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It is sometimes not possible to notice great tectonic shifts. At other times it is eminently possible, and anybody with their feet on the ground can feel that ground move. So it is at the moment with the rise of China and the fall of America. Consider the events of recent weeks.
The United States has been single-mindedly focused on one story: the arraignment of a former president on charges cooked up by an ambitious Left-wing district attorney who wants to make his name by getting Donald Trump to jail. In Manhattan and Palm Beach, the media has paid for helicopters to fly overhead and capture every move of the former president. The streets have been packed with press photographers taking photos of other press photographers, all waiting for something to happen.
All the time, America’s cities – from New York to San Francisco – are rotting from the centre out, with Leftist DAs allowing theft and even violent crime on a scale that has not existed in living memory. This is presided over by a president who everybody can see is half asleep on the job and a vice-president who is not as up to speed as all that.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has its own designs. In recent weeks, Chairman Xi popped up in the Middle East to broker a deal between the Saudis and the Iranians. The great divide in the Middle East between the Sunni bloc, dominated by Saudi Arabia, and the Shia bloc, led by Iran, suddenly appeared to reach a rapprochement.
I wouldn’t give it very much time, myself, though Saudi Arabia and Iran’s top envoys met again this week in Beijing to pose for another photo op. Still, the durability of the deal is not the real point here. The point is that it was Beijing assuming the role that Washington would once have played in power-brokering such a deal.
It was the same at the end of last month when Xi turned up in Moscow to present the Chinese plan for ending the war in Ukraine. It would allow Russia to keep the territorial gains it has made during its war of aggression. So it is not a good plan, and the Americans, among others, rejected it immediately. But the point is that it was once again the Chinese who were taking the initiative, parading around the world stage, talking and posing as the protectors of the international system.
So it was inevitable that other world leaders would eventually come to the court of the new emperor and treat him in the way that he now expects to be treated. This week, Emmanuel Macron travelled to Beijing to pay homage. There would have been a time when a French president who wanted credit for stopping a war like that in Ukraine would have gone to Washington DC for meaningful talks. Today, the French president turns up in China for meaningless ones.
Trailing a set of gifts that would have embarrassed a medieval potentate, Macron announced at their joint press conference that he knew he could rely on Xi to bring Moscow to the negotiating table. For his part, a profoundly bored-looking Xi simply said that “China is willing to jointly appeal with France to the international community to remain rational and calm”. They yesterday issued an ambiguously worded joint statement to that effect.
And that was essentially that. And this being China, naturally the “press conference” had no questions from any press. After all, you must respect the customs of the country you are in, and the custom under the communists in China is that the press writes what the government tells them to. In the CCP system, what need has the press of questions?
This is just to focus on the international diplomacy side of things. But the same applies in area after area. While we in Britain argue about things like whether or not a woman can have a penis or how “racist” we are this week, China’s top politicians and envoys are busily travelling the world making trade deals. Ever since Beijing was allowed into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 – a decision which already looks both world-historic and unwise – it has used its financial clout to simultaneously exploit the rules and break them.
Today, they are not even hiding their desire to ensure Chinese economic dominance in the 21st century. Nor are they any longer hiding their desire to leave the US dollar-dominated financial system behind them.
Just this week, China was once again in America’s own backyard. After a set of negotiations, a new agreement between China and Brazil was announced. And here is the salient factor: the deal completely bypasses the American dollar, which would once have been the standard for such negotiations. Brazil and China said that the arrangement would see yuan directly exchanged for reais, with no need to convert to US dollars.
Brazil’s Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (ApexBrasil) announced that this would both “reduce costs” and promote better bilateral trade and investment between the two countries. That was the spoken bit. The unspoken part was: and we don’t need America or its currency.
In many ways, that is not surprising. Because successive American governments – of all political stripes – have done a great deal in recent decades to diminish the standing of the US dollar. It doesn’t matter whether the president, House or Senate are Democrat or Republican, US government spending and debt just keep rocketing up and up. When Democrats are in charge, they ratchet up borrowing and lavish it on their pet projects. When Republicans are in charge, they seem to be forever surprised by events, and forever have the same response – increased government borrowing.
During the last presidency, that came about primarily as a result of the Covid pandemic when the government started splurging out cheques to get American households and businesses on their feet. There is a great debate over whether that was the right thing to do. There is no debate at all over the fact that much of this money simply disappeared.
But for China, it couldn’t have worked out better. China of course gave the world the virus – whether from a lab leak or a wet market – and caused the shutdown of the American, and global, economies.
In the wake of that, in countries like our own, the economy is only really now sputtering back to life. But the effects on the education of the next generation, the debt accumulated and much more mean we will live with the effects of the China virus for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, Beijing won’t even co-operate in finding out how it emerged in the first place. Not a bit of it. Nothing that might slow down or distract from their agenda.
And while we distract ourselves with ridiculous and ill-informed rows about the alleged iniquities of everything in our past, China is simply getting on with its future. While our institutions bend over backwards to be as “diverse” as possible, China’s institutions simply try to become as dominant as possible. From the rise of Chinese companies to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour towards Taiwan, Beijing is intent on its agenda while the West wobbles.
For instance, in the tech world it has been clear for years that the platform TikTok, a Chinese firm, is highly suspect. Indeed, it has long been accused of data harvesting. The platform has captivated children and teenagers in Britain and America, but it has not been allowed to trouble the youth of China.
While our children – and some adults – do the latest stupid dance for the platform, they don’t seem to have realised that they are not using a product. They are the product. Their information is the point. And what do we do about it? We have interminable discussions from Westminster to Washington about how to handle Chinese technology that may already have done its job in compromising us. And the Left worry that even raising the question might be “racist”.
The old line about Nero fiddling while Rome burns comes to mind. But what our leaders have been doing is worse than that. Our societies – and governments – have been doing silly little dances – sometimes on TikTok, sometimes, like Macron in Beijing – while the Chinese Communist Party moves the ground from under our dancing feet. If you take the long view, the things that our leaders have allowed, encouraged and been distracted by in the past 20 years make the Emperor Nero look like a model of responsibility.
Douglas Murray’s latest book, ‘The War on the West’, is out now in paperback