Bruce Anderson: We don't need to tell China what it's doing wrong

Human rights has inspired more cant than any other political debatee

Share
Related Topics

In Imperial China, lesser beings were required to prostrate themselves in the presence of the Emperor, the kowtow, many will argue that the British Olympic Committee might be about to impose a modern equivalent of that archaic humiliation on our athletes, by forbidding them from commenting on human rights in China.

It was clumsy of the BOC to issue 32 pages of instructions. What has happened to that effective if old-fashioned practice, a quiet word in the ear? The document was bound to leak and cause controversy, which will inter alia irritate the Chinese. There is a risk that the BOC could end up looking like the current government, bossy and incompetent. The Committee is right to reconsider its decision.

That said, it had two good points. The first is that very few British athletes are qualified to opine on China. Second, that even if they were, it would be counter-productive to do so. The notion that Chinese policy might be influenced by lectures from foreign athletes is as childish a fantasy as has ever blundered into public discourse: more absurd than the worst fatuities of the ethical foreign policy.

There is a paradox. Almost everyone can agree about human rights. We are all in favour of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet human rights has inspired more cant than any other political debate. In the UK, this usually expresses itself as a post-imperial delusion. Even if many former colonies are still waiting for the new dawn, the sun did set on the British empire. The navies have melted away. The era when we could take unilateral action to suppress the Atlantic slave trade is over. But a lot of people appear to believe that gunboat diplomacy could be replaced by press-release diplomacy, as if the rest of the world was waiting expectantly for a sermon from the British.

If only that were true, but it is self-evident nonsense and nowhere more so than in China. We can regret many aspects of recent Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution turned into a cultural holocaust, in which much of the legacy of five millennia of Chinese civilisation was destroyed. That is an irreparable loss to China and to all mankind.

To be fair to the post-Maoist leaders of China, they deplore the Cultural Revolution as much as we do. This helps to explain Tiananmen Square. In the West, we saw idealistic students calling for change. In Beijing, the leadership saw a mob which to them resembled the student hordes who were the shock troops of the Cultural Revolution. So the savage over-reaction was at least explicable.

No such excuses can be made for Tibet. The Prince of Wales is not alone in deploring the ravaging of that ancient and picturesque theocracy, set in the world's most magnificent landscape. That damage too is probably irreversible. Even if China became a liberal democracy tomorrow, so many Han Chinese have been settled in Tibet as to make it almost impossible for the Dalai Lama and his people to resume their serene seclusion from the pollutions of modernity.

We can also wish that the Chinese were more amenable over Africa. In recent years, the West has become a little better at using trade and aid to encourage good governance and discourage corruption. Then along come the Chinese with an insatiable appetite for raw materials, and absolutely unconcerned if their royalty payments go straight to the ruler's Swiss bank account.

But if our government, or any official body, were to make public criticisms of the Chinese, the response would be predictable. China would draw on the textbooks of the international left to denounce our exploitation of Africa in the colonial period. All baloney, of course, but it would be eloquent baloney, fuelled by Chinese anger at the way they were treated by the West.

That is not baloney. We forced them to import opium. We and other powers seized ports and imposed treaties. Although we also created Hong Kong, which has shown China how to prosper and be free under the rule of law, Beijing is more inclined to recall the circumstances in which we acquired Hong Kong than to pay tribute to the way we ran it.

In the late 1980s, in private, Chinese leaders assured our government that they did not want to turn Hong Kong into China; they wanted the rest of China to resemble Hong Kong. Thus far, they have been true to their word. There has been remarkable economic progress. We can only hope that this will be followed by political progress. In one respect, China resembles the former Soviet Union and white South Africa. The ruling ideology is no longer intellectually sustainable. To become legitimate, the Chinese government will have to become democratic.

There is nothing that Britain's Olympic athletes can do to accelerate this desirable outcome. Instead, they should take Prince Philip's advice. He thinks that the Olympics should be about young people enjoying themselves: an admirable contemporary version of the Olympic ideal.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Now’s the time to bring back Top Of The Pops

David Lister
Amanda Knox will learn today if her conviction for murdering British student Mereditch Kercher has been upheld  

Amanda Knox: A retrial, two films and endless speculation - will the fascination with Meredith Kercher's murder ever end?

Peter Popham
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss