Before his disgrace in the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon was famous as the US President who went to China. The 1972 trip was a diplomatic masterstroke at a time when the Cold War was decidedly hot in places and also prompted the hitherto isolationist China to start engaging with the rest of the world, a key moment on its rise to becoming the second-biggest economy.
But while its economy has opened up, its government remains a brutal dictatorship – a place where dissidents are jailed for their opinions and where more than one million Uighurs and other minorities are estimated to have been forced into sinister ‘re-education’ camps – just as it was under Mao Zedong nearly half a century ago. So it is not surprising that there are tensions between China and the world’s liberal democracies.
The UK Government has decided to strip out equipment made by the Chinese company Huawei, founded by a former senior officer of China’s People’s Liberation Army, from the 5G network by 2027 because of concerns that information could be used for intelligence purposes. And now the US is to ban downloads of the popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat because of national security and data privacy concerns.
Normally there would be little question about whether the US was doing this for good reasons or bad. The evidence would be laid out for all to see, the case would be made in the UN, China would be given sufficient warnings to change its behaviour and only then action would be taken.
However, with Donald Trump in the White House, the suspicion is that this may be part of his attempts to turn China into a great external threat that requires a supposed ‘strongman’ like him to control. In other words, Trump’s ban could be an election strategy and nothing to do with national security. The same can be said of his repeated references to Covid as a “Chinese virus” and suggestions it was developed deliberately in a laboratory as part of a bizarre plot to damage his re-election hopes.
Global free trade has helped the world become richer, but democratic countries need to find better ways to use these connections to coax tyrannies towards freedom, before dictatorships like China become “too big to fail”, too important a part of the system. However, in order to do that, the West must set its own house in order, hopefully starting in November with the election of Joe Biden as the 46th US President.
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