Magazine article The Spectator

Authoritarian? China's Not a Patch on Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

Authoritarian? China's Not a Patch on Britain

Article excerpt

The 60th birthday celebrations of the People's Republic of China seemed to confirm that, for all its embrace of Western-style capi-talism, China remains a faraway place where they do things differently. Can you imagine young female soldiers in pow-der-blue mini-skirts and go-go boots goose-stepping through the streets of London? Or 8,000 soldiers marching in mili-tary precision followed by 500 tanks and 18 vehicles showcas-ing brand-new giant nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles? Poor Brown can barely raise a smile among delegates at his annual party conference. Yet as China's 60th birthday celebra-tions began, there was President Hu Jintao speaking authorita-tively to 200,000 of his fawning citizens in Tiananmen Square.

The message to the world seemed to be not so much 'Wish us happy birthday', as 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. For many Western observers, such garish, North Korea-style displays of military might confirm that, while China may have become a land of big cities, bank-ing, Coca-Cola and consumerism, it remains, at heart, an old-style Evil Regime. We saw China's 'true colours', said one British com-mentator.

Really? Having recently returned from Beijing, I say don't be fooled by the red-tinged razzmatazz. Behind the 1970s dis-plays of big guns and bombs, behind the girlish, go-go militarism, modern China is actually not that different from Western nations - and from Britain in particu-lar. Indeed, as she turns 60, the People's Republic of China seems to be morphing into modern Britain, developing a spook-ily similar nanny-state outlook that seeks myopically to monitor and control people's 'bad habits'. Today, Chinese authoritarian-ism springs not from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, but from Chairman Brown and Chairman Blair's 'Little Miserabilist Book of Behaviour Modification', giving rise to a new nation that actually feels a lot like New Labour's New Britain. But with one important difference: where a majority of us Brits have tended to roll over and allow New Labour to police our personal antics, people in China have been far more scepti-cal and rebellious, even forcing the mighty Communist Party of China to backtrack on some of its nanny-state ambitions. We might learn from them.

I felt 'at home' in Beijing as soon as I got into a taxi, where the driver was complain-ing vociferously (through my translator) about two things: the city's new smoking ban and its proposal to introduce a conges-tion charge. The ban on smoking in public places is 'unworkable', he said. 'It's a mark of friendship to give someone a cigarette.'

And any suggestion that car-drivers should be taxed for the privilege of driving their cars was 'unreasonable', he boomed. A cab driver complaining about smoking bans and congestion taxes? If it wasn't for the fact that I was being driven in the shadow of gleaming new skyscrapers and that none of us was wearing a seat-belt (well, if the driv-er hasn't buckled up, why should I? ), then I could just as easily have been in a black cab in Piccadilly Circus. If ranting cabbies really are a barometer of popular public attitudes, then people in China seem far more con-cerned about being nannied than they are about the menacing machine-guns.

For all their nuclear-capable interconti-nental ballistic missiles, the powers-that-be in Beijing have had a far harder time imple-menting a smoking ban than New Labour had. Inspired, in the words of Beijing's chief of anti-smoking Zhang Peili, by 'Western nations', Beijing announced early last year that it would outlaw smoking in public plac-es on 1 May 2008. In order to clean up the city's image in time for the Olympic Games in August 2008, smoking would be forbid-den in government offices, sports venues, hospitals, schools, museums, bars and res-taurants. …

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