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Terry Glavin: A cold war with China and its authoritarian allies is inevitable

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It’s become a boring habit of Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping and his senior officials to ridicule any effort by the world’s democracies to uphold some modicum of “rules-based” international decorum as evidence of a zero-sum “Cold War” mentality. It’s a propaganda tool that has proved somewhat useful in the work of infantilizing the western “discourse” around China, which is why Beijing employs it so frequently.

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Last spring, when the Australian government overruled two Belt and Road accords the State of Victoria signed with Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by demanding that Australian prime minister Scott Morrison abandon his “Cold War mentality and ideological bias,” adding that Australia should “immediately correct its mistakes and change course.” Last summer, in response to the U.S. Senate passing the $250 billion US Innovation and Competition Act, China’s National People’s Congress let loose a blast of invective, dismissing the initiative as being “full of Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice” that “slanders China’s development path and its domestic and foreign policies.”

Just this week, at the World Economic Forum’s increasingly decrepit Davos Agenda summit, convened virtually, Xi was at it again, banging on about the virtues of “win-win” outcomes, cooperation and co-existence. “We need to discard Cold War mentality,” he said.

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Setting aside the fact that cold wars are preferable to hot ones, the “cold war mentality” trope performs a cunning rhetorical trick, in a couple of ways.

For one, the 21st century tensions between liberal democracies and the rising global police-state bloc don’t neatly conform with the features of the 20th century Cold War, which was a standoff that featured numerous bloody proxy wars pitting the democratic NATO countries against the Soviet Union, its Eastern European Warsaw Pact allies, and to a lesser extent, Mao Zedong’s China.

During the Cold War, unlike the dynamics at work in the world’s current geopolitical bifurcation, the Soviets never managed to exert much influence in the cabinet rooms and foreign-policy salons of the “West.” Nowadays, China and its allies are not lacking for friends in high places.

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Secondly, the world’s 21st century economies tend to be components of a global economy increasingly dominated by China, so capitalist capitulation is commonplace, in big ways and little ways.

The Government of Canada, for instance, proved itself incapable of even mentioning China in its mealy-mouthed protest petition circulated among UN member states after Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were abducted in December 2018, in retaliation for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s detention in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

If you watch the animated series The Simpsons in Hong Kong, you’ll have to do without the 12th episode of Season 16. That’s the one with Homer Simpson and family visiting Beijing, and there’s a snarky reference to the Tiananmen massacres of 1989, which would unduly upset Chinese censors.

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Almost every day, another vulgar corporate deference-offering comes to public notice. This week, billionaire American venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya attracted a great deal of public revulsion with his dismissal of the cultural genocide being visited upon the Uyghur Muslim minority of Xinjiang. “Let’s be honest, nobody, nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uighurs, okay? You bring it up because you really care,” he told his interviewer. “And I think that’s really nice that you care but. . .the rest of us don’t care.”

As if to outdo Palihapitiya, Craig Smith, who heads up the Burton snowboarding manufacturer’s China division, told the BBC this week he saw no contradictions in his exceedingly “progressive” company playing a big part in helping Chinese authorities turn Xinjiang into a global wintersports venue. While Burton presents itself as a champion of inclusion, diversity, BIPOC advancement and LGBTQ sensitivity, Smith said he wasn’t sufficiently “expert” to evaluate human rights abuses in Xinjiang. He’d heard reports that roughly a million Uighurs have been forced into concentration camps to perform slave labour, but “there may be some, you know, factually I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’ve never studied any type of aspect of that. . . what I mean by that is I can’t change that.”

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I spoke with the prominent British journalist, author and human rights activist Benedict Rogers this week about this kind of thing, and he was, predictably, slightly aghast at Palihaitiya’s vulgarity and Smith’s equivocations. “It’s incredible, the level of duplicity, or naivete, there,” he said. But at least the citizens of democracies like Canada and the United Kingdom are becoming fed up with it all.

“There has been some shift in recent years in democracies of being a bit more outspoken about Beijing, a bit more outspoken about human rights — but on the other hand we’re continuing to do business as usual,” Rogers said. “There has to come a point. It would be unrealistic to propose cutting all business ties with China, but there has to come a point where we look more closely at how we’re doing business with China, with what sectors, and what parts of the country we’re dealing with.”

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But for argument’s sake, let’s call it a cold war. “I would say it’s going to happen anyway,” said Rogers, deputy chairman of the British Conservative Party’s human rights commission and founder of Hong Kong Watch. “It’s going to happen anyway because of the Communist Party’s increasing hostility toward the west and their strengthening alliances with dictatorships. If we don’t sanction them and just carry on doing business as usual, then in a sense we’re both giving credibility and legitimacy to the regime while it’s strengthening its alliances with like-minded dictatorships. And we’re also continuing to put money into the coffers of that regime. Whereas if we’re sanctioning them, at least we’re sending a very strong message, but potentially having some economic impact that will hurt them to a certain extent.”

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A cold war, of a kind, is inevitable.

“We have one anyway, and it’s not us that started it,” Rogers said, citing several of Beijing’s recent outrages — the Xinjiang genocide, the continuing intimidation of Taiwan, the total evisceration of democracy in Hong Kong, the annexation of the South China Sea, and especially the military, economic and political bonds Beijing is forging with Putiin’s Russia, Khomeinist Iran, and caudillo states like Venezuela. “Either way, the Chinese government is moving towards strengthening those global alliances. So the question for us is, do we want to ignore that, or react to it?”

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