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Those Fearing the ‘Chinese Century’

Those Fearing the ‘Chinese Century’

Monday, 27 July, 2020 - 06:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

There is no doubt that the man of the White House is moody. His approach to problems is completely different than his Republican predecessors. The issue goes beyond how he runs America and the world through Twitter. Trump does not hesitate in openly and bluntly declaring statements that are usually restricted to closed-door meetings. He is blunt in his handling of international relations, but the balance of power allows the president of the “only world power” to be moody, as long as he is able to pay the price of his mistakes or amend them.


It is no exaggeration for us to say that the world was shocked at Trump’s frankness as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, especially when he described the disease as the “Chinese virus.” The world had not hastily assumed that the virus had originated from a lab in Wuhan, and yet, it did not dismiss accusations that China was late in informing the world of the danger of the new virus. China attempted to save face and was under the illusion that it could keep the issue under wraps. The accusation gained traction in the world because the Chinese Communist Party is not Germany’s the Greens party whereby we can find out where it is spread out and where it derives its finances. Rather it is a massive organization that operates more in secrecy than transparency.


Trump’s accusations shocked the world because they were made when Beijing and Washington were on the verge of a trade war. It was clear that the Chinese leadership had exerted great effort to avoid becoming embroiled in an open trade war with the United States. Chinese diplomacy tried to frame the escalating American campaigns against the Chinese system as a part of the upcoming US presidential elections.


It is clear, however, that the concern over the Chinese shadow preceded the Trump administration, but it has now become Washington’s main focus as it exerts efforts to keep America as the world’s most powerful economy and military. The rise of China has become a cause for concern for decision-makers in the US. There is growing talk about the “Chinese danger”, in rhetoric that is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s labeling of the Soviet Union as the “empire of evil.” It is the first time that American administration officials resort to the Cold War dictionary in describing China’s totalitarianism. The war of spies and consulates with Beijing is just another embodiment of this concern.


It was significant that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chose the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum to launch Washington’s fiercest attack to date against China. Taking off his diplomatic gloves, he said: “If we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done.” He was implying that China had exploited America and the West’s concern with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to mobilize as part of a comprehensive program to impose its control behind the smokescreen of trade calculations and deceptive smiles.


Analysts say that the West was misled to believe that the threat would again come from Vladimir Putin’s policies, when in fact his country’s economy prevents it from going to toe-to-toe with America’s might, even though it boasts deadly weapons and skilled intelligence. The point is that the West was too preoccupied with a false danger to realize the real one lurking in the shadows, which is China’s rise in the world.


Pompeo said that “today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else,” describing President Xi Jinping as “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” Making his starkest warning, he added: “If the free world doesn’t change – doesn’t change, communist China will surely change us.”


The American administration is attacking Chinese policies in many fields: The trade imbalance, violation of intellectual property, remaining tight-lipped over the coronavirus and seeking to impose its hegemony over Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Experts, however, believe that the greatest concern for policy-makers in Washington is their fear that they may have been too late in being alerted to the Chinese reality.


America is not simply concerned with China’s technological advances, such as those of Huawei, but it is worried that such a company is seen as serving the “totalitarian machine” that is the 90-million-member Chinese Communist party. Some believe that America, which had won the battle against the Soviet model, stands confused before the Chinese one, which has demonstrated its ability in achieving economic progress without embracing western concepts of democracy or freedom. Without any real pluralism or transparency, the single-party state managed to improve the quality of life of hundreds of millions of Chinese, who were never prompted to take to the streets to demand party pluralism and transparent elections.


The unease experienced by the major powers club under the pressure of the “Chinese rise” concerns countries near and far, including those in the Middle East. The countries in the region sense that America is more preoccupied with the Asian rumbling than the problems in the Middle East. They sense that Russia has the power to obstruct, but lacks the means to resolve. Perhaps this is why concerned circles were focused on the comprehensive strategic partnership that was reached between China and Iran. Talk about the partnership began four years ago, but it was kept under wraps. If true, the deal would see China invest 400 billion dollars in Iranian energy and infrastructure sectors. This will not be a cause for concern for America and Russia alone, but the entire region.


After nearly half a century since the “openness” of the Chinese continent at the hands of Richard Nixon, Mike Pompeo chose the late president’s library to remind the world of the massive Chinese machine. The rivalry between the world’s first and second economies will not be simple. Some believe that the post-coronavirus world cannot support such a rivalry. America has made the first warning and it is now trying to convince Europe to be alert to the Chinese “trick” before it is too late. The uproar is understandable because the Chinese system produced an economic miracle. It pushed Mao to retirement and taught the party the art of trade without abandoning the single-party state and absolute control. It trained Huawei to serve the “comrades.”


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