A modernised China is a place to fear

Europe's teetering economy could be toppled in the rush by a liberalised new generation to embrace the standards of the West

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The coverage of last week's events in China had two points of focus. On the one hand we were shown groups of serious old gentlemen in box suits, gathered in some vast congressional amphitheatre and waiting to cast their votes for Mr Xi Jinping as a successor to the regime's current organ-grinder, Hu Jintao. "The Congress has elected a new Central Committee of the Party," President Hu revealed, in a brief address, "and replaced older leaders with younger men." To which one wanted to reply that youth in China is clearly a highly elastic concept.

All this came interspersed with footage of the vibrant and increasingly westernised life that is apparently going on in China beyond the senior citizens' clubs of political debate. Here some genuinely youthful people, most of them indisputably under 40, crowded over the electronic gizmos that had been put into their hands, executed dance moves, warbled rap music and looked as if they were having a high old, if state-sanctioned, time. No doubt we were supposed to sneer at the men in suits, dutifully "electing" the names stuck on the official slate, and silently applaud all the ambitious young people just itching to join the consumer free-for-all in the West.

Amid all the rousing, if not positively crusading, western talk of bringing "freedom" and "human rights" to the world's autocracies, as well as selling them military hardware, it is worth pointing out some of the consequences of a properly liberalised China for the faltering Western economy. Even under Communism, China is an economic behemoth. How much more powerful would it become without its ideological fetters, and how much more disadvantaged would be the West?

Any European politician who really wanted to preserve the electors' living standards and retard the ever more rapid shift in the planet's centre of fiscal gravity ought to be doing his or her damndest to keep China in as politically repressed a condition as possible. In the long run, "freedom" for Mr Hu's oppressed masses means trouble for Western democracies, and it would be a good idea to acknowledge this from the start.


Radio Three's excellent Free Thinking Festival found the playwright Lee Hall in conversation with the BBC's Philip Dodd. The event, broadcast from the Sage, Gateshead, allowed the creator of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters to reflect on his upbringing in Newcastle in the 1970s. This was an environment of extraordinary cultural richness, he maintained, where a teenager with an eye for literature and the arts was effectively offered a second education, courtesy of youth theatre groups and public libraries, from which the eclectically minded Hall would emerge with a Jane Austen novel in one hand and a Blue Oyster Cult CD in the other.

There was a political as well as an aesthetic angle to all this, Hall continued, for it sprang from the old-style Labour movement's keenness on what he called "non-materialist aspiration" – the idea that its council tenants should be encouraged not only to advance themselves economically but to read the books and study the pictures that might enable them to become more aware of the people they were and the communities of which they were a part. Forty years later all this had gone; and popular culture was a charnel house of reality TV and X-boxes.

Hall, predictably, blamed Mrs Thatcher and the fiscal policies of the 1980s, but there lurked a suspicion that the mass consumerism he deplored had more complex roots than this. Resentment of municipal socialism courses through the literature of the 1950s like knotweed through a lawn. As a character in an early Doris Lessing novel puts it, he's been raised on "William Morris and Keir Hardie and all that lot" and wouldn't say a word against them, "'But I says to my dad, I says, what's in it for me?"

With maximal irony, Hall's broadcast coincided with Newcastle council's announcement that it intend to make swingeing cuts to the local library system, and that several of the city's 18 libraries may have to close. Does Ed Miliband, the leader of the party which is doing the closing, care about the non-materialist aspirations of the working class? On this evidence, he jolly well ought to.


The week's most arresting piece of showbiz news came in People magazine's revelation that the actor Channing Tatum has been voted Sexiest Man Alive 2012. Not having heard of Mr Tatum, I hastened to locate a picture of him, and discovered a (to my middle-aged mind) rather odd-looking youngster with protuberant ears, an over-large neck and one of those curious faces that seem larger at the bottom than at the top.

Naturally, nothing is so subject to changing cultural attitudes than popular conceptions of beauty – the Victorians used to talk about women's "fine stately figures", rather as if they were public statues. But in the case of modern celebrities one notices not so much their generic quality as their habit of being almost pre-assembled out of a succession of desirable individual parts.

And so Kim Kardashian, who could be found in the week's gossip magazines ruminating on her weight problems, is not in the least attractive, but simply an accumulation of the planes, surfaces, concavities and gestures that the celebrity-following public feels safe with. One might as well admire a racehorse.

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