Boris Johnson goes to Beijing on a mission to sell democracy, but finds his hosts — as wedded to authority as they have been for the last 4,000 years — politely declining his offer
It was towards the end of my trip to China that the tall, beautiful communist-party girl turned and asked the killer question. ‘So, Mr Boris Johnson,’ she said, ‘have you changed your mind about anything?’ And I was forced to reply that, yes, I had. Darned right I had.
I had completely changed my mind about the chances of democracy in China. Before flying to Beijing I had naively presumed that the place was not just exhibiting hysterical economic growth, but was about to enter a ferment of political change. I had assumed that Tony Blair was right when, in 2005, he went there and announced that the 1.3 billion Chinese were on an ‘unstoppable march’ towards multi-party politics. I now know that he was talking twaddle, and, what is more, that his Foreign Office advisers knew it.
Like most reporters of my generation I spent a certain amount of the 1980s in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and we all remember that sense of suppressed mutiny, how easy it was to find people willing to prophesy over late-night vodka or slivovitz that one day the lid would blow off the cooker and Western-style democracy would be ushered in. Well, it’s not that way in China today.
I came away with an impression of a gloriously venal capitalist explosion being controlled by an unrepentant Bolshevik system, and — this is the key thing — with the patriotic support of almost all the intelligentsia. One night I had dinner with a charming group of young Chinese professionals, all of whom had studied in England, and who you might therefore expect to have drunk deep of our liberal political potion. I began by pointing out that I was that exotic British phenomenon, a ‘shadow’ minister. Of course, I said patronisingly, you don’t have an opposition, do you? ‘No,’ they smiled. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘wouldn’t it be a good thing?’ I waved my arms at the panorama of Shanghai behind us, where illuminated pleasure boats chugged along the river, and the fangs of 300 skyscrapers probed the night, soon to be joined by 300 more.
‘What if you get fed up with the people running this show? Wouldn’t you like to kick them out? Kick the bastards out, eh?’ I stabbed my chopsticks at a passing squid.
‘Actually, no,’ said Oswald, a nice guy with specs who had studied at Keble. He didn’t think the British system would work in China at all. ‘I think a one-party state is good for China right now,’ he said, and the squid, more elusive in death than in life, shot from my fumbling sticks and lay on the tablecloth in a metaphor of Western incomprehension.
‘But what about Chairman Mao?’ I asked. I had been stunned, in Beijing, to find his warty visage still looming over the entrance to the Forbidden City, and to see the crowds of reverential citizens still visiting the mausoleum of a man who, in his 27-year reign, was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people and who therefore, in the evil tyrant stakes, knocks Hitler and Stalin into a cocked hat. Surely it was time to break with the legacy of Mao? This time it was a spiky-haired young lawyer called Harry who dealt gently with my misconceptions.
‘Different times produce different heroes,’ he said. ‘We cannot put ourselves in the position that Mao was in.’ ‘But what if you want to get involved in politics,’ I asked. ‘What do you do?’ ‘You must join the communist party, and work for the government,’ said Lucy, a girl on my left. ‘It is a great honour to join the communist party. You must be a very bright student.’
Before you accuse me of talking to the wrong people, let me assure you that I found the same story everywhere: not so much a defence of Chinese communism, or totalitarianism, but a patient refusal to accept my glib assumptions of the superiority of Western pluralism; because the more I harped on, the more resolute my interlocutors became in their defence not so much of the system but of China itself.
In Shanghai we went to an enormous and lavishly equipped college of journalism, and after we had all swapped business cards (which must be exchanged sacramentally, with both hands and a small kung-fu bow) there was a slide-show of all the distinguished foreigners who had been there, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Hodge, and then it was my cue to make a small speech of thanks. I explained again that I was an opposition politician, and that I believed it was important to keep up my journalism as a way of getting my message across. This dual role I chose to describe by what I thought was a happy Mao-style aphorism. ‘You could say that I combine the functions of dog and lamp-post!’
As I spoke I could hear the British Council man on my left groan and whisper ‘no, no’, and around the table, on the faces of the tutors of Chinese journalism, there was frank mystification. Later on that evening, when I was trying to explain it to the communist-party girl, it was some time before she grasped what in Western liberal democracies constitutes the proper relationship between the journalist (dog) and the politician (lamp-post), and if you want to understand why my sally fell so thunkingly flat, there is a very simple reason.
In today’s China the dogs are still so respectful of the lamp-posts that the editor of one big paper recently admitted that he gave bonuses to reporters whose work was praised by the Ministry of Information. In many cities the journalists turn up at press conferences and are given little cash-stuffed envelopes to thank them for being there. When I asked the lecturers in journalism to name their professional heroes, they looked utterly bemused, eventually naming Edgar Snow, the American stooge and hagiographer of Mao. At the end of our session at the journalism college a pale, intense academic came up privately and said of course I was right to say that journalism should root out corruption, ‘but we must also care about stability,’ he said, and there is the nub.
It is a cliché worth repeating that the Chinese have a colossal, 4,000-year-old respect for authority, and a deep unwillingness to be seen to do anything that is extrovert, embarrassing, satirical, flatulent, foolish, irreverent — in fact, they have been wholly bypassed by the European Enlightenment. They have a different concept of the relation between the individual and society, and a distrust of any kind of seditious argument, let alone satire. It’s not so much that they would be shocked by Voltaire. They would be shocked by Aristophanes. With every group of students I tried, in a flat-footed way, to raise issues of academic and intellectual freedom, in particular the notorious restrictions on the internet.
Wasn’t it absurd that the state was blocking access to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, particularly since it seemed to have been written by Maoists anyway? And every time the students responded that it wasn’t such a problem, that there were ways round it, I was struck by their apathy, their acquiescence, their un-Tiananmen spirit, their willingness to accept the arguments for ‘stability’ and the public good: to the point where I suddenly felt it was pointless and boorish of me to keep levelling these implicit criticisms of my hosts.
The Chinese are gluttons for gilts and bonds and calls and puts and leveraged buyouts; but they aren’t very keen on the idea of elections, and instead of nipples on their billboards they would much rather have the luscious Technicolor full-frontal advertising for machine tools that greets the passenger arriving at Shanghai station. They want to do it the authoritarian way, the Chinese way, partly bec
ause the fear of disorder is so strong, and partly, frankly, because the rest of the world does not yet provide an overwhelming advert-isement for democracy.
If the Chinese want to prove to themselves that elections lead to chaos and kleptocracy, they need only look at Russia. If they want to reassure themselves that Blair and the neocons are wrong, and that democracy is not one of those sow-anywhere plants, they only have to look at the disaster of Iraq. In fact, the more people like me insist on rabbiting on about democracy, the more the Chinese must inwardly resolve to vindicate their own specialness and their own solution, complete with prison camps, mass capital punishment, and getting fired if you have more than one baby; not least since the present Chinese formula seems to be such a roaring success.
They have averaged growth of 9 per cent over the last 25 years; they are creating the fastest bullet train in the world as well as 30 nuclear reactors, and hundreds of millions of peasants are still moving to the cities to stand in plimsolls and suits on girders hundreds of feet up in the cause of the most enormous boom in construction and industrialisation the world has ever seen. Even in my own area of special interest, higher education, the Chinese story is astonishing: there are now 1,800 state universities (there are about 90 in the UK) as well as 1,300 technical colleges, and the Chinese don’t have any of the British addiction to state funding.
This may be technically a communist country, but in some universities 50 per cent of total funds are fees paid by the students, their families and even their neighbours (whereas top-up fees will contribute about 2 per cent of Cambridge’s budget). Oh, and just to freeze your marrow further, the Chinese turn out millions of highly qualified scientists and mathematicians, at a time when 30 per cent of British university physics departments have closed in the last eight years. You cannot hope to pass the gaokao, the fearsome Chinese university entrance exam which is sat by eight million 18-year-olds a year (and failed by three million of them), unless you have the equivalent of a B or better at maths A-level.
The longer you spend in the new China, watching the oxyacetylene lamps on the building sites at 3 a.m., the clearer it is that Francis Fukuyama was wrong when, in 1989, he pronounced that the fall of Soviet communism meant the end of history. Systematically, methodically, and with the connivance of their entire political establishment and their growing bourgeoisie, the Chinese are making a mockery of the claim that free-market capitalism and democracy must go hand-in-hand. Which is why, finally, I do not altogether go along with those who have suggested that the next century will belong to China, or that China will somehow rule the planet.
It is true that the new China is a wonderful place, and certainly a lot better than the old communist China, and with the growing international renown of their economic performance the Chinese are gaining in confidence and spiritual hope. It is also true that Chinese competition is a huge challenge for us in Western Europe, and certainly a useful hobgoblin for those of us who think that Gordon Brown’s Labour party is eroding our competitive edge.
But with Chinese per capita GDP still only $1,000 per year, and with all the corruption and inefficiency still generated by a one-party state, I am not yet convinced that we need to force all our children to learn Mandarin. If China is really to rule the world, she will need two things that America now has in superabundance: hard power and soft power.
As a military power, China is still relatively insignificant (her defence spending is smaller than that of the UK); and as for soft power — cultural projection abroad — what can China boast, apart from the occasional arrival in London of the state ballet or the Beijing People’s Circus? It is a tragic fact that every year thousands of Chinese undergo surgery to make their features more Western. To see how remote is the day of Chinese cultural dominance, ask yourselves how many Westerners would have surgery to make themselves look more Chinese.
Soft power — cultural influence — is ultimately impossible without an appealing international brand, and for the foreseeable future China’s international brand will be vitiated by her domestic political arrangements. China will never rule the world as long as the Forbidden City is adorned with the face of the biggest mass murderer in history. In the words of John Lennon, ‘If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.’
Boris Johnson’s report on China’s universities will be screened on BBC2’s Newsnight on 9 May.