China is a nation with values deeply at odds with the West. The Chinese spy, steal and bully. They don’t really care about human rights yet are getting disgustingly rich, and — well, I’m sure you’ve heard the rest. The western media likes to depict China as the new enemy — both morally and politically. It seems as if a new iron curtain is coming down, with my country (and family) on the wrong side of the divide.
Of course, Britain is my country too: I’ve lived here longer than I did in China. But I have to confess that this fundamental ‘clash of values’ — described in such vivid terms by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State — is one that passed me by. To be British--Chinese is not to be torn in two by competing value systems. Like Brits and Americans, the Chinese are family-oriented, go-getting and law-abiding with a love of learning and a sense of humour. So why are we falling out?
Just over two years ago, David Cameron was toasting a golden era of Anglo-Chinese relations over a pint of bitter in a Buckinghamshire pub with Xi Jinping. The consensus then was that Britain should get to know China better. To Chinese Brits, this was cheering. China has long been thought of as an unknown, opaque, homogeneous lump (something about dragons and tea) and the language barrier was partly to blame. But in the early Noughties, there was an increased exchange of ideas, culture and people: British people began teaching and travelling throughout China, while the Chinese came to the UK to study and work. My family moved here in 2004. Back then, it felt as if our countries were getting to know each other better.
But things have changed pretty fast in the past few years. I’ve noticed that conversations about China (I end up having quite a few of them) are now morally charged. British people seem angry with the regime and quick to accuse anyone who defends it of being in the pocket of the Chinese embassy. So, how to handle such situations? Even though I’m — sadly — not in receipt of a penny from the embassy, I usually make a self--deprecating joke about receiving orders from high command, to defuse some tension and draw some nervous laughter.
There’s no doubt that Beijing has done its bit to mess things up. The former president Hu Jintao’s ‘peaceful rise’ narrative has been supplanted by Xi’s more assertive, ambitious projects. These include the Belt and Road Initiative, ‘Made in China 2025’ which aims to transform the country into a tech superpower, and social credit.
We can add to that the detainment of up to a million Uyghur Muslims for what’s euphemistically called ‘re-education’, and the consistent erosion of ‘one country two systems’ that’s causing such anger in Hong Kong. All this has contributed — justifiably — to the biggest reputational damage to China since Tiananmen Square.
But some of the backlash goes too far. Take social credit, for instance, which aims to use technology and surveillance to give citizens a social credit score. Most of the stories about it fail to acknowledge that the system (as it currently exists) is a patchwork of rudimentary trials across the country.
China has always been hard for westerners to understand. For Donald Trump, there was nothing to agonise about: CHAI-NA was the enemy. Those who once mocked his China-bashing now try to outdo his hawkishness. ‘The Commies are back’ — but this time, we are told, they are Chinese rather than Russian.
But China is not one-dimensional and the Chinese people are not the Chinese government. I’ve met many cynical Chinese who have a healthy level of scepticism for the government, no different to us in the West. Every year when I visit my family in China, my journalist uncle and his wife, a professor of film history, take me to see a student play at her college. The themes are invariably edgy. One play was about the failed Hundred Days Reform, a forgotten attempt to create a constitutional monarchy out of the Qing dynasty; another was about the lives of ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution.
In general, there’s little appetite for democracy in China. The Chinese look at Brexit and see a bemusing mess. Chaos is anathema to them, and stability tends to matter more than lofty ideals. Who can blame them? They had enough idealism during the 20th century.
China is evolving fast and it still wants to get to know Britain. It remains a communist one-party state, but the China that people wanted to make friends with a few years ago — whose language so many British parents wanted their children to learn — is still there. It is a country where old ladies meet in the evenings to dance and exercise together in public squares; where the young dye their hair cobalt blue or strawberry blond, inspired by Japanese anime and Korean pop music. In the evenings, 150 million viewers tune in to watch Jin Xing, a talk-show host who has become a national treasure, who happens to be a trans woman. It would be a shame to lose sight of all of this, and replace it instead with a Trumpist caricature of an evil empire, out to hack the world.
Perhaps it’s too late. Trump is now joined by most senior American politicians of left and right in talking as if a new Cold War is beginning. If this is the new script, Britain may have no choice but to follow it. Meanwhile, those of us who want to talk about a more nuanced China, home to a billion and a half very different people, should resign ourselves to being laughed off as spies or apologists.