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Obama, Cameron and China’s spectre

Meanwhile, as the Obamas do their beguiling jig in India, Prime Minister David Cameron is off to China. And why not: Asia is in, and everyone has to have been there and done that. Why else were they voted in, right?

world Updated: Nov 09, 2010 01:31 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Meanwhile, as the Obamas do their beguiling jig in India, Prime Minister David Cameron is off to China. And why not: Asia is in, and everyone has to have been there and done that. Why else were they voted in, right?

That’s a serious question: if economic determinism is back in, then we ought to know by now that the processes of politics and democracy are becoming just as globalised as those of trade and commerce. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a US President and a British PM have headed for India or China on trade missions so soon after an election.

However, there are fundamental differences in how the voting public reacts to their leaders’ choice of the Asian destination. Here, for instance, Cameron’s visit to China has been clouded by speculation over whether Britain, the West and the free world (in that order, please) should be very afraid of the fire-breathing dragon’s rise.

China, after all, is the country whose currency strategy is fuelling serious talk of a trade war with the US; a country that has cynically incarcerated Nobel peace laureate Li Xiaobo and whose Red Army just keeps growing in might and authority.

It could be the wrong question founded on the wrong premise: if anyone ought to be scared about China’s rise it should be the Chinese themselves. Here’s why: Just as its rise on the world stage is inexorable, so China is shackled to the world.

When Jyoti Basu came visiting London after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, he brought along an astonishingly glib explanation that his Chinese comrades had told him — “When you open the window to let the air in, mosquitoes and other insects will come in.” Well, here’s news for China’s comrades: it’s not just mosquitoes any longer, there’s pretty much an elephant sitting in the room. It’s called globalisation, and its trunk swings both ways.

As Cameron flew out, China’s best known artist, Ai Weiwei wrote in the Guardian on Monday: “Cameron should ask the Chinese government not to make people ‘disappear’ or to jail them merely because they have different opinions … Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn’t change its own behaviour.”