DOMINIC LAWSON: Our paper tiger leaders can threaten China all they like. But they’ll be back dealing with them when this is over
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Mao Zedong, invented a term for ‘reactionaries’ in the West who made threats against his regime. He called them ‘paper tigers’ — the ancient Chinese word is zhilaohu.
What Mao (whose vast portrait still looms over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square) meant was that we, to use an equally colourful English expression, were all mouth and no trousers.
This recollection came to me when I read in the latest edition of The Spectator that British Government ministers had been so appalled by China’s behaviour over the coronavirus that one told the magazine: ‘We’re going to be doing a lot less trade with China over this.’
The author of the piece, James Forsyth, is a conscientious reporter with outstanding contacts in Downing Street circles, so I don’t doubt the accuracy of his story.
The founder of the People’s Republic of Chin , Mao Zedong referred to ‘reactionary’ leaders in the West who made threats to his regime as ‘paper tigers’. A picture of Mao behind an officer wearing a face mask in the centre of Wuhan is shown above
Neither do I doubt his revelation that ‘there has been shock at the use of China’s diplomatic network to spread misinformation about the origins of the pandemic. One close ally of the Prime Minister, who had always defended Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Huawei to build part of the UK’s 5G network, now concedes that there will be a rapid timetable to replace it with a supplier from a more trustworthy state.’
But if there really was ‘shock’ in Government circles — at the way China initially covered up the truth about the coronavirus, which originated in an animal market in Wuhan, and then launched a propaganda campaign to make the ruling Communist party the global hero of the pandemic — it suggests a naivety in our own leaders which is itself shocking.
US Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, has criticised Beijing’s conduct during its coronavirus outbreak. Donald Trump has referred to the disease as ‘the Wuhan virus’
As the London-based Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian observed a month ago, Beijing’s overriding and obsessive objective is to demonstrate the superiority of its own political system over that of the Western liberal democracies. And, he added: ‘In times of crisis, the Communist party always places its own survival above the welfare of the people.’
This is why the doctor who identified the presence of a new Sars-like virus in the city of Wuhan, Li Wenliang, was originally denounced by the authorities and made to recant what he knew to be true.
When it could no longer be suppressed, Li was himself dying from the virus he had been desperately treating.
And the truth is that we still can’t trust the figures put out by the Chinese government about the extent of the deaths from Covid-19 among its own citizens.
Of course, China also fears the wrath of its own people. In the past few days, there have been riots in Hubei province over the lockdown, with films on social media of police cars being overturned taken down by the authorities almost as soon as they were put up.
And it is doubtless as much for internal consumption as to convince the rest of the world that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted claims that the virus had actually been unleashed on Wuhan by the U.S. military — and urged his followers to spread this conspiracy theory more widely.
Dr Li Wenliang (pictured) identified the presence of a new Sars-like virus in the city of Wuhan, He was denounced by the authorities and made to recant what he knew to be true
A memorial to Dr Wenliang in Westwood, California, is pictured above last month
That is the stick. But there is also the carrot. China has been proclaiming its own generosity in helping the rest of the world deal with what President Trump, with undeniable accuracy if not tact, now calls ‘the Wuhan virus’.
Beijing has made much of the supplies of masks and testing equipment which its manufacturers have been delivering at pace and at a reasonable price to countries such as Spain and the Netherlands.
What Beijing does not say is that, when the virus took hold of Wuhan, Chinese companies were ordered to buy up vast quantities of thermometers, surgical masks, hand sanitisers and antibacterial wipes from countries such as Turkey, Canada and Australia.
It may be that China has got the better of this exchange.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais has revealed that the virus-testing equipment arriving from China had been shown in Spanish laboratories to have an accuracy rate of 30 per cent rather than the 80 per cent advertised. The paper quoted a Spanish doctor as saying that such a failure rate meant the tests were useless.
Similarly, a newspaper in the Netherlands has revealed that a batch of 600,000 face masks, just delivered to its health service from China, was unusable: ‘They have membranes that do not function properly, so do not block particles of the virus.’ This, it will readily be appreciated, is not only useless but actively dangerous: a doctor or nurse would think that they were being protected when the pathway to their lungs was actually being exposed to the virus.
You might think that this has no relevance to the British Government’s recent, highly contentious decision to award the contract to deliver the next generation of smartphone technology, 5G, to the Chinese company Huawei.
But it has. Leaving aside the argument put forward most forcibly by the U.S. government, that it is folly to allow a company intimately connected with a Communist dictatorship into the heart of our data-based national infrastructure, is Huawei actually capable of delivering equipment of the necessary reliability?
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has sought to blame the US for the virus
Yes, it is much cheaper than that of rival Western firms such as Eriksson or Nokia — but kit is usually cheap for a reason. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which the British Government uses to audit Huawei’s infrastructural activity in the UK, has never backed claims that the Chinese firm will use its 5G involvement to ‘spy’ on us. But in 2018 its annual report stated: ‘Our experience has shown that Huawei’s cyber security and engineering quality is low and its processes opaque.’ Who would have thought it?
And last year, the NCSC declared that Huawei’s kit was ‘a serious security risk’ because the company had not done enough to improve its ‘code-base’. In plain English: its system was insufficiently secure against viruses. No, not the sort of bug which has infected the globe with a potentially lethal disease, but, still, it’s amazing that the Government thinks this is a reliable bet for Britain.
While not being so insensitive as to raise this point again during a national emergency, the U.S. Ambassador in London, Woody Johnson, recently launched a broadside in The Times against Beijing’s conduct over the pandemic: ‘First it tried to suppress the news. Then it worked to protect its own population while selectively sharing critical information, such as genetic sequencing data, and continuing to stonewall international health authorities.
‘Had China done the right things at the right time, more of its own population, and the rest of the world, might have been spared the most serious impact of this disease . . . Instead, China accused other countries of spreading the virus, and when called out for this blatant and dangerous propaganda, its officials complained indignantly about the ‘politicisation’ of the virus’s origin.’
The Ambassador’s not-so-hidden message to British readers is: are these the people with whom your Government should be doing strategically vital business? Bear in mind that two months ago our Government oversaw the sale of what was once British Steel to the Chinese firm Jingye. And China is also intimately bound up in the construction of the next stage of our nuclear power supply. Then there is 5G…
I doubt any of this will be unravelled, although the pressure on Boris Johnson from Conservative MPs adamantly opposed to the Huawei deal will mount — and it is probably to mollify them that Downing Street has been talking about ‘doing less trade with China in future’.
It’s certainly too late as far as the steel and nuclear deals are concerned. And Mr Johnson remains firmly committed to the speedy rolling-out of superfast broadband — which only Huawei can deliver at the pace the Prime Minister wants.
In other words, the Government’s apparently outraged comments to well-placed journalists — that everything about our trading relationship with China is now to be reconsidered — are little more than the snarling of paper tigers.
Besides, as a friend who has dealt with China for decades put it to me yesterday: ‘If this is what the Government really intends to do, it’s pretty stupid to allow such threats to leak out before it is actually ready to take action.’
The point is: it’s not ready to do so.
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