Mia Da Gama reports on the popular St Andrews debate on the rise of China

The Great Wall of ChinaWe cannot fear what we do not know, or perhaps what we do not know is precisely what we fear most. The privacy, arguably secrecy, surrounding the political agenda of China, is one of few relative assurances. Debating this month were people who have engaged directly with what goes on behind the closed doors of Chinese governmental administration. Could it be for insight that up to two hundred people turned up to this debate?

Half an hour before the debate and people were already pinned to their seats, despite the tempting port reception, just behind lower parliament hall. People were eager. The hall was packed.  The deep knock at door broke the lingering suspense at eight o’clock precisely. There was nothing abstract about this debate – it is actual – the Union Debating Society identified it as “what could be one of the defining debates of the twenty-first century.”

Rod Wye, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, former First Secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing and former Head of the Asia Research Group at the Foreign Office, spoke first, from the perspective that China has already risen, and that it is “too late” for anything other than dealing with the consequences. He attempted to justify China as a universal risk, while acknowledging that China has never pioneered substantial changes to international policy, other than advocating territorial sovereignty, at the expense of international intervention. He developed his argument by giving evidence of growing nationalism and assertiveness, with regard to Chinese relations with Japan, among other neighbouring countries, and Norway, following the appointment of a Chinese dissident to the Nobel Peace Prize. He related Chinese economic strength to military advancement, complete disregard for the environment, and an attitude of entitlement and exemption, all the while describing a growing bitter self-image of China as a previous global prey.

Next to speak was St Andrews’ own Dr. Chris Ogen, a member of the International Relations department and specialist in Asian Security. He maintained that China’s priorities are of an insular nature, in light of the population’s vast social inequality, and the discrepancy between exponential corporate economic developments, in contrast with individually poor living standards, seeing China as still far behind the West, and facing various disadvantages, such as the price of oil and the aging population. He highlighted non-intervention, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and non-aggression as positive aspects of Chinese security precepts, and finally Western paranoia in relation to the unknown.

The responses came from Ogen’s own students, Will Lord, and Anass Mourjane (an exchange student from Sciences Po in Paris) who defended their position largely from an angle of human rights. Accordingly, Lord cited the poor record of the Communist Party of China in such a field, both domestically, but also in terms of the policies they indirectly endorse via non-intervention, as we can see from their veto of resolutions against Syria, despite the atrocities occurring there at the moment. He discussed the influence of such policies as a model for developing countries that already struggle with political oppression and lack of accountability. Mourjane addressed China’s neglect of certain trade laws and bribery of developing countries for their resources, drawing a link to imperialism and colonialism, conflicting directly with Ogen’s previous contribution. Finally, Lord offered hope, in reminding us that communism was ultimately a western ideal, and democracy could be adopted in a similar fashion.

Graeme Pearson MSP, a member of the Scottish Justice Committee and Convener of the Cross-Party Select Committee on China, orientated his rebuttal around values of tolerance and mutual understanding, alongside China’s vision for improving education, healthcare and pollution levels, among others. Dr Isabella Jackson, Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese Politics & Society at the University of Oxford and the University of Aberdeen, then put the evidence provided by the proposition, regarding military spending, nuclear weapons, and human rights, into context, by drawing comparisons with statistics for other nations, reassuringly portraying China’s relative insignificance by integrating it into a wider picture. She concluded by contrasting Western seemingly xenophobic views with the cultural receptiveness of China towards us.

The outcome was 57 votes for the motion – This House Fears the Rise of China – and 112 votes against it, with 16 abstaining, however not before some pertinent intervention from the floor. It was pointed out that a fearful approach would not further the humanitarian cause of the Chinese people, and yet for the same altruistic reasons, others voted in favour of the motion. For some, voting for the motion reflected confidence in western capitalism and democracy; for another, voting for the motion would have represented a fear defined by insecurity and lack of confidence. It became clear that a personal characterisation of the word ‘fear’ was at the heart of people’s reactions. Fear of a nation? Fear of a government? The ultimate microcosm of this was as a Chinese student speaking passionately about her fear of the rise of her own country, and the detrimental effects this could have on citizens, who are compromised and brainwashed, to maintain their government in power. Only one thing is certain; fear needs conquering, in one way or another. After all, in Gandhi’s own words “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”


Mia Da Gama

Image by The Wandering Angel