Johnson has pettily criticised ‘demented’ traditional Chinese medicine for causing coronavirus. Trivial rhetoric such as this undermines the serious issues which threaten the West’s relationship with China today. 

Earlier today in a virtual speech to the One Planet Summit, which was being hosted by President Macron, Boris Johnson weighed on Chinese culture, condemning people who “grind up the scales of a pangolin”. Not only do such trivial, flimsy accusations show patent disrespect to Chinese culture but they also erode British — and Western — international leverage which should instead be used to confront the real issues facing the rise of China. 

What made Johnson’s throw-away cultural slurs come across as even more shallow was the fact that they were followed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s raising of the treatment of Uighur Muslims within China. Raab insisted that China’s treatment of the Uighur people amounts to torture, and that the aim is to “ensure no company that profits from forced labour in Xinjiang can do business with the UK”. The two issues could not be further apart in their significance. China’s censorship and placement of the Uighur minority into so-called ‘rehabilitation camps’ pose a serious threat to human rights, echoing the not-too-distant past of Soviet Gulags and European concentration camps. Therefore, although Johnson’s comments may seem insignificant, they reflect a far wider failure to effectively manage Western-Chinese relations. Juvenile attacks on Chinese eating habits may seem far removed from human rights abuses, but in reality they are not; for concentrating on meaningless, populist culture wars downplays the far more existential issues in dealing with China. Indeed, recently more and more legitimate authorities have begun to label these actions as a genocide. The gravity of the situation cannot be exaggerated, nor can the need for nations who share our values to collectively condemn such behaviour. However, Johnson’s unstatesmanlike and jokey rhetoric smacks of shallowness, Western smugness, and most of all a serious misunderstanding of how to handle Chinese relations. Such superficial rhetoric must be replaced by bold collective action against the things that really matter. 

This brings me to a more general point. For years, many have been labelling Western-Chinese relations as the rise of a ‘New Cold War’ — the historian Niall Ferguson is one such person. Like the Soviet Union before it, China’s rise to superpower status in the 21st century has brought with it threats both on the international stage and within China itself. The most blatant parallel between the two cold wars has been the conflict of economic and soft power: China has aggressively used tech companies such as Huawei and Tiktok as means of exerting this soft power. Meanwhile the Belt and Road Initiative — which involves 129 countries, 29 international organisations and China essentially buying up debt in the middle-east and Africa to exert leverage — is a more direct form of hard power. The result has been the rapid formation of an economic and technological ‘Iron Curtain’ — not dissimilar to the bipolar split of East and West following the Second World War. For example, the creation of Comecon in 1949 — a Soviet economic bloc — acted as a buffer against Western capitalism. Comecon was in part a response to the West’s own decoupling of economic ties with the Soviets: the merging of the currencies of West Berlin, for example. This has been disconcertingly echoed by the Belt and Road Initiative. The toxic mixture of aggressive foreign policy abroad and human rights abuses at home is difficult to ignore. Importantly, though, one of the characteristics of the Cold War that began after 1945 was that neither side fully realised its ‘cold war’ status until deep into the 1950’s — unlike a hot war, a cold one is harder to sense. The same delayed realisation might well be the case today.

However, if we are to call it a ‘New Cold War’, then at least we should learn some lessons from the first one. The West’s fatal mistake in the first decades following the Second World War was not the recognition that the Soviet Union posed a threat, nor was it the decision to do something about it. Instead, the mistake was to ramp up the binary, divisive rhetoric without taking any practical steps to deal with the situation diplomatically. The most extreme example of this separation between populist rhetoric and taking meaningful action is shown in the McCarthy era of the 1950s. This was a period when America, paranoid and hysterical about the threat posed by communism, conducted a witch-hunt against communists within their own country. But this was not limited only to communists; the witch-hunt ultimately extended to anyone who was perceived as undermining traditional American values. An organisation was set up, HUAC — or in other words, ‘House of un-American Activities’. The very name speaks for itself: what should have been confident opposition against the Soviet Union over their human rights abuses and aggressive foreign policies simply turned into another flimsy culture war. Rhetoric replaced pragmatism, and a serious moral and political issue became a mere bandwagon for politicians to speak loudly and win votes.

Johnson’s remarks today epitomise this fatal path that Britain and the West must avoid taking in relation to China — on an existential level. On a smaller note, though, they are simply another example of his careless style of premiership which erodes the reputation of politics in this country.