If there’s one question you could ask each of our new MPs, what would it be?
Mine is this: who is the President of the People’s Republic of China? I suspect that a significant number of them couldn’t tell you.
I realise that British politics doesn’t really do foreign policy anymore, but the idea of not knowing the name of the Chinese leader should be as shameful as not knowing the name of his American, German, French or Russian counterparts.
Possible excuses range from the completely unacceptable (‘Chinese names are hard to remember’) to the downright complacent (‘China is an economic not a foreign policy concern’). Furthermore, the one semi-valid excuse – that the Chinese leadership is more collective than individual – is increasingly outdated.
The point is well-made in a piece for Standpoint by George Walden, who plots the parallels and divergences between Xi Jinping and the recently deceased leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew:
“Lee’s death is a good time to refocus on the suggestion by those of a panda-hugging persuasion, and occasionally by Lee himself, that the future of China could be Singapore writ 2,000 times larger. Just as (before Ukraine) the Poles were said to be showing us that even Russians might not be congenitally immune to democratic delights, so Singapore (75 per cent Chinese) has been seen as a stepping stone to a post-Communist future for the Middle Kingdom, complete with a multi-party system. Imagine a Lee Kuan Yew figure as Chinese leader.”
Lee was such a fan of Xi that he once likened him to Nelson Mandela. This seems an odd comparison given that he was born into China’s ruling elite. However, the inner circle was a dangerous place to be in Maoist China – and the Xi family found themselves on the wrong side of Mao’s purges:
“[Lee’s] point was that like the African leader Xi would rise above the persecution he and his father suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and learn the lessons.”
In November 2012, shortly before Xi’s ascent to the Presidency, the Deep End featured an unconfirmed report that he had been injured when a brawl broke out at a top-level political meeting. As I wrote at the time, “this… is an unappreciated aspect of Chinese politics: the children of the men who did battle in the deadly power struggles of the Cultural Revolution are the ones now in power.”
Walden argues that instead of moving towards the openness and accountability of a democratic system, Xi’s approach has been to accumulate personal power:
“Far from putting China’s catastrophic Maoist past behind him, politically Xi has begun jobbing back. Just as the strongman syndrome and voluntary serfdom seem in vogue again in Russia, so under Xi, with his Putinesque paranoia about ‘colour revolutions’, things are moving in a direction that would have gratified the Chairman. The abandonment of collective leadership at the top, an anti-corruption purification campaign which echoes Mao’s last fling and picks out potential opponents for punishment, or a reversion to the personality cult, complete with heart-shaped posters, are not what Lee had in mind.”
With the Russian government putting on a massive show of military might for its Victory Day celebrations, it’s worth noting that Moscow’s most prominent international guest was the Chinese President. Clearly, the notion of China as a bigger version of friendly, almost democratic Singapore is a comforting delusion.
On the other hand, Xi doesn’t need to follow Putin’s example – he already enjoys a position of strength that the Russian leader can only dream of.
Therefore, at the very least, let’s bother to learn his name.