25 November 2021, The Tablet

Learning to live with China

by Oliver Letwin

Learning to live with China

US President Joe Biden pictured in the White House during a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month
Photo: Alamy/Newscom, Sarah Silbiger

 

How do we respond to the rise of a brutal authoritarian state as a global superpower? When US President Joe Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping last week for a virtual summit, at stake were not only pragmatic questions but a profoundly difficult moral dilemma

For several decades, the United States has been the undisputed top dog – the world’s leading power. The recent, amazingly rapid rise of China has begun to change all of this. Fast-advancing Chinese technology, combined with the fact that the Chinese economy has already overtaken the US as the world’s largest in purchasing power parity terms, means that the Chinese won’t have to wait many years before they are able to deploy military assets equal or superior to those of the US.

It isn’t just in hard power that China is beginning to compete head-on with the US. The scale of capital mobilised by Chinese businesses (usually working hand-in-glove with the Chinese Communist Party) is shifting the balance of economic power from New York to Shanghai. At the same time, China’s diplomatic reach is growing.

This shift in the global balance of power has occurred against the background of increasing Western mistrust of China. Some of the reasons for such mistrust have to do with the disgraceful human rights record of the Chinese regime – poignantly illustrated by the appalling treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the brutal repression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Some have to do with Western fears that the ultimate ambition of China’s leaders is to rule the whole world. And some have to do with the belief that agents of the Chinese state are right now infiltrating Western universities, Western companies and Western technologies with a view to exerting power over the West.

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