Almost a year ago, Maclean’s published an essay by controversial former Canadian diplomat and entrepreneur Maurice Strong in which he passionately defended his adopted home, China, from those who would criticize its authoritarian regime. He lauded the government’s move toward a “socialist market economy” and said that Western engagement and understanding would inevitably lead to more openness and respect for human rights in the Middle Kingdom. “The Chinese will be much more influenced by our example than by the uninformed and hypocritical content of so much of our criticism,” Strong wrote. And in so doing, he summarized the prevailing sentiments among much of Canada’s political and business class: more support for China will inevitably make them more like us.
This week, Martin Jacques, a journalist, academic and author of the new book When China Rules the World, provides some sober (and sobering) second thought. In recent years, it has become accepted as a given that China’s rapid economic growth will allow it to eventually eclipse the United States as the world’s pre-eminent financial power. But Jacques says this shift in influence will certainly go far beyond commercial heft. It will bring profound and, in many respects, unwelcome changes to Western culture. The ruling classes in China are not interested in adopting foreign values like racial equality, human rights and political openness. Rather, they are dismissive—and in some cases outright hostile—to many of the political and cultural touchstones that we take for granted. They view the world as a hierarchy, with China at the top and the rest of the world representing various degrees of inferiority.
This reality was on display this week, with Beijing’s ruthless suppression of a protest in its western Xingjiang region, home to most of the country’s eight million Muslim Uighurs. Protesters reportedly took to the streets after a mob of Han Chinese attacked several Uighurs at a toy factory in Guangdong, injuring almost a dozen and killing two. What started as a protest devolved into a riot and left 150 dead and more than 800 injured after China’s paramilitary police force moved in.
As Jacques’ book makes clear, this is not an aberration. This is how the Chinese authorities (with broad public support) consistently deal with threats to the country’s political and economic interests. Xingjiang is a critically important region, dotted with oil and gas deposits. The Uighurs’ long-standing struggle for an independent homeland is now a nettlesome threat to Beijing’s global ambitions, and the regime’s response has been predictably brutal.
It would be nice to think that simply through trade and encouragement, China will come to resemble a friend and ally. But the prevailing belief that Beijing’s authoritarian impulses will simply disappear with time is looking increasingly naive.