A Beijing cabby’s view of the world

By Philip Stephens

Pinn illustration

To the passenger on the Clapham omnibus we must add the driver in the Beijing taxicab. The views of the voter trundling across London on the upper deck of one of the city’s red buses has long been a metaphor for the attention British governments should pay to public opinion. Now the Chinese are complaining that they have politics too.

I was introduced to the cab driver by a scholar from Central Party School of China’s Communist party. This is the elite academy where future leaders are trained. Xi Jinping, the school’s present head, is the likely successor to Hu Jintao when the Chinese president steps down next year. In short, these are people worth listening to.The context was the fevered talk about whether China might rescue the eurozone by dipping into its $3,000bn of foreign currency reserves. Mr Hu has rather damped such expectations during this week’s meeting of G20 leaders in Cannes. After the latest pantomime in Athens, some may wonder how long there will be a eurozone to save.

A Chinese bail-out, though, was always an odd suggestion. European governments have all the money they need to sustain the single currency – if that is what they really want to do. The problem has not been one of lack of resources but of the unwillingness of Germany, and of the European Central Bank, to make them available to what Berlin calls the “sinners”.

If monetary union does implode, Greece will probably get the blame. But a more accurate epitaph would be something along the lines that Europe’s most ambitious project met its end for the avoidance of moral hazard. No one, after all, could say that sinners have been encouraged to future bad behaviour if the eurozone no longer has any future.

It is curious also that Europeans should be so eager to prostrate themselves. It is not so long ago that Paris and Berlin wanted to talk to Beijing about China’s human rights. Now they hold out the begging bowl. Is it really fitting for the president of the French Republic to boast that he is supplicant-in-chief? Perhaps Mr Hu understood the symbolism when he kept Nicolas Sarkozy kicking his heels at the Cannes summit.

Back, though, to my acquaintance from the Party School. We met in Venice, where he and a group of colleagues joined Europeans and Americans as guests of Aspen Italia and the US Aspen Strategy Group. This unique gathering convenes once a year. It does not put the world to rights, but it does have a stab at illuminating points of conflict and convergence between China and the west. Perhaps after a while it will start to come up with answers to some of the problems.

I could not quite fathom whether the participants from Beijing were embarrassed by or contemptuous of the European demarche. Probably a bit of both. All were scrupulously polite. All made the mandatory point about China’s shared interest in a resolution of Europe’s problems. The European Union, after all, is China’s biggest market and, importantly, an alternative to the US.

The consensus seemed to be that Beijing might eventually contribute the odd €10bn to the special purpose vehicle that, Greece permitting, is supposed to save the euro. Incidentally, I had thought the complex financial engineering now being embraced by governments was one of the causes of the problem, but that is another story.

There would of course be a price for Chinese help. What Europeans had to understand, I was told, was that a handout to rich foreigners was not going to be popular in a nation where per capita incomes are a small fraction of those in the west. If the man in the Beijing cab was to be persuaded, Europe would have to offer something in return. What about market economy status for Chinese exporters? And wasn’t it time the EU looked again at its post-Tiananmen arms embargo?

Most westerners, I suspect, will share my suspicion about such supposed sensitivity to public opinion. A party machine so ruthless in the exercise of its authority is unlikely be perturbed by some grumbling from the front seat on the cab ride to the Great Hall of the People. If Mr Hu were to stuff a few renminbi into Mr Sarkozy’s pocket, you can bet that it would quickly be framed in Beijing as international recognition of China’s success.

On the other hand, the more I listen to Chinese officials of all shapes and sizes, the more I think the invocation of the taxi driver also reflects a genuine tension. As China rises, its worldview will increasingly be shaped by the balance it strikes between the natural eagerness to be recognised as a great power – in its own neighbourhood the great power – and almost compulsive concern about domestic stability.

Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that China should hide its strength has passed its sell-by date. It gets quite hard when you are challenging the US for the position of the world’s most powerful economy. But the second half of Mr Deng’s advice – never claim leadership – is still very much the received wisdom.

You catch this in exchanges between Chinese and Americans. Beijing is far more assertive than it once was in claiming suzerainty over its near abroad. Officials can be scathing about US adventurism. But they are as reluctant as ever to shoulder any responsibility for global security. If US foreign policy is about fixing things, China’s approach is best described as sitting tight.

Chinese leaders really are worried about internal stability. The danger arises when foreign policy and domestic politics converge. Staged confrontations with the US, Japan or, for that matter, Vietnam, are assured of a cheer or three from the front of the Beijing taxi. They don’t make for a safer world.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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