»  The Daily Telegraph

March (?), 1984

  China's inscrutable face hides a lost cause for the West


When you go to China they give you a banquet. The format of these functions is always the same, whether you are President of the United States or the export manager of Nuts & Washers, Ltd — though of course there are differences of scale.

Smiling officials usher you to the seat of honour. The senior of your hosts fusses over you, setting choice delicacies on your plate. He compliments you on your skill with chopsticks. You stutter a few memorised phrases in Mandarin; they lean forward eagerly to catch your words, and chuckle with delight. Toasts are drunk to the eternal friendship of the two nations. Flattery is exchanged. Warmed by the smiles, the sycophancy, the toasts, you at last rise and make a gushing speech. You express regret for the misunderstandings of the past and hope for the future. How can it have happened that there has been such a gulf, such incomprehension, between our two cultures? When we have so much to learn from each other! So much to gain from friendship!

Thousands of Westerners have had this experience — most recently, Ronald Reagan. I wonder how many of them now reflect, as I do, that perhaps we have nothing at all to learn from China and little to gain from China's friendship? Very few, I suppose. It is still received wisdom that China is a Good Thing. Her culture, being ancient, is presumably profound. Her population is vast, and so must be a desirable market. Her foreign policy is proudly independent and therefore good for tying down a few Russian divisions far from Europe. Is not friendship with China worth the effort?

If it is, it must be a friendship freed from illusions. The illusion of China's high culture will do for a start.

By the time Western powers arrived in force in the 19th century, long subjection to total power had emptied Chinese culture of all content. The last philosopher of any consequence had been dead 2,000 years. Poetry had flowered briefly a thousand years before, then withered. Other literature was of the samizdat type. History was ruthlessly doctored to give support to State dogmas. Pure science and mathematics did not exist. The only indigenous religion was a dog's breakfast of superstition and medical quackery. Art had degenerated into decorative prettiness.

On exposure to Western ideas this desiccated fabric collapsed in a cloud of dust, like Tulankhamun's shroud. During the following period of relative freedom (roughly, the first half of this century), some embryo native forms of art began to appear, based an half-understood Western models, All this was aborted when the present regime came to power. Now China is a cultural desert.

One does not need to be an expert to know this. It is open to any sighted person to examine a nation's architecture, for example. Modern Chinese architecture is just not there, except as tawdry imitations of Russian styles (themselves only copies of certain late-classical and Byzantine forms). The greatest Chinese painter of the past 100 years was Ch'i Pai-shih. His favourite subject was prawns. Prawns! Where, as in Hongkong, culture has been allowed to flow freely between Chinese people and Westerners, the flow has been all one way — the sure sign of a vacuum at the receiving end.

Our export manager is not much concerned with this. All right, he will say, so we can't learn anything from them. Surely, though we can sell them something? All those people?

Yes, there are profits to be made in selling to China, for those willing to face the rigours of negotiating with purchasing offices which (in one case I know of) don't answer their mail. However, the great dream of large-scale foreign investment in the country is now dissolving fast.

Beginning in the late 'seventies the Chinese experimented with allowing their enterprises to keep more of the surpluses of their production and foreign investors more of their profits. Seeing this, some observers put it about that the Chinese were "turning to capitalism." Unfortunately, the systems of central planning and rigid price control were never abandoned, or even much modified; and on these rocks the experiments are foundering.

It is very important to understand that in a society like China's the priorities are always political, never economic. If the authorities are sufficiently sure of themselves politically — for example, in the general public relief after the end of a period of arbitrary State terrorism — they will indulge themselves in the luxury of economic tinkering. However, when the result is (as always) a diminution of their power, or rising demands from the people, or threatening rumbles from the bureaucracy, they will quickly fall back into more familiar habits. The present round of agricultural reforms began with Teng Hsiao-ping exhorting the peasants to "get rich!" This is exactly what Bukharin said to Russian peasants in 1925. We must try to remember these things.

There remains the possibility that China, properly armed, may be useful to us in keeping Russia confined. This idea has been most clearly stated by Richard Nixon: "A weak China invites aggression. China cannot become stronger militarily unless it becomes stronger economically, and it will only turn to the Soviet Union if it has given up on the West." In fact, it is inconceivable that the Chinese would turn to Russia for large-scale assistance. They did so once before, in the 'fifties, and have been regretting it ever since. Any Chinese will tell you the reason for the Sino-Soviet split: "They didn't want to help us, they wanted to dominate us."

It is true that Russia keeps some 50 divisions on China's borders, but it is very difficult to imagine any circumstances in which those divisions would be removed. A weak China might "invite aggression"; it is at least equally possible that a China loosely allied to the West and rapidly modernising its armies would alarm Russia into some action. Fishing in these murky waters may be good for our armaments industries, but it is not likely to be helpful to the cause of world peace.

Statesmen always overestimate their power to move events, never move so than when dealing with introverted empires of the Russia-China type, who are hardly interested in the outside world at all and whose affairs do not really concern us. To be brutally frank about it: if the Russians become determined to attack China, no imaginable improvement in Sino-Western relations will discourage them. It is not even clear that such an attack would affect the West in any way.

Throughout history there have always been free States somewhere and there has always been a barbarian hinterland. The barbarians can occasionally spring nasty surprises — as Genghis Khan, Alexander and the founder of the Chinese Empire did — but the proper precaution against this is for free States to co-operate for mutual security.

There is no harm in our making money by trading with the barbarians, but we should not flatter them that they are important to us. Neither should we flatter ourselves that they give a fig for our trade, our friendship or our values.