Having long thought that most of the easily offered responses for China’s rise were deficient, it’s been refreshing to note a sea-change of sorts in the commentariat. Indeed, given China’s accumulation of enough capital to purchase untold quanta of foreign real estate and globally strategic assets like The Piraeus or the Port of Darwin, the Chinese ascendancy always had a more straightforwardly cynical rationale: a predominance purchased via naïve Western venality.
In this light, a recent vindication of sorts was had when Joel Kotkin at the British online magazine Unherd reached much the same conclusion. Kotkin observes that any culturally cohesive counter against the Chinese erosion of Western dominance is undermined by our ostensible elite in their pursuit of short-term financial gain at the expense of any long-term hegemony.
As Kotkin remarks “our political and corporate elites seem intent on making this century a Chinese one.” Yet unlike the Thirties “this appeasement isn’t driven by fear and ignorance; it is motivated largely by greed.”
This is a stance which could prove fatal as China’s “civilisation state” is “the most profound philosophical challenge to liberal values since the end of the Cold War”. Kotkin’s laments that “our oligarchs choose to ignore this, preferring instead to genuflect to Beijing for financial gain.”
And as he adds, this ascendancy has been won not solely through venality but naiveté as well: “rather than recognising a potential threat, our political and financial elites saw a potential economic partner and huge market…[which], when welcomed into the World Trade Organisation 20 years ago, dutifully supplied cheap products to a welcoming market. In the meantime, it was hoped that exposure to the West would create an increasingly liberal China. Yet…these assumptions have been proven fatally wrong. Xi and the Party have clearly made clear that their ambition is not any old seat at the table, but the one at its head.”
Delving deeper, China’s manipulation of the West extends far beyond recent years and well into the last millennium. As Kotkin states: “for decades American companies have been handing Beijing the basis for economic hegemony: since 1990 US deficit in trade goods with China has ballooned from under $10 billion annually to $419 billion last year. A posture “which has enriched many of our leading manufacturing companies…while costing an estimated 3.4 million job losses in the US since 2001.”
Yet the ultimate ground for Chinese growth has not solely been recent manoeuvrings, but the influence of the late Singaporean statesman Lee Kwan Yew. After the death of Mao and the aftermath of communism in the 1970s, Deng Xiao Ping and the CCP sought alternatives to the “century of humiliation“ inflicted on them at the hands of the West. Unsurprisingly, one of the first ports of call was Singapore, the prosperous city-state run by the Oxbridge-educated and ethnically-Chinese Lee.
What Lee had done with Singapore impressed the Chinese. Viewing an ex-colonial backwater transform itself into a skyscraper-filled metropolis through Lee’s civilizational arbitrage and canny encouragement of Western capital and praxis, the CCP set about replicating Lee’s model themselves.
It is a transition which has proven highly successful. To take one example, here’s journalist Rahul Jacob on China’s shift in stance and subsequent success: “Deng’s decision to open up special investment zones for foreign investors, starting with Shenzhen at the tip of southern China in late 1979, was prompted by a visit to Singapore in 1978…[with Deng then dispatching] several hundred Chinese officials to study Singapore, a special economic zone all its own, soon after.”
The results of which are now fully apparent. Shenzen, one of many such cities throughout China, boasts “one of the busiest ports in the world, total foreign direct investment of $30 billion, skyscrapers and tropical gardens, [and looks] like a Singapore knock-off.”
The Chinese have been taking advantage of Western venality for domestic gain for decades now. This stance is evident in the differing fates of the East and West: as their industrial capacity expands, ours contracts; as their lives lengthen, ours shorten; as their faith in the future rises, ours falls.
It is a change in civilizational fortunes that has been bought at the expense of the Western working class and fuelled by an unpatriotic and elite-led avarice. Witness China’s accession to the WTO; the innumerable disadvantageous joint-ventures and trade deals; the theft and appropriation of Western technology and patents; and the transformation of Western universities into merely commercial entities, frequently exploited by the Chinese for their own interests.
In this light, it can be noted that the half a century or so since Nixon’s initial visit has not been salutary, but highly indicative of what occurs when a naïvely open society interacts with one which is neither naïve nor open.
These strands of Chinese dominance can all be viewed as variations on the main deficiency of free-market fundamentalism: the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other values, including civilizational survival. So stupefied have we been by greed, we’ve failed to notice that we are playing the role of Lenin’s “useful idiots” for the Chinese state: with homo occidentis reduced to little more than Marx’s proverbially dim capitalist, eager to sell you the rope with which he’ll soon be hung.
And the Chinese have been more than happy to sell us such rope. A state which has worsened in the West as increased diversity has lessened the pull of patriotism, with any residual cohesion replaced by the sole principle of import remaining in our increasingly dystopian plutocracies: the easy lure of financial gain. This posture doesn’t preclude selling out your compatriots for private profit, even if it advances the interests of your sole strategic rival in the process.
As such, China’s insight into the Western psyche is the right one: they know we’re easily bought, and they’re almost never wrong. This is a dire state that is occasionally acknowledged by our leaders — ex-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quipped that nations can “sell their soul for a pile of soybeans or they can protect their people.”
Yet any attempts to act on such insights – such as the election of Donald Trump – are scuttled by vested interests. To return to Kotkin: “prospects for standing up to China from the White House are limited. As recently as 2019 Biden, a stalwart cog in the Washington consensus, minimised the Chinese threat [by] claiming…that: ‘you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.’”
A posture which is also evident outside the US – “Europe’s leaders, if anything, are even less committed to confronting the Chinese challenge” – and bipartisan within it. As Kotkin again notes: “prominent figures from both parties, including former GOP Speaker John Boehner, and many connected Washington think tanks receive funding from Beijing. Even members of the Bush family have cosied up to CCP apparatchiks.”
Hence whilst critics like Pompeo and foreign-policy “realists” like John Meirsheimer do exist, they remain marginal. There is – to put it mildly – far too much at stake. Indeed, one not need entertain all of the wilder speculations about November 2020 and its aftermath to note that most of the US elite were aggrieved by the Trumpian disruption to their “Chimerica” status quo and sought a quick return to their pre-2016 state.
This is evident on the American side – as Kotkin observes: “Wall Street, even amid the threat of government interference, plays its part in the kowtow crowd – it’s in their interest, after all. Xi knows fully well that Western investment bankers and tech companies will do his bidding, as long as they get what Mafia dons may call ‘a taste’”- and acknowledged on the Chinese one too.
The principle underlying all of this is of course widely known. With George Orwell perhaps the most insightful recent commentator of this dynamic at work. Indeed, his depiction in “The Lion and The Unicorn” of the myopia of (British) capitalism in confronting the major ‘national-socialist’ threat of the day is eerily reminiscent of our own.
As he writes: “British capitalism does not work … it is a competitive system in which private profit is and must be the main objective – [it’s a] system in which all the forces are pulling in opposite directions and the interests of the individual are as often as not totally opposed to that of the state.”
A stance which is thus ad-hoc and ultimately incoherent. As he puts it: “a businessman’s first duty is to his shareholder; to prevent war material from reaching the enemy is common sense, but to sell in the highest market is a business duty.” With the Apples and Googles of his day “tumbling over one another in their eagerness to sell” their wares to the nearest rival. A posture which is eternally moronic and which he describes as “about as sensible as selling someone a razor to cut your throat with – [yet one that’s] ‘good business’”.
This system can easily be contrasted with that of the major adversary of the time: “however horrible this system may seem to us, it works. It works because it is a planned system geared to a definite purpose, world-conquest, and not allowing any private interest, either of capitalist or worker, to stand it its way.”
One need not quibble with the differences between mid-century Germany and the CCP of today to note the parallels and the essential dilemma. As a system, unbridled capitalism is often impotent when confronted with an intelligent and cohesive adversary, one willing to subordinate the whims of the market to the greater goals of the civilization-state.
Narrow financial interests are responsible for the sawing off of the civilizational branch upon which we all sit. To quote Orwell one last time: “the whole moneyed class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had shut their eyes to the nature” of the threat they face – with “the tug-of-war between private property and public necessity” dominated by the former. This is a darkly portentous state whereby “Hitler [i.e. Xi] will at any rate go down in history as the man who made the City of London [i.e. Western capital] laugh on the wrong side of its face.”
It thus remains to be seen if, like the America of the early 1940s, we can temper our market myopia and revive our belief in the civilizational good. Or will it be that we are too heavily fractured, broken by needless naiveté and betrayed by avarice, to endure?