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China Is Today's Goliath, And It Needs the Courage of David to Stand Up to It

14/06/2016 12:01 | Updated 14 June 2016

China's belligerence is making it look increasingly like the Old Testament warrior Goliath, not only in its size and power, but in its attitude to the rest of the world. But there the parallel ends, because among the international community - governments, corporations, international institutions - no David has yet appeared. On the contrary, the Goliath that is China today is holding everyone else to ransom.

In recent years, China's behaviour has descended from defensiveness to subtle use of 'soft power' to bellicose aggression and active interference to silence critics around the world. From Foreign Minister Wang Yi's extraordinary outburst at a Canadian journalist in Ottawa to its audacious behaviour in the South China Sea, Xi Jinping's regime is on the rampage. Its decision to ban Muslims in China from fasting during Ramadan is just the latest in what ultimately will prove a deeply counter-productive bullying campaign against anyone who thinks differently from the Communist Party. The physical assault on lawyer Wu Liangshu by police in court, and his totemic image standing beaten and half naked, clothes ripped to shreds, outside the court house, characterises what the current regime in Beijing thinks of the rule of law. To put it mildly, China has confused "rule of law" with "rule by law" and in so doing shows complete disregard for the law.

Fourteen years ago, American academic Perry Link wrote an insightful article in The New York Review of Books called "The Anaconda in the Chandelier". His thesis then was that behind the glistening economic boom and the appearance of opening, the old ways of a repressive regime continue to lurk, ready to strike. His argument was that we should not be fooled by the glittering allure of wealth into thinking that with it would come political liberalisation. Repression, intimidation and fear remained very much alive.

Professor Link was right, but the China he wrote about in 2002 was one where the regime's tactics tended to be more subtle. Today, under Xi Jinping, the anaconda is writhing furiously, smashing through the sparkling chandelier. Abductions of dissidents overseas, the disappearance of human rights lawyers within the country, threats to the families in China of exiled critics, the arrest, detention and deportation of foreign activists and forced televised confessions of those arrested are all deeply troubling signs of a much more thuggish repression. The blatant erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms and the destruction of the "one country, two systems" concept is an indicator of the much deeper malaise in the mainland.

On 9 July last year, an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers began, with over 300 lawyers, their associates and relatives being detained. While many were released, at least 20 have been arrested and charged. Some face some of the most serious criminal charges possible, including "subversion". Several, such as lawyer Li Heping, have disappeared, their whereabouts unknown.

In late 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers, two of whom had European citizenship, disappeared. At least one, Lee Po, was abducted from Hong Kong, and another, Gui Minhai, was taken from Thailand. Gui's whereabouts are still unknown.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the persecution of Falun Gong, the destruction of over 1,500 Christian crosses in Zhejiang province, new repressive laws on foreign non-governmental organisations, increased censorship and propaganda, and the continuing barbaric practice of organ harvesting - forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience while they are still alive, for the purpose of selling them for transplants: these all add to the litany of horrors that is China today.

And yet what is the response of the international community?

When Wang Yi berated a Canadian journalist for asking her own country's Foreign Minister a reasonable question about human rights, Canada's foreign minister Stephane Dion stood by, silently sheepish.

A few days later Michael Chan, Ontario's minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, defended China's human rights record in a Chinese-language column.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has belatedly spoken out, but only after kow-towing to Wang Yi by giving in to his outrageous demand for a meeting. And even when Mr Trudeau did speak out, he emphasised the need for China to change the way it spoke to journalists - as if it were just a matter of public relations - rather than the need to change the way it treats its people.

The United Kingdom is no better. Last October, Xi Jinping was feted by the British government on a State visit which Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne declared indicated a "golden era" between Britain and China, with Britain as China's "best partner in the West". A forthcoming report by the UK's Conservative Party Human Rights Commission - titled The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016 - concludes that the three years since President Xi took power are the worst for human rights since the Tiananmen massacre 27 years ago. The report, to be released later this month, calls for a fundamental rethink of British foreign policy towards China.

And it is not just governments that need to rethink their approach. The decision by the American Bar Association to rescind an agreement to publish a book by Chinese dissident lawyer Teng Biao is just one of many examples of international organisations caving in to fear of Beijing. French cosmetics giant Lancome's decision to cancel a promotional concert in Hong Kong, for fear that the appearance of pro-democracy singer Denise Ho might affect their business in the mainland, is another. Miss World's silence when the competition's Canadian contestant, Chinese-born Anastasia Lin, was banned from entering China for the final, is yet another.

The anaconda has not only broken out of the chandelier, its reach is extending into the political systems of other countries. The influence of its Confucius Institutes around the world is a cause for concern - spreading pro-Beijing propaganda and stifling criticism in Western universities. The paid mobs that China now deploys every time President Xi travels abroad, to cheer him on and silence human rights protests, are chilling. The pressure China put on Anastasia Lin's dressmaker to stop working with her was absurd. And the increasing infiltration of overseas Chinese communities, buying their influence from San Francisco to Vancouver to Sydney to London, is alarming.

Why have we let his happen? Of course China is a key economic player, and dollar signs have long held greater sway on policymakers' minds than torture marks. Equally, it is true that China is an important strategic player whose cooperation is needed in addressing many of today's global challenges, from climate change to security. But it ought to be possible to engage with China, and to trade, without kowtowing and sacrificing all our values. Germany's President Joachin Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is making her ninth visit this week, have proven that it is - both have been consistently outspoken and yet have continued to do good trade. Many China-watchers would in fact argue that showing the gangsters in Beijing that you have a spine makes them respect you more, whereas kowtowing has simply emboldened them. It may not be possible to take out China's corrupt, cruel, Communist regime with a single slingshot. But when today's Goliath goes rogue, as it is currently doing, the courage of David needs to be found.

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