China: A Wolf in the World?

I have been reading this book as the extraordinary spectacle of the Olympic Games in Beijing has been unfolding. Leaving aside for a moment the heady exploits of “Team GB” (at which even Celts like myself have felt a quickening of the pulse), the abiding memory of these Games will surely be the dazzling performance of China: easily preeminent in gold medals and in the sheer professional ease with which it has handled the complex infrastructure that staging the Olympics demands. English commentators are quick to emphasise that the London Olympics of 2012 will not attempt to match, or indeed echo, this formidable Oriental precursor.

How could they? Everything about China is on a forbiddingly large scale, besides which other countries seem to shrink. But apart from scale, what is most notable about China is the continuing enigma she presents to the rest of the world. Thus George Walden’s book is timely, reminding us that we need to see beyond the heady glamour and visual delights with which China introduced the Games and which he describes with some accuracy as “the Potemkin Beijing”. For many years a diplomat before becoming an MP, Walden served both in Moscow and Beijing and speaks both Russian and Chinese. He was a young Second Secretary at the British Mission in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-69 and has made frequent visits to the country ever since. He raises many questions in this book which should give Westerners pause for thought as they applaud and participate in China’s swift economic rise while at the same time making ritual denunciations of her poor record on human rights.

Walden’s experience of China has been indelibly marked by his memories of living through the so-called Cultural Revolution (neither cultural nor revolutionary so much as violent and barbaric), when few foreign countries dared to maintain embassies in Beijing and where the young diplomat daily witnessed acts of random ugliness by sullen mobs mindlessly chanting Maoist slogans. That in contemporary China, a mere 40 years after such scenes and only 30 years since the death of the despot who unleashed them as a cynical and deliberate policy to maintain his own power, he is able to walk down clean, safe and prosperous streets and talk more or less freely to their well-dressed and friendly inhabitants, is a cause of both wonder and sober reflection for the author. He comments that in the Communist China of the recent past there was scant sign of the “resourcefulness, eagerness to learn and adapt, productive energy, courtesy, delicacy and aesthetic sensibility for which the Chinese can be renowned.” It is a tribute to the genius of China that such signs are now widespread and commonplace.

For Walden, the word “Wolf” in his title is meant to convey a power that is forceful and assertive, rather than predatory and aggressive. I am not convinced by this gloss; Lord Byron’s image, “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold” comes unbidden to my mind. Furthermore, the author’s discussion of China’s possible future development – whether political, economic, expansionist, militaristic – does nothing to allay fears of the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, beguiling the Little Red Riding Hoods of the western world before outflanking and dominating them.

As Walden reminds us, scale matters. China has had a continuous civilisation for 5,000 years; her population at present is one billion, 300 million; her land mass is enormous; her economic boom is built on a labour force paid 10 to 30 times less than US or European equivalents; and her devotion to education, honed by the necessary mastering of 3,000 ideograms (ideally suited to the world of computer programming, apparently) is legendary. The acute question behind all this is: will the strange mixture of an authoritarian government presiding over a capitalist economy that now directs the country give way to, or evolve into, western-type democracy as the pressures of the marketplace expand?

People I know that do business with China blandly assure me this will happen. Walden is not so sanguine. He quotes the late respected American diplomat, George Kennan, with approval: “Evidence has yet to be produced that representative government is the natural form of rule for people outside Europe and America.” Citing the example of Russia, tentatively moving away from hard-line Communism in the early 1990s only to regress to an increasingly one-party mentality under Putin, he suggests that the current regime in China, part repressive, part entrepreneurial, could soldier on for decades. Between 1987 and 2003, the number of judges in China rose from 70,000 to 180,000; in Maoist days, there was 1 restaurant per 3 million people compared to 1 restaurant per 400 today. Such statistics show change, modest in human rights, ebullient in bread and circuses.

Walden’s thesis is that western understanding of China is skewed by ignorance and subjectivity: prominent Left-wing intellectuals have been resolutely blind to the monstrous regime of Chairman Mao (he devotes a postscript to the importance of Jung Chang’s recent biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, which is still banned on the mainland) while more conservative politicians such as Nixon or Edward Heath chose to ignore it. Meanwhile, the two characteristics that westerners associate with China, her inscrutability and her need to “save face”, remain constant. Walden’s description of China’s attitude to the West is telling: “A kind of arrogance mixed with resentment lightly glazed with politeness.” (I also learn that the English slang word, “Wop”, an expression of benign contempt for foreigners, originally stood for “wily oriental person”; the stereotype runs deep and remains intact.)

Demography also matters. Walden points out that Russia has a severe population crisis. Currently 146 million, by 2050 it is estimated to shrink to 70-100 million and Putin sees it as his country’s most serious problem. China may well be hungry for the unpolluted spaces and rich mineral resources of eastern Russia: “The prospect of a rich colossus, with a population nearly 15 times as large as her own on her eastern frontier will preoccupy Russia for years to come.” And on the question of India, also developing rapidly, he comments that “It seems inconceivable that two giant Asian nations can expand in harmony without a feeling that each is somehow cramping the other.”

Curiously, though referring to China’s swollen population, Walden omits one aspect of the equation. When he pictures the possible shifts and movements of these gigantic tectonic plates in the future, he forgets that even great civilisations can become sclerotic and decay. In a recent article Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, reminds us that a scourge of Chinese Communism has been its One Child Policy, attacking family life and creating a nation of only children with 117 boys for every 100 girls. “The good news for the rest of us is that, just as it is poised to overtake America, China will therefore find itself burdened with an aged population – roughly 300 million pensioners by 2035. If the East is grey, rather than red, it may thus deny itself the gold medal of world domination”.

Walden asks provocative questions, makes intelligent conjectures, yet naturally enough can provide no answers. China remains a conundrum: huge and unpredictable. For me, possibly the most revealing quotation in the whole book remains the 18th century Emperor Qianlong’s “decree” to King George III, in which he writes thus to the monarch of an energetic, stable, rich nation that was also at the time a considerable force in the world: “I have perused your memorial. The earnest terms in which it is couched reveal a respectful humility which is highly praiseworthy...My capital is the hub and centre about which all quarters of the globe revolve...I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea...Our dynasty, swaying the myriad races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all.” It would be amusing if it were not so serious. There is nothing in the recent demonstration of political power and executive genius that China has shown the world at the Beijing Olympics to suggest that her attitude towards England, and indeed the West, has changed at all.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in England.


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