The US describes its newly announced diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, backed by Britain and other western countries, as a protest against China’s “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang”, where the Chinese Communist party (CCP) is accused of genocide, as well as its evisceration of Hong Kong’s democracy.
Yet a separate, lurking worry informs Washington’s action: that China may turn the games into a propaganda extravaganza, showcasing its growing strength to a global audience. Think Gladiator, and then think Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian president, acting like a latter-day Roman emperor exercising power over life and death.
It’s not a fanciful image. An independent tribunal’s report last week described the ghastly reality facing thousands of Uyghurs who suffer “acts of unconscionable cruelty, depravity and inhumanity”, including torture and organised gang rapes, in Xinjiang’s concentration camps.
As the world’s athletes get a thumbs up to perform at the “people’s games”, Emperor Xi gives his uncounted, unseen victims a callous thumbs down.
It’s difficult to regard Xi – with his unassailable dictatorial powers, his techno-fascist surveillance state that stifles dissent and oppresses minorities, and his aggressively expansionist foreign policy – as anything other than a totalitarian control freak with imperial fantasies.
Empires, especially Britain’s, get a bad press nowadays. Their close association with colonialism, racism, slavery and other evils is reason enough. But the assumption that such abuses have been banished ignores what is happening in today’s world, right under our noses.
Imperialism, in all its awful forms, still poses a threat. But it is no longer the imperialism of the west, rightly execrated and self-condemned. Today’s threat emanates from the east. Just as objectionable, and potentially more dangerous, it’s the prospect of a totalitarian 21st-century Chinese global empire.
Historically speaking, empire-building relies on three factors, or projections. First come overseas trade networks or hubs, via maritime links and land corridors. Following close behind comes the establishment of overseas military bases to secure and defend these new interests, with or without local consent.
Last, nascent empires establish an (often delusional) narrative, or “mission statement”, to justify their activities. British imperialists claimed to be a civilising force, bringing law and Christianity to the great unwashed. The postwar American empire was, supposedly, all about championing democracy.
Almost as if it had made a study, the CCP is following this western imperialist handbook to the letter – with one important caveat. Beijing does not fight distant foreign wars to sustain its dominance, as the US did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and Britain did all over the world. Not yet, anyway.
The first phase of China’s new imperial age is already in train. Xi’s ambitious belt and road investment and infrastructure initiative (BRI) touches 60 countries. China is the world’s largest trading nation and largest exporter, with $2.6tn worth of exports in 2019.
The CCP’s focus is meanwhile shifting to empire phase two: military bases. US media reported last week that the port city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea could become China’s first Atlantic seaboard naval base – potentially putting warships and submarines within striking distance of America’s east coast.
In what could serve as a case study of Chinese neo-imperial strategy, Beijing offered billions in loans to Equatorial Guinea’s corrupt dictator, whom the US in contrast accuses of serious human rights abuses. In such ways are alliances forged and empires built.
China already has a naval base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. It is said to be considering an island airbase in Kiribati that could in theory threaten Hawaii. Meanwhile, it continues to militarise atolls in the South China Sea.
A Pentagon report last month predicted China will build a string of military bases girdling the world, including in the Arctic. CCP “target” countries include Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya and Angola, it said.
US concerns about Chinese inroads in Central America centre on Cuba, Panama and Nicaragua. Nor is Europe immune to CCP power projection: witness the worries over Huawei, espionage, and the Piraeus port “gateway to Europe” scheme. Xi makes no bones about his aim to achieve global ascendancy, remake the international order in China’s image, and dominate emerging 21st-century technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced computing, information management and the weaponisation of space.
At the same time he spins a softer message, the sort of comforting narrative predatory imperial powers prefer. China is no threat, he says. Rather, we are your benevolent friends, partners for global prosperity.
Last week, marking Joe Biden’s “summit for democracy”, to which it was not invited, Beijing even claimed, absurdly, to be the only truly functional democracy and an example to others.
In a speech in July marking the party’s centenary, Xi offered a less reassuring insight into his combative ideas. Imperial might is right, he suggested. Where Britannia once bobbed about, now China rules the waves.
“We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will. By the same token we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate [China],” he said. “Anyone who tries will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.”
By key measures – the number of overseas bases, alliances, military strike-power – America still greatly outstrips China’s regime; likewise in terms of respect for human values and rights. Xi’s BRI ambitions are meeting increased pushback. But too often, the west appears unsure how to handle China’s challenge. The partial Olympics boycott smacks of weakness.
After two centuries on imperialism’s receiving end, the Chinese empire strikes back. Trouble is, Xi’s vision of future global dominion is centrally controlled, collectively oppressive, individually crushing totalitarianism. He promises only misery for the masses.