China and the UK reach 2020 having traveled quite different paths. China’s journey to the present day contrasts starkly with the route of the UK. Here in the UK, our political attitudes have been shaped by Magna Carta; Habeas Corpus; and the Civil War to topple the supremacy of Charles 1 by Parliament. There is more; the Great Reform Bill of 1832; One Man One Vote and the Westminster model of the Two Party System. We have the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers between the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Executive. This is our DNA.
China’s narrative is quite different. Centuries of dynastic autocracy followed by a Century of National Humiliation from the Opium Wars of the 1840’s. The Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th Century followed by the creation of the Republic of China by Sun Yatsen in 1912 whose death in 1925 led to Three Civil Wars fought between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party leading in 1949 to the flight to Formosa of Chiang Kaishek and the KMT and the creation of the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing. China was ravaged – and called the Sick Man of Asia for good reason with the repression and brutality of the Japanese Invasion from 1937-1945 contributing to China’s poverty stricken status. No democracy. No mass franchise. No change of power after Elections.
So we come to 2020 with the two countries having travelled quite different routes. Today, many articles by western journalists focus exclusively on Covid-19, the new Security Law in Hong Kong, the position of the Uyghurs , Tibet, Taiwan and Huawei.
By Western standards China is not democratic. The Chinese do not have the freedom to organise political parties. They cannot access a free media. They do not vote for their leaders. The West assumes that the people of China must feel oppressed and be yearning for the democratic freedoms of the UK. But most commentators have not considered the people of China, their progress, their life style, their priorities. There is a significant lack of balance in his approach. What concerns the critics are traditional criticisms of China but there is no consideration of the progress in China – all achieved under the leadership of the Party.
China compares itself with its past where there was no freedom, no prosperity, no progress. China was stagnant and brought to its knees by the 19th Century occupation of China by UK and other foreign powers. Today the Chinese can choose what work to do, what clothes to wear and where to live. Today the young Chinese cherish realisable hopes and achievements about the future that were so far beyond anything thought possible by their grandparents. They have a standard of living and a quality of life well beyond anything they could have hoped for during the height of the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1970’s. In the last 40 years the Chinese have “Never Had It So Good” – as Harold Macmillan said about the British people in 1959. 500m Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. 800,000 students go overseas each year to foreign universities and in 2019 134m tourists from China visited the world and all 134m returned home. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found that in terms of the domestic’s population trust in their government, China ranked top while America ranked 15th.
The West wants to believe that the people of China are groaning under a dictatorship, and are looking for every opportunity to escape the control and influence of the oppressive Party and flee overseas. They believe their jails are full to bursting with criminals and dissidents as gun toting police roam the streets arresting citizens at random. Many readers of this article will have visited China and have walked the streets of its cities – and found the atmosphere relaxed and easy going.
But critics of China never refer to the status of the Chinese – their lives, their clothes, their shops, their sports activities, their life style, their prosperity or their happiness No – critics of China start with the prejudice that China is not like the UK, and the Chinese are not like the UK people. The Chinese, say UK critics, must want our ways, our laws, our customs and our norms. It is wishful thinking. 1.4 bn Chinese have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They are proud of what their government has achieved and that is the hardest thing for China’s UK critics to believe. The Chinese have not reached 2020 enjoying such success only to jettison everything for Western norms of democracy.