Europe's teetering economy could be toppled in the rush by a liberalised new generation to embrace the standards of the West
The coverage of last week's events in China had two points of focus. On the one hand we were shown groups of serious old gentlemen in box suits, gathered in some vast congressional amphitheatre and waiting to cast their votes for Mr Xi Jinping as a successor to the regime's current organ-grinder, Hu Jintao. "The Congress has elected a new Central Committee of the Party," President Hu revealed, in a brief address, "and replaced older leaders with younger men." To which one wanted to reply that youth in China is clearly a highly elastic concept.
All this came interspersed with footage of the vibrant and increasingly westernised life that is apparently going on in China beyond the senior citizens' clubs of political debate. Here some genuinely youthful people, most of them indisputably under 40, crowded over the electronic gizmos that had been put into their hands, executed dance moves, warbled rap music and looked as if they were having a high old, if state-sanctioned, time. No doubt we were supposed to sneer at the men in suits, dutifully "electing" the names stuck on the official slate, and silently applaud all the ambitious young people just itching to join the consumer free-for- all in the West.
Amid all the rousing, if not positively crusading, western talk of bringing "freedom" and "human rights" to the world's autocracies, as well as selling them military hardware, it is worth pointing out some of the consequences of a properly liberalised China for the faltering Western economy. Even under Communism, China is an economic behemoth. How much more powerful would it become without its ideological fetters, and how much more disadvantaged would be the West?
Any European politician who really wanted to preserve the electors' living standards and retard the ever more rapid shift in the planet's centre of fiscal gravity ought to be doing his or her damndest to keep China in as politically repressed a condition as possible. In the long run, "freedom" for Mr Hu's oppressed masses means trouble for Western democracies, and it would be a good idea to acknowledge this from the start.
Radio Three's excellent Free Thinking Festival found the playwright Lee Hall in conversation with the BBC's Philip Dodd. The event, broadcast from the Sage, Gateshead, allowed the creator of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters to reflect on his upbringing in Newcastle in the 1970s. This was an environment of extraordinary cultural richness, he maintained, where a teenager with an eye for literature and the arts was effectively offered a second education, courtesy of youth theatre …