Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung has apologized for being late to a business lunch in London. The sight of Chinese flags flying outside Buckingham Palace, he explained, had so overawed him that he had swooned out of adoration for the glorious motherland. Aides who should have revived him with smelling salts were themselves similarly overcome with emotion and were immobilized in a joyous, patriotic trance at The Mall in the heart of the UK capital, while the industrialists and investors started on their salads without them.
This is the sort of thing that happens when China’s Xi Jinping makes a state visit to a traditionally hostile foreign country that has officially qualified for ‘Sincere Western Barbarians Deserving of Friendship’ status.
Xi recently received the red-carpet treatment in the US. But global anti-China forces mounted an elaborate pincer movement to diminish his stature. The Pope drew crowds by touring in a little Fiat and hugging disabled children. Catholic dogma (virgin births, transubstantiation, etc) makes Communism look modern and rational, but clearly soft power doesn’t work like that. India’s Prime Minister Modi further proved the point by turning up and wowing techie types in Silicon Valley. By PRC standards of development and governance, India is a chaotic and backward joke, but its leader can speak English and have a laugh – leaving Xi and China cold and distant by comparison.
Presumably, no gatecrasher will burst in to upstage Xi in the UK. Britain has set the stage by being the first Western country to sign up for China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last March and sending Chancellor George Osborne on a shameless kowtowing mission to Xinjiang. Among other things, the country’s leaders are un-friending the Dalai Lama and shutting up about China’s ever-deteriorating human rights record. The Queen – in her role as least-free subject of the parliamentary democracy – must grovel to the visiting despot and even have him staying the night.
Beijing in return is declaring the British to have enormous visionary wisdom and promising a ‘golden era’ in relations between the two countries.
Onlookers struggle to keep their breakfast down in the face of all this mutual obsequiousness. But who is luring and suckering whom?
No commentator in China will suggest that the British are perfidiously pandering to Xi’s vanity and desire to embellish his personality cult at home, and enticing overcapacity-burdened China into helping build expensive transport and energy infrastructure that will quite possibly never produce decent returns. It would never get through the censors.
British and other overseas commentators, on the other hand, are free to express their dismay at the sight of the UK government naively, desperately or wantonly sacrificing principles in exchange for economic benefits of uncertain value. Over a 300-year period, the British took control of a quarter of the planet through unselfish enterprise in a spirit of Christian compassion, and then altruistically civilized and freed these once-benighted peoples and territories to prosper and thrive. And now, in 2015, British foreign policy suddenly becomes amoral. It’s a terrible shock.
It would be interesting to know just how much George Osborne and his sidekicks in the world’s slickest (in every sense) ex-great power believe their own elaborate and loud praise of China’s future economic prospects. To many analysts of the tealeaves, the China-as-big-next-new-booming-thing was 20 years ago. That story may be over. No-one knows whether the demographic distortions, overcapacity, despoiled soil and water, corruption and other nightmares will prove easily overcome, lead to a Japanese ‘lost decade’ or herald the collapse of the (or this particular) one-party dictatorship. But it’s obviously what the Chinese – rulers of the world’s last empire and unloved – want to hear. The Osborne ‘vision’ could be absurdly outdated, or breathtakingly cynical.