SIX months, almost to the day, since China recorded its first death from Covid-19, the country now presents us with a case of bubonic plague. Its earlier contributions, such as paper and the compass, which it came up with 23 centuries ago, moveable type and even gunpowder (which followed about a thousand years ago) had greater crowd-pleasing potential.

Despite our tendency to come up with labels such as Spanish flu, however, it’s hardly fair to attribute responsibility for diseases to the places where they happen to pop up in. In any case, the really unhealthy thing about China, and the one that should alarm the West, is in the body politic.

The recent actions of its government, which include the new national security law in Hong Kong, its illegal incursion and military engagement in the Galwan river valley in India, and its systematic rounding up of Uighur Muslims, more than a million of whom have been put in concentration camps in what the UN says amounts to genocide, ought to be a reminder that the despotic Communist regime remains wedded to the principle outlined by Mao Tse-Tung, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

In the case of Hong Kong, you could hardly get a more obvious example of the regime’s authoritarian instincts – as well as a blithe disregard for the legal undertakings it gave before the handover, which promised that there would be no change in the law for at least 50 years, and that the territory’s special status would be maintained. Instead, the new law essentially makes it a criminal offence to argue for democracy, and makes a free press impossible. Already, there has been the removal from libraries of books on liberty.

It is greatly to the discredit of Western democracies that, for the past 30 years or so, there has been little attempt to draw attention to, let alone challenge, this repulsive dictatorship. We don’t seem even to be able to resist the imposition of a mobile phone network that may well be compromised by the Chinese security services, which have a stellar track record of spying on their own population and restricting their access to information.

It’s not just that, since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which thousands died, we’ve largely ignored the oppression of the Chinese people by their government; after all, despite a few token protests when their president tips up, we’ve ignored the plight of illegally occupied Tibet for almost seven decades, and Taiwan, which practically no Western nation (the Vatican is an honourable exception) officially recognises, and which we won’t even admit to the UN in case Beijing gets huffy.

It’s that we appear to have convinced ourselves that, because China has embraced aspects of capitalism and become much more affluent in recent decades, that we can just forget about the fact that it’s still a dictatorship as tyrannical as that other People’s Republic in North Korea, which is the country’s only official ally.

That may have something to do with the fact that prosperity and freedom seem to be related; with very few exceptions (Saudi Arabia is an obvious example) liberty, along with property rights and the rule of law, seems to be a requirement for a sustained and successful economy. Command economies, even when they have enormous natural advantages, as Venezuela and Zimbabwe did, tend to go bust after enslaving and immiserising their citizens.

And China, despite the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the world’s largest number of billionaires, is not quite the economic success it might appear; it may have embraced commerce – it is the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer – but not free trade. Its financial gains are slightly less stellar than its position as the world’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP and the speed of its growth (consistently above six per cent) might suggest, and it is certainly not evenly distributed. The middle class may now number around 400 million, but the country has 1.4 billion citizens, and an awful lot of debt.

In per capita output, China is still a middle-income nation, ranked somewhere between 67th and 82nd (of around 180), depending on how you measure it, behind such powerhouses as Gabon, Suriname and the Dominican Republic. By contrast, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore are all in the top 10 by almost every estimation.

In the past two decades, according to the Heritage Foundation, China has added about $13 trillion to its GDP, which sounds impressive. But in the same time, the United States added about $11 trillion to its, with a population less than one-fifth the size, and with much lower levels of growth.

None of this, naturally, alters the fact that, quite apart from being one of the world’s oldest and greatest cultures, China is the world’s most populous country, third or fourth biggest, one of its most significant military powers and probably the only place that really rivals the US. These are all reasons why no one, and particularly not the UK, is going to start kicking the Chinese around.

But it does provide some cause to question the orthodox opinion that it is about to overtake America as a superpower, that the two are in some form of new Cold War, or that it – as opposed to, say, India – is bound to dominate the next century. Its undoubted importance, even if you’re just talking about size, is certainly no reason why we should let it kick us around with impunity.

We’re obviously not going to attack it – and nor, I imagine is the US; Field-Marshal Montgomery’s second rule of war was not to take on land armies in China (number one was “don’t march on Moscow”). Nor are we going to ignore it as a producer or a market. But we shouldn’t be afraid to criticise the regime for its human rights record, to call it the dictatorship it is, or to abandon the people of Hong Kong. It would be nice if we did that out of moral conviction, but there are plenty of arguments for not kowtowing to Beijing for self-interested reasons, too.

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Read more: Letters: It is clear that China intends to govern Hong Kong through fear from this point on