There is a splendid article by Danny Finkelstein in The Times today which avoids the ignorant “Boycott China” rhetoric we hear all too often. I first visited Beijing on business in 1986 so was a small part of the vanguard of Western businessmen essential to the opening up of the country. There was an interesting area of debate at the time as to whether you could have economic capitalism and free enterprise without democracy. We how know that the answer is an emphatic “Yes”.
Lets be clear. The economic powerhouse that is China was created in close partnership with the West. If Human Rights sensitivities had played any part in the West’s relationship with the People’s Republic then Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been a game breaker. It wasn’t. Within weeks of the massacre the western businessmen were back on the planes to China.
China follows classic macroeconomic theory. In the early days it was attractive to western businesses because of its abundant supply of two of the four factors of production – Land and Labour. What initially the West brought was the other two – Capital and Enterprise. Western investment poured into China along with entrepreneurs offering and transferring technology and management skills. Along with this the huge population is a massive market for imports. And the per capita purchasing power of this population was growing with income growth from industrialisation. A peasant economy became a wealthier and more socially mixed one.
So China was an attractive market as well as becoming the world’s main source of manufactured goods. This created what is effectively economic integration and mutual dependency with the West. Sanctions against China would be sanctions against ourselves. Those who argue that we, the West, can pressure China to modify her approach to Hong Kong, or to minority peoples need to recall Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick…” At the moment we seem to be encouraging the reverse – speaking loudly whilst carrying no stick at all.
Some years in the Far East taught me that almost everywhere democracy and even politics itself is low in the priorities. People in Chinese diaspora cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, and countries like Malaysia and Thailand – even Japan – want the politicians to leave them alone. Wealth creation, family and good food are more important than the ballot box. And without question China is not internally clamouring for democracy – not least because of the memories of 1989.
This is the context of what the Chinese Foreign Minister meant when he said “…the legitimate rights of the Chinese people [is] to pursue a better life” the goal of “forging a collective consciousness of the Chinese nation [being] central to achieving the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. That “collective consciousness” and rejuvenation is very substantially achieved economically. But hiding just beneath this is something much more alarming. Hong Kong is a pointer to Taiwan and there is no doubt that completing the collective consciousness task requires the reabsorption of Taiwan into the PRC. And the big stick is in the hands of Beijing not Taipei.