12/09/2011 12:13 EST | Updated 02/08/2012 05:12 EST

China: It's Not All Cheap Toys and Cute Pandas

As the West's elite plunges deeper and deeper into Sinophilia, with all other manner of lavish junkets to the wealthy Communist nation, criticizing the Chinese dictatorship (or even using inflammatory language like "Chinese dictatorship") has become the new signifier of simple-minded provincialism.


During the Western world's half-century standoff with the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, it was never hard to find a few drippy-hearted folks who believed we could just hug the whole thing out.

In his final days in office, our own Pierre Trudeau embarked upon a cloyingly maudlin "peace mission" through eastern Europe, doing his best to charm the region's Communist tyrants through a string of mushy speeches. "You guys have your problems, but we Western democracies ain't so perfect either," was the basic gist.  Such righteous pragmatism was a deliberate effort to contrast the prime minister's supposedly "big picture" understanding of foreign affairs against the uncompromising Reagan administration south of the border, with his "evil empire" this and "tear down this wall" that.

And some bought it. "If all politicians were like Mr. Trudeau," John Lennon famously quipped, "there would be world peace."

Well, today all politicians are indeed very much like Pierre Trudeau, at least in the sense that they're likely to regard the growing spectre of a nuclear-armed superpower to the east as an opportunity for friendship, rather than worry. The rise of China, and Western leaders' often naive and overly forgiving reaction to it, can be seen as a sort of Cold War mulligan; a chance to relive an era of east-west strategic tension, only now the West gets to play the role of permissive enabler of totalitarian Communist dictatorship, rather than hard-nosed critic.

Chinese apologism has so thoroughly permeated Western society that it's easy to lose sight of just how completely we've surrendered the robust principles that used to straighten spines during the previous Cold War. Anyone who cares knows, for instance, that the Chinese are engaged in exactly the same sort of covert and overt support for odious third-world regimes that we used to condemn the Soviets for, yet few of our politicians today seem particularly bothered by it. We know that Beijing was offering guns to Gaddafi until his final months, that the People's Republic has been the most enthusiastic financier of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and General Bashir's Sudan, and that any punitive measures against the nuclear ambitions of North Korea or Iran will be vetoed by China in the UN Security council, yet somehow, the idea that China is any sort of existential threat to global stability or human rights rarely enters the public discourse.

If anything, the exact opposite is the case. When Prime Minister Harper offered even the most mild critique of Chinese human rights during a 2006 APEC summit, he was soundly blasted by the opposition and told to "lower the volume." Acclaimed intellectuals like The New York Times' Thomas Friedman author column after column about how much we have to learn from our Chinese betters, even going so far as to fantasize about the multitude of ways America could be improved by adopting their system for just one day. Even Republican presidential wannabe Jon Huntsman, himself a former ambassador to the nation, never misses an opportunity to shush his fellow conservatives when their China talk gets a bit too peppery.

As the West's political, academic, and business elite plunges deeper and deeper into Sinophilia, with endless trade tours, fact-finding missions, and all other manner of lavish junkets to the wealthy Communist nation, criticizing the Chinese dictatorship (or even using inflammatory language like "Chinese dictatorship") has become the new signifier of simple-minded provincialism. To those who view China as nothing but a vast bounty of products to import, loans to sign, and students to gouge, any unpleasant talk about the realities of the state itself -- its sky-high execution rates, its brutal suppression of religious and ethnic minorities, its vast and Orwellian surveillance state, its imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize laureates -- are at best impolite distractions only a thoughtless saboteur would raise. It's all a dramatic contrast to the sort of mindset that governed the Western world's leaders during the 1950s and '60s, when the excesses and terror of the Soviet Union inspired nations to labor hard to prove the successes of their alternate model of economics and politics, rather than simply capitulate to the tyrannical superpower in its first moment of ascendancy.

During Trudeau's time, it was sometimes hard to tell how many Western Cold War critics like him genuinely believed that "both sides were to blame," and how many just used that line as a convenient pretext to disguise their own pro-Soviet leanings. With China, there's significantly less ambiguity. The new, more wealthy and powerful disillusioned class no longer merely imply that the West should abandon its commitment to democracy and international stability in favor of Chinese hegemony, they practically shout it from the rooftops.

It's pretty easy to win a war of values when only one side is interested in fighting.