David Cameron’s recent trip to Beijing sparked heated discussion about his dismissal of China’s seemingly eternal legacy of breaching human rights. How dare our Prime Minister engage in talks with a world leader notable for turning a blind eye to high execution rates, rampant censorship and unrest in Tibet without bringing these issues to the table, whilst British journalists and correspondents are forbidden from posing questions and banned from the country no less?
It seems fishy, given that his trip to Sri Lanka just before was all about criticising a barbaric regime. However, it seems that for a large part of our population, these questions paled in significance to the notion of Mr Cameron masking a sneaky Conservative business mission as a diplomatic trip to sell off the production of the new High-Speed Railway Network, HS2, to private Chinese companies.
HS2 is already a contentious issue domestically, drawing national campaigns against its construction and fears that it may lead to barn owl extinction. The line, which would link London to the East Midlands and beyond in about half the current journey time, is expected to create around 400,000 jobs and generate £2 for every £1 of investment. The company welcomes Chinese investment in this £42.6 billion project (and let’s be honest, where else are we going to come up with those sorts of funds), a political move which has outraged both HS2-phobes and -philes alike, who point to the 2011 Wenzhou train crash resulting from shoddy construction on China’s own high-speed rail. This fury is not simply a reaction to the HS2 venture specifically, but more generally indicative of a growing anxiety among the British public (and other Western societies) about China’s silent global economic empowerment. Britain’s U-turn on its stance on Tibet in order to get back into China’s good books is demonstrative of the level of political toadying the West is willing to go to to grab a share of this enticing economic cake, whilst ignoring a big public sulk.
Each year we are told that this is the year China will overtake the US as the world’s dominant economy. Chinese corporations have set up shop in several African and South American nations, extracting and buying resources at monumental speed despite linguistic obstacles to communication. Although such grand-scale trade provides these underdeveloped countries with much needed employment, Chinese involvement can also prove detrimental, from the Alpaca industry in Peru to the exploitation of workers in Congo mining projects. Even France is becoming increasingly wary of their precious Bordeaux wine being bought predominantly by Chinese oligarchs and replicated by substandard overseas manufacturers. Facebook and Twitter have monopolised the internet for the past decade or so, but now it is Chinese social network WeChat that is climbing the ladder, becoming the fifth most downloaded smartphone app in the world.
Add to this the influxes of Chinese students to our universities (most of whom are only transitory anyway) and you get an unprecedented panic about a world in which we all bow down to China’s demands, speak Chinese and buy products Made in China. Who’d’ve thunk it?
Yet this alarm is unjustified. Because of internal corruption, strikingly low GDP, heavy borrowing for infrastructure that leads to massive debts and of course their vicious population cycle, it remains unlikely that China will become more economically developed than the United States. It was only the other day that China finally got round to landing on the moon for crying out loud. China is far more concerned with improving infrastructure, establishing and maintaining social cohesion and stifling dissent within their own borders for the time being to hassle themselves with an international crusade. We overlook the fact that it was us, Britain, France, Spain, and to an extent the USA, who once owned the rest of the world, and when it was us in charge, we were happy at the cost of the human rights of millions of others. However, criticising China’s investment of HS2 and a number of our other fantabulous building projects solely on human rights ideals is quite unfounded given our track record of general international dealings. It also does not indicate an imminent Chinese invasion or inevitable violation of our own human rights in the near or distant future.