Prominent Chinese dissident, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei says that China’s influence has become so great that it cannot be effectively stopped now.
“The West should have been really worried about China decades ago. Now it’s a bit late, because the West has built its strong regime in China and simply to isolate it, it will hurt badly. That is why China is so arrogant.”
Ai Weiwei never said his words about China. “It is a police state,” he says.
The artist is best known for designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but ran into serious trouble after speaking out against the Chinese government. Finally, in 2015, he left China to come to the West. He lived first in Berlin, and last year settled in Cambridge.
- View Profile: Ai Weiwei
- Ai Weiwei: A Changing Man
Mr Ai believes that today China is using its enormous economic power to enforce its political influence.
To be sure, China has become more assertive in recent years.
Until nearly a decade ago, China presented the world with a humble face. The government’s official slogan was: “Shut your light up and be punished.” Ministers insisted that China is still a developing country that has a lot to learn from the West.
Then Xi Jinping came to power. He became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2012, and president the following year. Introduce a new accent. The old modesty faded, and there was another slogan: “strive for achievement”.
In some ways, China is still a developing country, with 250 million people living below the poverty line.
Yet it is already the second largest economy in the world, and is on track to overtake the United States over the next decade or so. China’s influence in the world is becoming more and more evident, at a time when America’s power has visibly diminished.
I have seen firsthand the clear signs of China’s growing political power and its participation all over the world, from Greenland and the Caribbean to Peru and Argentina, and from South Africa and Zimbabwe to Pakistan and Mongolia.
The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament, Tom Tugendhat, has recently accused China of pressuring Barbados to abandon the Queen as head of state.
Today, China has a large presence almost everywhere in the world. Every country that challenges its core interests suffers from this.
When the Dalai Lama visited Downing Street, Anglo-Chinese relations were severely frozen. And recently, when the speaker of the Czech Parliament visited Taiwan, a senior diplomat warned that “the Chinese government and people will not stand idly by when faced with an outright provocation from the President of the Czech Senate and the anti-China forces behind him and must leave them. Pay a heavy price.”
However, the outspoken and highly influential editor-in-chief of the Global Times of China, Hu Xijin, rejects any indication that China is an international bully.
“I want to ask you, when did China put pressure on any country to do anything against its will? It is the US that continues to implement sanctions in the world, especially economic sanctions on many countries. What country do you know that China has approved?
“Did we impose sanctions on an entire country? Only in specific cases did we express our dissatisfaction, and only in reaction when our country is openly insulted.”
Yet China is currently engaging in angry confrontations with a whole host of countries: Taiwan, Australia, Japan, Canada, India (with which China has recently fought a violent border skirmish), Britain, and of course the United States.
The language the Global Times uses may sometimes sound like the worst speech from Mao Zedong’s old days.
He himself recently wrote an editorial describing Australia as “gum under the Chinese shoe”. When I asked him about this, he said that the current Australian government has repeatedly attacked and disturbed China.
“I feel like they are like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of my shoes. I can’t get rid of them. It’s not a nice feeling. I said it as an expression and it is my right to have an opinion.”
In Hong Kong
Mr. Hu is close to President Xi, and we can assume that he will not say these things unless he knows he has the support of the Chinese top leadership. When I asked him for his views on Hong Kong, he didn’t hold back.
“The Chinese government does not object to Hong Kong’s democracy and freedoms, including the right of Hong Kong residents to peacefully demonstrate in the streets.
“But the key is, they should be peaceful … We support the more assertive use of force by the Hong Kong police against violent protests.
“If violent demonstrators threaten police life, when they fire extremely sharp projectiles, and throw petrol bombs or petrol bombs at the police, I think the police should be allowed to use their weapons, and they should shoot.”
Powerful things, and if the police in Hong Kong really start killing protesters, it will lead to a major international reaction.
Most foreign observers believe that China’s aggressive behavior does in fact mask an underlying tension.
The Communist Party was not elected, so there is no way to know how real support it is in China. It cannot be certain to survive a serious crisis – a major economic meltdown, for example.
President Xi and his comrades are haunted by the memory of how the old Soviet empire simply disappeared between 1989 and 1991, because it lacked any support from ordinary citizens.
Mr. Hu does not accept that a new cold war has begun. He says that China’s dispute is mainly with the United States. He notes that President Donald Trump’s attacks on China are closely linked to the presidential elections on November 3, and his efforts to win them.
In fact, after the election, the atmosphere is likely to improve – whoever wins.
China is too big to remain involved in everyone’s life, and the United States and its allies cannot afford to remain in a perpetual state of outright hostility toward it.
But this simply reinforces Mr. A’s warning: It is now too late for the West to protect itself from China’s influence.