Speaking to Portlaoise County Council personnel during his tenure as President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox lauded the EU’s commitment to liberal democracy and its institutions. By contrast, he described in graphic terms the charade that was China’s National Peoples’ Congress. It was, he observed, a bloated assembly of ‘yacking donkeys’ whose brays might be heard but were rarely heeded by the ruling elite. China’s National Peoples’ Congress were, as they continue to be, a rubber stamp parliament.
Times and circumstances change however in other respects. Today, Pat Cox along with Ruairi Quinn, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen are among directors of the Ireland China Institute, an Irish based, China backed foundation to further dialogue and common interest between the two countries. Or such is the claim. The Chinese donkeys however continue to yack pointlessly away as the grip of the ruling elite, now aided by digital technology, continues to tighten its hold on the vast country.
Members of the Ireland China Institute would argue, as Ruairi Quinn did recently in an Irish Times article (China’s Cotton Trade, 7/7), that criticism is counter-productive. ‘I would be very slow to criticise other systems’, adding that he would have no respect for anyone ‘who would come to Ireland and start telling us how we should run our affairs.’ An extraordinary change of approach from a former politician who boycotted a state dinner for Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, in Dublin Castle in 2001.
So why would well informed public figures like Cox and Quinn now believe that dialogue is more fruitful than criticism? It’s not that China has been inching in the direction of liberal democracy over the last decades. What grounds are there for believing that dialogue can be more productive than frank, informed criticism? Where in history was a powerful, privileged elite ever persuaded to stand down through force of dialogue or argument ? The Chinese power holders have become more and more emboldened as their economic advance continues across the globe. They are winding back democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, making belligerent noises towards Taiwan, a self-governing democracy of some 25 million ethnic Chinese, and brazenly colonising new islands along open shipping lanes in the South China Sea. At home, they have escalated the persecution of Uighurs and Christians and political dissidents. Early in 2020, the world saw how the pandemic whistle blowers were rounded up and forced to recant, as China continued international flights even though it had grounded its internal air traffic. Even more distressing are the international concerns about China’s billion dollar organ harvesting industry and the slave labour that is one of the many drivers of its exponential economic growth.
So how then does cosying up to official China help the plight of its oppressed people? Would the Uighurs, the imprisoned dissidents, the enslaved workers and millions of ordinary Chinese, really be offended if, as Ruairi Quinn suggests, our public figures criticised their oppressors? Would they really take offence if western countries used tools like boycotting and diplomatic exclusion to assert the liberal democratic values they claim to hold? Why would soi-disant. liberal politicians, like Quinn or Cox, think that strategies they would support against South Africa, when it was under apartheid, wouldn’t work against China?
Well Ruairi Quinn, in response to this question in the Irish Times piece, gives an extraordinarily revealing answer. China, he points out, is the second largest economy in the world, ‘(one) that is probably going to become the largest’. As Bill Clinton might put it, ‘it’s the economy, Stupid,’
China has chivvied itself into the good graces of the most unlikely ex-critics. The University of Cambridge is selling its brainpower and arguably its academic independence for massive sums of Chinese cash to develop the kind of technology that will better equip China to control and monitor its citizens. Of course, such technology will also help create ‘smart’ cities that will be ‘safe’ and energy efficient. Chinese billionaire, Lei Zhang, has poured millions into a showcase, retro-fitted, low energy, sensor loaded building in Cambridge. Meanwhile, back in China in fossil fuel guzzling furnaces, he manufactures turbines for high consuming but carbon conscious EU countries. Wearing yet another hat that might suggest conflicts of interest, Zhang is also a member of the National Peoples’ Congress, in other words one of Cox’s ‘yacking donkeys’ and no doubt a vigorously nodding one.
Outside the Ireland China Institute, there are even more puzzling statements on China to be heard with little pushback from either the political or media class. Mick Wallace, who currently represents this country in the European Parliament, recently announced that the condition of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is ‘grossly exaggerated’. Quite extraordinary that he is so sure about something the UN has declared itself greatly alarmed about, an alarm underpinned by the denial of the ‘free and unhindered access’ they requested.
Leaving aside speculation about motives, perhaps there really is more common ground between China and the kind of emasculated, western democracy Ireland is rapidly becoming? One of the shared Cambridge projects was entitled, ‘Digital Economy Governance Dialogue’. A euphemism for social media censorship. Some of our politicians, including Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, speak about the need for tackling ‘misinformation’, ‘hate speech’ and ‘inflammatory content’ in online platforms. Another bunch of usefully vague, euphemisms for censoring stuff that challenges their policies?
That would be censors of free speech should appoint one of their ideological ilk to be their special envoy to the UN for Freedom of Opinion and Expression should be the stuff of political satire in a liberal democracy. It is only in totalitarian regimes that such things pass unchallenged or so we might like to think. The sobering thing is that we have moved far more in China’s direction over the last two decades than the other way around. This week, the appointment of Katherine Zappone, setting aside caveats about the appointment process, has been accepted as otherwise appropriate by our politicians. Quite likely the ‘yacking donkeys’ in the opposition and government back benches will rumble to compliant silence under the sway of the entrenched elite. Dublin isn’t Beijing of course and thank God for that but our direction of travel is troubling.
While one thinks of the elite as a tiny powerhouse, the reality is that ‘Big Government’ really is big. It doesn’t matter whether it is led by a ‘Strongman’ leader as in China or a bunch of weak, effete men. It is always a messy complex of wheels within wheels, or interconnected interests. Patronage, privilege and profit are the links that ensure the massive body moves as one. In China, its constituents are politically connected billionaire operators like Lei Zhang. In Ireland it is the dense conglomeration of NGOs and foundations, including the Ireland China Institute, who channel their influence as imperceptibly as rising damp through the capillaries that lead to the levers of power.
In Orwell’s dystopian novel, Animal Farm, the animals all ‘yack’ away while the guzzling, greedy pigs call the shots. Oddly enough, it is the old donkey, Benjamim, who carries the memory of other times. But who will remember liberal democracy when it is gone? Even if some of us do, how can it ever be recovered when the values that breathed life in it have given way to the politics of opportunism and self serving ideologies? How can there be anything else but brute regime change of the kind that, periodically and often seismically through history, sees power change hands in ways that rarely serve the interest of the masses.
We tend to regard liberal democracy as immutable in western culture. History should warn us against such complacency. The fact is most of the world has never experienced it and is less and less likely to as we turn our backs on the values that founded it.