The Awoken Dragon: The West is Right to Fear China

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Chinese troops lifting the national flag (Image Credit: Bilibili)

Ever since the 1978 ‘Open Door’ policies, adopted by former CCP Chairman Deng Xiaopeng, opened China to foreign direct investment from the global market, it is undeniable that an unprecedented level of economic growth, peaking at higher than 13% per annum with predictions of the Chinese economy even taking over that of the United States in the next twenty years, have fostered the geopolitical rise of the young superpower that China is today. Understandably, this phenomenon of the rapid Chinese ascent to the top of the global theatre has created division in the West over how governments should meet this new challenger. Indeed, there is a great deal of caution adopted in the rhetoric of many Western politicians – an idea that is clearly reflected in the FDI laws of countries like the United States that seek to withhold western technology from the hands of the Chinese government. While this phobia could be put down to echoes of the Cold War mentality towards the radically different political ideology of the CCP, dating back to the days of the Korean War which saw direct conflict between China and the West, in reality, there is a much more genuine justification for this cautionary approach to China than first appears. However, to understand the magnitude of the threat that China presents to the West, one must first examine the source of the fear itself.

Certainly, the increasingly authoritarian policies advocated by the current Chairman of the CCP Xi Jinping have acted as a catalyst for the deterioration of relations with the West – he, himself often depicted by Western leaders as the face of Chinese aggression in the far East. Specifically, the ‘Hong Kong national security law’, political alignment with Russia, and the subsequent Chinese ultimatums and sabre-rattling forwarded by Xi following the movement away from the ‘One China’ policy by Taipei and Washington have been very visual on the global stage. These aggressive foreign policy moves have subsequently led to a significant Western prejudice against Xi, who is seen as the figurehead of instability in the Far East and the horrific human rights violations of the Uighur issue. Moreover, Xi’s domestic tightening of his power over both the Chinese government, and its’ people has also sparked widespread anger in the West that Western politicians frequently act upon, with political campaigns as current as the Trump 2024 presidential bid marketing an increasingly “tough” stance on China. The quasi-totalitarian regime that Xi has instated over China through packing the government with loyalists to ensure his agenda passes unopposed, a prominent example of this effect being the extension of his premiership to an unprecedented third term, and imprisoning his critics further cements his Western depiction.

Similarly, the horrific scenes captured by journalists during the implementation of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policies during the coronavirus, specifically in locked-down areas like Shanghai in which residents were filmed screaming from their balconies while surveillance drones flew overhead, have affirmed his view as dangerous in the Western eye. While Western politicians may not need to fear confrontation directly, being geographically separated by a rather significant distance, this image portrayed by Xi has, and will continue to do so, made rapprochement difficult. This idea has been detailed as recently as in Macron’s diplomatic trip to Beijing in April of this year. Specifically, Macron stated his intention to hold diplomatic talks with Xi Jinping over having increased Chinese cooperation in ending the Russia-Ukraine conflict, claiming “we Europeans, would be mistaken to let Russia be the only European nation speaking to China”. Indeed, these talks, if successful, could have healed some of the diplomatic rifts between China and the West – France essentially taking the role of a European negotiator for the adamantly anti-China United States. However, Macron’s efforts, despite his noble intentions, were met with much criticism and scorn in the West for going around his other European allies to expose to Beijing a disunity amongst European nations over an approach to diplomacy with China and negotiate with a leader who is widely viewed as expansionist and malevolent in the Western community. The Washington Post, even claimed that Macron was essentially throwing “Taiwan under the bus”, in his negotiations. Thus, representing a stern example of the difficulties Xi has created in negotiating with Western powers. Moreover, there is a strong mistrust of Xi that can even be seen on the local level in China. In his initial campaign for Chairman, Xi portrayed himself as a mild mannered individual who took on the role of almost a fatherly figure, earning him the nickname of ‘Uncle Xi’. However, this portrayal starkly contrasted with the leader he ended up being, described in Xi: A Study in Power by Kerry Brown as ‘a supreme opportunist, a converter of chances into goals’. Subsequently, this rightly founded mistrust of Xi that he holds on a domestic level can also be applied on the international scale.

On the other hand, one could argue that in the majority of these territorial disputes in which the CCP pervades its’ aggression is spurred by what researchers at the International Crisis Group call “reactive assertiveness”. The ICG define this term as “responding forcefully to perceived provocations”, and indeed, it is somewhat applicable in many of the disputes in the South China Sea, in which the CCP reference the ‘One China’ policy as justification – notably over Hong Kong and Taiwan. The reason these policies forwarded by Xi Jinping are revered so greatly in the West is perhaps due to how heavily they contrast with that of his predecessors due to the principle that China rarely acts without justification – regardless of said justification’s perceived validity. This newfound aggression adopted by Xi can be best explained by his approach of “wolf-warrior diplomacy”. Indeed, this policy approach, which differs heavily from the passive approach advocated by Deng Xiaopeng, would indicate more of a direct reassertion of longstanding Chinese foreign policy, opposed to a new, malicious approach to cement China as the World’s foremost superpower. While this take is by no means a justification for the expansionist nature of both the CCP’s involvement in territorial disputes, and predatory foreign direct investment schemes in building the new European ‘Silk Road’, it provides a historical context for some of the changes in leadership style that came with the rise of Xi Jinping as Chairman.

However, the notion of the surveillance state that China has become is also a worrisome prospect for the Western world. The book Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges quite accurately phrases the function of the Chinese surveillance state in explaining Xi’s methodology for the creation of his ‘perfect society’ using spy cameras and artificial intelligence alongside a widespread national database of citizen identification. Tom Miller, in an article for The Spectator, aptly infers from Aust and Geiges work that while “Mao had his Little Red Book, Xi has his little red smartphone app”. Crucially, this correctly demonstrates the danger of the reach of the Chinese surveillance state whilst also making an important connection to the persistence of the Maoist philosophy in modern day China. While this reality in China may not present a direct justification to fear it, or specifically the Chinese surveillance state, there is a rising concern that this philosophy may be leaking out of China into the West through their strong socioeconomic influences. To this effect, Aust and Geiges claim that ‘China provided the blueprint for lockdowns around the world’ – an influence Tom Miller then further applied to the UK, in which he likened the NHS health app to being part of the Chinese ‘techno-authoritarian playbook’. Similarly, the idea of a functioning surveillance state built upon the philosophical principles of Chinese scientific thinkers like Qian Xuesen, who advocated for the use of vast sums of behavioural data to support predictive policing in a safe, stable society, is indeed a threat to the Western idea of the rights of the individual. Yes, this threat may not come from aggressive Chinese foreign policy, but the sheer principle of the surveillance state being enacted on such a large scale and with Chinese technology companies with a Western presence, like Huawei and Sensetime, supporting it threatens Western values.

Moreover, when Chinese tech giants allow this surveillance to leak out of China and into the Western world, the Chinese government is granted a disturbingly large sum of power over foreign data as they exist largely unconstrained by their weak legal system and loosely applied digital privacy code. Jack Ma, founder of ‘Alibaba’, is quoted to have said in a 2015 talk to high-level officials that ‘Whoever owns enough data and computing ability can predict problems, predict the future, and judge the future’. Indeed, Ma’s vision is the reality of modern day China – a reality in which a sophisticated AI utilises a national database of identification documents, facial recognition, and travel history in tandem with a massive network of CCTV cameras to monitor people in real time. In ‘Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Controlby Josh Chin and Liza Lin, this advanced, nation-wide surveillance apparatus is further explored and, rather disturbingly, a series of Western connections to it are exposed. Chin and Lin discuss the commercial relationships fostered between the CCP and various Western tech companies, including big names like Intel, Cisco, and Seagate, in the construction of their surveillance state. Regardless of whether the intentions of the Chinese government in allowing their surveillance technologies to seep beyond their national borders are malevolent or not, this international influence of the Chinese government remains a reality and the West has every right to fear it. Indeed, many Western politicians, particularly in the United States, have cautioned the activities of these technology companies that maintain deep ties with the CCP. Prominent examples of this phenomenon can be observed as recently as in both the Trump-led prevention of the expansion of Huawei 5G technology in 2019, and the TikTok hearings earlier this year over security concerns created by Chinese tech giant Tencent. Moreover, the US director of the FBI Christopher Wray even suggested a malicious nature behind much of this Chinese-influenced technology, claiming on April 17th of this year that “the counterintelligence and economic espionage efforts emanating from the government of China and the CCP are a grave threat”. Thus, it appears that a cautionary approach towards the rapid technological advancements of China in the field of surveillance is certainly justified if the West wishes to safeguard its’ foundational principle of the right to privacy from the rapidly spreading Chinese surveillance state.

To conclude, China has, regardless of intention, positioned itself undeniably against the West in the global theatre – giving Western nations every right to fear it. The efforts of Xi Jinping in promoting a predatory and expansionist foreign policy over South-East Asia cannot be understated in their reverberating impact across the West. Not only does the dangerous image that Xi has created for himself in the Western eye create grave difficulties for China’s international relations with the West, but a paramount threat is also exposed in the Chinese fostering of the surveillance state and its far reaching, global influence. The only way to successfully safeguard the foundational Western principles surrounding the protection of the individual is through a cautious approach towards the rise of China.

Written by Alistair Thompson

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