Western liberals who assume they can gradually influence China are wrong – it is an expansionist power without a conscience

Pity the Chinese. The inhabitants of the world’s next superpower cannot search the internet or assemble or travel or speak or read or write or even reproduce without restriction. Yet in the lands where freedom is abundant, China, rather than earning well-deserved rebukes, continues to be championed as the ineluctable future. This disgraceful journey began with a liberal assumption: the west, it was claimed, is more likely to influence China by partnering with it, by giving it a prominent position inside, rather than pushing it outside, global institutions.

But in the decades since, far from moulding the Chinese state’s behaviour, it is the west that has incrementally given up on its own values in order to appease Beijing. It has been customary since the early 1990s for American presidents to invite the Dalai Lama to Washington. Last year Barack Obama did away even with this minor gesture of solidarity with the Tibetans for fear of offending Beijing. Even the brief private audience Obama eventually granted the beleaguered Tibetan leader was accompanied by humiliation: the Dalai Lama was made to exit the White House through the back doors.

Contrary to the claims made by western apologists, China is not a substantially freer country today than it was a decade ago. The tools that have empowered the Chinese people – the internet, for instance – have strengthened the state in equal, perhaps even greater, measure: an ordinary Chinese citizen’s ability today to communicate instantly with the outside world is matched by the state’s capacity to silence him equally rapidly. Freedoms mean nothing if they are not accompanied by corresponding restrictions on the state’s power to check them on a whim. Liu Xiaobo may be celebrated as a hero in the west, but in China he does not even have recourse to an appeal.

Liu’s plight casts light also on the fundamental uselessness of the so-called “social networking” sites. If Facebook could foment revolutions, Liu’s Charter 08 would have attracted many more signatories than the 8,000 it managed. If Twitter could bring down governments, the number of “netizens” detained following Liu’s win would not be limited to 20. In 1989, millions of Chinese marched through Beijing and thousands were killed. The symbol of their struggle was the Goddess of Democracy. They did not “tweet”.

In any event, Beijing, with its empirical success in crushing dissent with extraordinary force, is unlikely to yield to nonviolent calls for substantive reforms, especially when control of the Chinese state today offers significantly richer rewards than it did a decade ago. But the plight of the oppressed has rarely deterred western liberals from exalting the oppressor. Mao’s cultural revolution – ignited in response to a play by Beijing’s vice-mayor that was considered to be mildly critical of the ageing megalomaniac – dispossessed hundreds of thousands, resulted in as many deaths, and in some rural parts led to cannibalism.

But one visiting leftwing British academic at the time (the late Joan Robinson) could not see beyond the romantic “long marches” in which the Chinese “learned more about their own country in a few months than they ever could have learned out of books”.

This trend continues today. Even a shrewd observer such as Martin Jacques makes the absurd case in his authoritative recent book, When China rules the world, that China’s rise is “peaceful”. Jacques is driven by sympathy for the non-western world. But his premature exoneration of China as a potentially peaceful power is based on a western-centric reading of the world, because it overlooks the violence Beijing is inflicting on people in the non-western world, either directly or by shielding dictators from international action. China’s neighbours expressed their own fears at the Asean summit in Hanoi.

And to millions in Darfur and Burma, Xinjiang and Tibet, China’s rise is anything but peaceful. Besides, Beijing’s early support to the rogue nuclear programme of Pakistan’s AQ Khan – who subsequently went on to sell nuclear secrets to bidders in Iran and North Korea, among others – demonstrates China’s indifference to global security when it comes to furthering its own interests.

Erasing its own history, massacring its own people, shielding genocidal dictatorships abroad, bullying its neighbours, China is an expansionist power without a conscience. There is much that is wrong with the west – and liberal democracies elsewhere – but imagine a world in which China can no longer be held to account. That future is not very far. But if the west continues to cower, it will be here sooner than we think.

– Kapil Komireddi