Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe.
Getting our knickers in a twist over China
Quite often on a Wednesday lunchtime I find myself conferring with my friend Rudi the sandwich man about the madness of Ken Livingstone, and his latest monstrous scheme for London. Rudi blames the congestion charge for pushing up his costs. I can’t stand the evil frankfurter buses that crush cyclists to the kerb.
This week, however, the newt-fancier has exceeded our wildest fantasies. Do you know how he has chosen to spend £1 million of our congestion charge cash? That crazy old Trot has bought in 100,000 doses of anti chicken flu medication, to be distributed, presumably, so that his key workers can continue to clamp cars and impose their poxy charges while the rest of us are expiring during the approaching epidemic.
It is a ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ money, and before you dismiss it as another case of Red Ken-ery, you should know that the madness has infected the Department of Health. They have drawn up a list of “elite” figures, mainly government ministers and BBC high-ups, who would be required to keep the country going in the event of the chicken plague, and who must therefore receive free doses of the wonderdrug.
What drives me mad is not that I am excluded from this list (opposition politicians, you will not be surprised to learn, are thought to be dispensable to the running of Britain), but that we are getting in a flap about a chicken disease which has killed a grand total of 57 human beings since it was detected in 2003, most of them Asian owners of fighting-cocks who chose to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their spifflicated birds.
To get these figures in proportion, as Ross Clark does in the current Spectator, you should know that nine million people are suffering from tuberculosis, of which two million will die in the next year, and half a billion people are suffering from malaria. So why are we scaring ourselves witless about this Asian fowl pest? Because it is all part of our new phobia about the Far East, and China in particular.
China is becoming in our imaginations the fashionable new dread, the incubator of strange diseases, a vast polluted landscape of Victorian factories where coolies sit in expectorating rows, nourished on nothing but rice and the spleens of pangolins, producing whirling typhoons of cheap bras and lingerie that race across the seas and reduce the native industries of the West to matchwood.
It has become a cliché of geopolitical analysis to say that China is the next world superpower, that the 21st century will belong to Beijing, and that we had better get in tutors to teach our nippers Mandarin if they are to make it in the new world order.
It is all stark staring nonsense, and founded on the same misapprehension as Peter Mandelson’s demented decision to slap quotas on Chinese textiles, so that the mouths of the Scheldt and the Rhine are apparently silting up with 50 million pairs of cut-price Chinese trousers. It is idiocy, and not just because it is unlike Mandy to come between a British woman and her knickers.
Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe. We do not need to teach babies Mandarin. Our Sinophobia is misplaced. Even with 1.3 billion people, and fast export-led growth, the Chinese have an economy smaller than Italy’s, but that is not really the point. World domination – superpowerdom – is all about hard power and soft power, military might and cultural impact.
Well, compared with the old British Empire, and the new American imperium, Chinese cultural influence is virtually nil, and unlikely to increase. Far from spreading overseas, as the English language has spread, and Hollywood has spread, Chinese culture seems to stay firmly in China.
Indeed, high Chinese culture and art are almost all imitative of western forms: Chinese concert pianists are technically brilliant, but brilliant at Schubert and Rachmaninov. Chinese ballerinas dance to the scores of Diaghilev. The number of Chinese Nobel prizes won on home turf is zero, though there are of course legions of bright Chinese trying to escape to Stanford and Caltech.
There are Chinatowns and takeaways all over the world, but in Britain the culinary impact of China is dwarfed by the subcontinent. The turnover for Chinese restaurants is about £282 million, compared with £2 billion for Indian restaurants. It is hard to think of a single Chinese sport at the Olympics, compared with the umpteen invented by Britain, including ping-pong, I’ll have you know, which originated at upper-class dinner tables and was first called whiff-whaff.
The Chinese have a script so fiendishly complicated that they cannot produce a proper keyboard for it. And how many people do you know who can speak even a sentence of Chinese? If global domination means anything, it must mean the spread of culture, language and mores, in the way of the Romans, the British, and the Americans. The Chinese aren’t even out of the paddock.
As for military might – hard power – our fears are again overdone. The Chinese may have 2.5 million men in uniform, but of the long-range missiles you need to be a global power Beijing can wield only 20, which would make for a pretty brief fireworks display if they came up against the Americans.
None of this, of course, is in any way intended to be disrespectful to the glories of Chinese culture: only that they are not in any way global or – and this is the point – intended to be global. The Chinese have neither the ability nor the inclination to dominate the world. They merely want to trade freely, and they should be encouraged.
The emergence of China and its integration into the world economy has been a major spur to growth and a deterrent to inflation. It is an unalloyed good, and it is sad to see our politicians responding with such chicken-hearted paranoia.