system by 2027. The government’s decision, of course, is part of a picture of deteriorating relations between China and the West that has grown steadily darker during 2020. The reasons for this deterioration are complex, involving a mix of classic enemy-imaging and warmongering from the Trump administration – Iran and Islam were last year’s chosen enemy, whereas China has been the choice for the year of the virus – and genuine threats.

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The most conspicuous of these threats, now already a reality, has been China’s aggressive move to exert tighter control over Hong Kong, effectively breaching the “one country two systems” agreement with the UK signed in 1997; in the background, also, is the appalling and still largely untold story of the fate of China’s Uighur Muslim people, who have been imprisoned and re-educated in prison camps in their millions over the last decade, in a colossal act of attempted cultural genocide.

China’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic, on the other hand – while flawed, as ever, by the viciously authoritarian treatment of some medical staff who tried to issue early alerts – was certainly effective enough to make us shudder at the thought of such a virus arising in a China less closely linked to the WHO system, less willing to share information, and less inclined to encourage the participation of its scientists in international research networks. And in in that sense, our systems of pandemic preparedness – crucially dependent on input from the country that represents more than a tenth of world’s population – mirror the growing dependence of a whole global economy which has come to rely on China’s massive recent economic growth, both to power revivals and recoveries in more “mature” western economies, and also, increasingly, to lead the process of investment in Africa, where China’s growing presence has led to talk of a new age of imperialism.

All of which raises one simple question – whether we are in any way ready for the new Cold War that now looms, with both China and the West ramping up their military presence and rhetoric in key areas of tension, and the United States and its closest allies increasingly moving to wrench apart the systems of economic and technological interdependence that have underpinned the peace between the world’s major trading blocs over the last 40 years. Some countries, companies and institutions will straightforwardly mourn any breach of relations with China, citing the likelihood that for the UK in particular, this can only intensify the looming economic disaster of Brexit, now multiplied at least threefold, in its negative economic impact, by one of the worst Covid-19 epidemics in the world, and its inevitable long-term impact on economic behaviour. Hence, of course, the fierce tussle within the British establishment over Huawei, and the bizarre sight of a government – that has already steered us to the heart of the Covid-19 storm and is still maintaining its course towards the Brexit iceberg – also choosing this moment to rip out the system on which most of our 21st-century communications depend, and to undermine relations with what is, for now, almost the world’s only growing economy.

Some on the left and in the green movement, by contrast, will welcome the end of a phase of globalisation that was marked by unacceptable compromises on human rights and social justice, by the increasing destruction of local communities and supply networks, and by huge surges in exactly the kind of economic growth that is driving us towards climate catastrophe; although any move away from globalisation will not deliver the kind of change for which the green left yearns if it is accompanied by a strengthening of authoritarian and militaristic governments across the world, and a grotesque new arms race.

And there will be some, notably in Europe, who will yearn for the election of Joe Biden, as an American president who will want to rebuild functioning 
relations with China, while building the kind of unity among western governments which works best, as a mechanism for raising pressure on China over human rights.

This is a turning-point in global politics, in other words, that raises hard questions for people on the green and social-democratic centre-left, in Scotland as elsewhere. To develop any kind of steady and purposeful progressive politics, in such a context, seems like a crushingly difficult task; to remain passionate about international solidarity in a time of fragmentation, dedicated to achieving a just transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy in a time when any job seems better than none, and dedicated to the values of democracy and human rights in a time when both of the world’s two great powers increasingly seem to view them with contempt. Yet if we want our children to experience anything like the peace, security and freedom those of us living in the West knew in the decades between 1950 and 2016, then we have no option but to try; and to work through whatever governments, or structures, or political communities seem most likely to keep those values alive, while navigating a decent and practical course through the stormy times that inevitably lie ahead.

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