Fear and Loathing in London
George Osborne’s recent trip to China has shown that the UK doesn’t really have the same issues with kowtowing that it used to have. The economic dealings have shown that Chinese companies are going to be more heavily involved in the UK’s economy – as it will be made easier for aspects of the UK’s infrastructure to be invested in.
These developments have produced a feeling of uneasiness for many in the UK as many political figures and commentators don’t feel comfortable with the Chinese owning the UK’s infrastructure, especially partially owning the new nuclear power station. Iain Martin captured this uneasiness by asking if the UK should be allowing this investment from a country ‘that spies on the UK, a lot’. Of course, the UK has never spied on anyone so we can be trusted. It’s this attitude that raises the bigger point and that’s the underlying fear of a powerful China.
This idea of China being more powerful than the UK is what is upsetting a lot of people in the UK and it is very likely that history is the cause of this. Britain as a global hegemon acted less than admirably. The British Empire oversaw the slave trade, numerous wars, famines – from India to Ireland – and the slaughter of native populations that stood up to them. It’s a form of colonial guilt, even when the guilt isn’t acknowledged or apologised for, that produces untrustworthiness of rising non-Western powers. Even if people don’t actively condemn what Britain did when it held a global hegemony there is an awareness that what Britain did would understandably cause resentment around the world. And you would need to be especially naive and ignorant of history to think that the British Empire was somehow benign and was a warm and fuzzy global power.
The attitude is essentially “we don’t want China to behave as a global power in the same way that we behaved”. That is the root of the fear. Is this fear justified in any way? When Britain had economic and military supremacy over China in the Victorian era, an era in which Britain, according to George Osborne, had the can do attitude it has now lost, fought two wars with China. These were the Opium Wars in which Britain conducted an illegal drug trade in China, bombarded Chinese ports, and began the looting and burning of the Summer Palaces in Beijing. The ruins of the old Summer Palaces have been left as they are and serve as a reminder of the way China was exploited in the past by European powers.
Britain’s conduct in China in the past feeds into the fear many have of a non-Western global hegemon, but how much worse could the global hegemony of Britain or the United States be? I severely doubt China will start flooding Britain with illegal drugs in order to obtain British exports, bombarding Liverpool when we try to make them stop, and then eventually invade and burn Buckingham Palace to the ground. The fear that Britain itself will be colonised and subjugated back has always been at the back of the mind of British Empire apologists as they tend to believe in the old “eye for an eye” maxim.
It’s not even completely certain that China’s rise will continue. The fear of China tends to rely on the notion that China’s rise will continue at its blistering rate and not succumb to economic limitations or political problems. It’s not even certain and it’s still managing to cause panic.
The paranoid and xenophobic fear of China suggests that those writing reactionary pieces in the Mail and Telegraph believe a non-Western power cannot be trusted with a global hegemony. The same voices that have expressed concern of China becoming more involved in the UK economy do not have the same issues with the United States being heavily involved in the economy, which they of course have been. In reality, it’s very likely that this fear is a whole lot of nothing and a manifestation of guilt and fear.
I don’t know what the future holds for the international system but I don’t think it’s going to be as horrendous as some people think it will be. If China does become a global hegemon will their conduct be worse than the British Empire or more recently the United States? George Osborne’s welcoming of the Chinese to the UK has shown that China will be involved in the UK’s economy, and what will this really change? Because it just looks like another outside force in the latest line of many will own infrastructure.