By Dr John Hemmings
Consistency. It’s not an easy thing for liberal democratic states to keep in global geopolitics. During the Cold War, for example, the West often fortified itself with a number of proto-capitalist authoritarian powers around the world. Argentina, a US ally, lest anyone forget, was a military dictatorship until 1983; South Korea was one until 1987, while Taiwan didn’t hold its first free elections until 1992. And yet, as soon as the Cold War was won, the West encouraged, cajoled and promoted democracy and liberal values across the world, which saw newly-independent Eastern European states using democratic elections to pick their leaders. Consistency – it seemed – is something that we can afford during peacetime.
Despite the apparent victory of the Western liberal model in the early 1990s, there has been much backsliding over recent years, with democracies disappearing left and right, and even with democracy weakening inside Western leaders. Once again, we are a West that is once again having to pick its ethical battles. Last week, however, might have taken the pickle for the picking of battles.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged murder of a Washington Post journalist – in a consulate on foreign soil – has been rightly savaged in the court of international public opinion and by the Western media. Criticism has come from nearly every quarter, though it is clear that the Trump administration is attempting to manage the fallout on the strategic relationship (sound familiar?). The withdrawal of multiple Western financial institutions, CEOs, and finance officials from the Future Investment Initiative – or “Davos in the desert” – has been an encouraging sign that the wider West – the West that includes you and me – still put our money where our mouth is.
However, a second story also emerged last week – one that has actually been building up since a UN report on the issue was published in August – which received much less attention, though arguably warranting more, and that is the one concerning the fate of the Uighurs in China. The BBC’s well-documented story by John Sudworth this week revealed the resurrection of the concentration camp, a concept that we all thought died with the Nazi regime. In essence, a million people of Turkic ethnic descent in the Western “province” of Xinjiang have been detained and put into “vocational schools” to combat “terrorism and religious extremism”. This comes after a 10-fold increase in security spending reported by the FT on garrisoning the region which indicate the scale of the crackdown.
In the West, our understanding of the PRC remains stubbornly optimistic. We continue to repeat the “win-win” mantra year after year, hoping that this will be the year when China’s “village democracy” is finally implemented. We continue to think that if Xi says he won’t militarize those islands in the South China Sea, then he won’t. We continue to think about the PRC as it likes to think of itself. This self-delusion allows to block out behaviour from the Chinese state that is unconscionable. And we seem to give them a pass on things that we shouldn’t be giving them a pass on. Growing up as I did in the 1980s, the West found its moral conscience in its battle with South Africa and Apartheid. It was a moment to say “enough” and the results are worth noting. People power can be a wonderful thing.
The scale of the challenge seems – initially – to be an intimidating one. How can we pressure 1.3 billion people, critics of this approach ask? Well, boycotting a regime and boycotting a people are two different things, though the Communist Party would have us believe otherwise.