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How an ambitious China is using its influence to buy complicit silence from US

The world, led by the United States, has vacated the moral space in challenging China. And that has allowed Beijing to, literally, push the boundaries of its megalomania

columns Updated: Jul 21, 2017 16:33 IST
US President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping, Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017
US President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping, Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017(Reuters)

As Aadhaar becomes the norm in India, and gets skewered for the involuntary nature of its imposition, our northern neighbours, as is their wont, want to do a number that will make this appear benign.

That’s the proposed ‘social credit’, which the non-profit Freedom House, in its latest report, describes as a regime that “would connect each citizen’s financial, social, political, and legal data to produce a single numerical rating of his or her behavior and trustworthiness.” Fittingly, it’s coordinated by the Orwellian-sounding Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms.

This reality contrasts with the alternate vision seen by some in recent months of China occupying a central place in the world as Donald Trump’s America withdraws into itself.

That the Chinese machinery has managed to further such propaganda is no surprise. As China unveiled a monumental $200 million new embassy building in Washington in 2010, it was a symbolic and in-your-face marker of its outsize ambitions. It employs a slew of lobbyists across the K Street corridor of the Beltway, including some dedicated to image-making for its ambassador. American companies with manufacturing bases in China are force multipliers in shilling for Beijing, while inroads into American academia and media add to its influence. China has ventured capital into Silicon Valley. Its investments into Hollywood, for instance, have made support for Tibet within the film community nearly non-existent.

Those are credible reasons why voices once raised over China’s actions, in Tibet or Xinjiang, have been muted to whispers, of the sort that country’s netizens have to resort to in questioning the regime, since even Winnie the Pooh can be blacklisted by the Chinese checkers for bearing an alleged resemblance to President Xi Jinping. Money can talk but, even better, it can buy silence.

As a result, the death by negligence of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo attracts bromides from the White House. As China watcher Jocelyn Ford poignantly noted in an article for Asia Society, this summer as Liu was essentially condemned to death, the World Economic Forum had its annual summer meeting in China. Despite its tagline ‘committed to improving the state of the world’, she wrote, it “self-censors on issues that China may take as an affront.” Beijing uses its support for a globalism, for example the Paris climate agreement, as it segues into its practical and tactical agenda.

Yet another Nobelist, the Dalai Lama, meanwhile, once had to exit the Obama White House via the back, walking out amidst ranks of garbage bags. While the human rights industrial complex hums along nicely in the democratic world, it confronts a barrier in the Great Wall of China.

The world, led by the United States, has vacated the moral space in challenging China. And that has allowed Beijing to, literally, push the boundaries of its megalomania. India’s vaunted soft power projection may have its votaries, but the Chinese velvet glove has punched its way into the heavyweight category.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal