I often comment on the difference in political traditions between the UK and China and how it is difficult for one side to understand the other.
The two countries reach the present day having travelled quite different journeys. The UK reaches 2020 with a sequence of events over the centuries that is a product of Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the execution of Charles 1, the supremacy of Parliament, regular Elections and a media that is outspoken and irreverent. China has trodden a quite different path – no “One Man One Vote”, no “Acting Returning Officer” reading out election results every five years. An authoritarian political structure that owes much to past dynasties and in today’s China offers the biggest role to an 87m strong Communist Party.
Tony Blair’s recommendation is that here in the UK we would do well to view China from China’s perspective and understand where the country is coming from and the rhythm of its political dynamic. Equally China needs to do the same re the UK and understand the political path that has been followed and the political norms that have firm roots here in the UK.
The West needs to understand China’s Century of Humiliation ending in 1860; the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the role of Communist Party, the Civil War against the Kuomintang and the Patriotic War against Japan in WW2. That takes us to 1949 and the need for UK people interested in China to understand China’s policies, its achievements and its setbacks.
By the same token China needs to understand the central core of Parliament and the 5 year Election cycle and the role of habeas corpus in protecting the citizens from arbitrary detention and punishment and the intrusive role of the media in daily affairs.
The differences are apparent and both systems have their supporters but Westminster suits Britain and Yenan suits China and the two do not mix. What works in China does not work in the UK and what work works in the UK does not work in China. It does not necessarily make one system better than the other.
In the UK, satire is an accepted function of our political life. Mocking and parodying political leaders is a daily occurrence. Doing the same in China invites arrest and imprisonment. There is a large gap in mutual understanding. The Chinese norm is to protest on the streets if overseas critics burn China’s national flag whilst, in the UK, laughing at the Queen is regarded as a part of political and cultural life.
On the streets of the UK people struggle to understand why ridiculing Xi Jinping is not just another part and parcel of Chinese political life and on the streets of China people struggle to understand why lampooning the Prime Minister or The Queen is accepted as the norm for UK political life.
The point is that neither country is right or wrong. The norms of behaviour are different because the norms of politics are different. In the UK we were more strait laced until popular entertainment changed the norms. In the late 1950’s, on the London stage Beyond the Fringe took political satire to a new level of insult and criticism. It was assisted by the appearance on television of That Was The Week That Was and, suddenly, political leaders were mocked even humiliated. It was an uncomfortable time for the UK Establishment and there were protests. Today, Spitting Images is the modern espousal of satirical comment. It is accepted.
In China there is, even post Covid, a reverence for the Communist Party and a widespread acknowledgement that turning the Sick Man of Asia of 1949 into the moderately prosperous society of today has been the most gigantic achievement achieved through the hard work of the People and the leadership of the Party. In Beijing the people do not mock and deride their leaders because of the progress they experience daily in the all embracing prosperity that increasingly dominates day to day activities in China.
Looking ahead China’s influence grows – throughout the world. And its growing importance needs to be understood. How has it happened? What does it say about the future?. We have choices – we can ignore and laugh at that which we do not understand. Or, we can redouble our efforts to really try to understand where the other side is coming from and where its progress will lead to in the years ahead.
Tony Blair has paid a big price for being wrong about Iraq but he is still far ahead of other contemporary politicians in the UK. He was never more right than when he encouraged people in the UK to understand China from China’s perspective.