Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry. He is 66 next month and wants as his legacy to leave China as a rising power, ready to overtake the United States as the dominant economic and, soon, military force on earth.
Other rising powers – Britain in the 19th century, the United States in the 20th century – have used military might to obtain economic dominance and vice versa. But at all times they represented the enlightenment values of separation of power, of freedom of thought and expression, and allowed a free market in politics, so that opposition parties could exist and challenge the existing order. Such values are anathema to Xi.
Yet because so many interests have made so much money out of China since globalisation took off 40 years ago, many have forgotten the country remains a communist dictatorship with echoes of that of Stalin.
It has its gulags where the Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was sent to rot to death. And if Stalin sought to eradicate the identity of Ukraine, Xi is doing no less to Chinese Uighurs in the north west of his country, where many are kept in concentration camps.
Stalin used the ‘useful idiots’ of the global left to paint a glowing picture of his regime. Xi has his ‘useful idiots’ in the ranks of retired politicians, investment fund managers, business executives and consultants who have earned huge salaries and bonuses from trading with a China that denies all trade union rights.
There are few as clear on China as Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister. In The New European last week he aptly described the country as ‘a hardened Soviet style Leninist state’. Rudd correctly wants to keep up dialogue with China and avoid what he calls a Cold War 1.5. But that requires a change in approach by Beijing. Under Xi it is hard to see that emerging.
The détente between the Eastern Bloc and western democracies was based on establishing the Helsinki Accords and drawing the Soviet Union into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as having permanent structures of dialogue. There is no evidence of Xi moving to any détente with the people of China, let alone with his neighbours or the global community.
I first went to China in 1982 to try to find out if there were any hopes of independent trade unions being created. It was a fruitless mission. All I found was great poverty and a remote elite. Later, as an minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I was responsible for relations with China and visited as often as I could, marvelling at the revolution in living standards.
But the sad truth that must be faced is that, welcome as China’s economic growth has been, the nation under Xi is now a threat to global security and is in an objective alliance with other nationalist populists in wanting to weaken the international rule of law, human rights, and the values of an open society.
The left here in Britain, and further afield, has long ignored this dark side of Chinese tyranny, but responsibility for formulating a new policy on China cannot be left to Trump or to isolationist Tories in London.
It is clear now that Xi, in his desire to show he will be master of the world, is making mistakes. For a start, he thought Trump would be as compliant as previous US presidents in seeking to curry favour with China. Trump’s politics are vulgar and crude but he has an instinctive feel for where many of America’s workers and middle classes are. They feel that the Wall Street-dominated administrations of presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama have sacrificed main street and hard-working America by allowing one-way trade with China. The Democrats are now even tougher on China. Joe Biden calls Xi ‘a thug’. Whatever happens in this autumn’s US election, Washington will become tougher with Beijing.
Xi has also overreached in China’s increasingly imperial behaviour. Its crude military pressure on neighbours, and demands they must accept China as master of the seas, has gone too far.
Xi has also mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, from the early targeting of doctors who tried to raise the alarm. There are serious questions for the world to ask of him. But will it?
The democratic world which challenged Stalin after 1945 with effective counter measures has been asleep.
We need a new global progressive campaign to hold China to account. This is not about siding with Trump, economic boycotts, stopping trade or travel or losing any respect for the talents and hard work of Chinese of all ages, including the hundreds of thousands studying in our universities.
Welcoming Chinese citizens is not the same as supporting Xi and the communist regime. For too long countries have turned a blind eye to the reality of China. It is time to wake up, alert populations, and spend serious money on informing the world, including 1.4 billion Chinese, that democracy, freedom of information and open economics are not going to disappear from the world we all have to live in.
Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister. His latest book is Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain. He will be speaking at the virtual York Festival of Ideas on June 3