The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy

Nigel Inkster

Hurst, £25

Review by Iain Macwhirter

CHINA has “a heart of glass” according to Nigel Inkster. Despite commanding immense power, its government is prone to taking childish offence at real or imagined slights by foreigners. We saw an example recently when Chinese agents posted doctored images of an Australian soldier apparently murdering an Afghan child. The Australians had aroused Beijing’s wrath by calling for an independent UN investigation into the origins of Covid in Wuhan.

China has refused to countenance any investigation not conducted by its own agencies, which are of course, directly answerable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Inkster is satisfied that, while China did not invent coronavirus, it tried to cover it up. Chinese authorities delayed informing the World Health Organisation about the spread of Covid-19 in Wuhan and gave misleading assurances that it was not being transmitted between humans.

This kind of secrecy comes naturally to an authoritarian state in which officials fear losing their privileges – or worse. The death penalty is still widely used in China, which, according to Amnesty International, executes more people than the rest of the world combined.

When they finally admitted to the scale of the epidemic, the Chinese authorities instigated a military-style lockdown of Hubei province and its 60,000,000 inhabitants. It worked. A year on, China appears to have virtually eliminated the disease.

Indeed, as Western economies sink into post-Covid depression, China is once again powering ahead. Inkster fears that the pandemic could mark a major milestone towards what is called the “Chinese Dream” of global economic hegemony. This would be secured partly through the Belt and Road Initiative – a $8 trillion network of infrastructure and client states being established by China across the world, often through a kind of semi-colonial debt servitude among countries like Sri Lanka. It would also involve the Digital Silk Road: China's project to become a technological superpower and remake the internet in its image. The state-backed telecoms giant, Hauwei, is seeking to establish global Chinese dominance of the means of communication through providing the infrastructure of 5G telephony.

Inkster writes that China is also determined to become a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI), having spent billions on the means of technological surveillance and control. It is a world leader in facial recognition. Every significant public space in this vast country is being placed under 24-hour AI-enabled video scrutiny according to Inkster, who says Chinese citizens routinely receive text messages informing them that they have been fined for petty crimes such as jay-walking or dropping litter.

Under the Orwellian Social Credit system, 1.4 billion Chinese citizens are each being given digital score-cards indicating how good they have been. Being a good citizen in China means paying taxes, working hard and of course, not criticising the government. Speech is tightly regulated. All this is justified in terms of supposedly Confucian virtues of respect for authority, community solidarity and civil order.

China has made a mockery of claims that the internet would break down national borders and undermine authoritarian governments. Its bureaucrats realised early on that the reverse is true: the internet allows for greater social control than analogue dictators like Stalin could ever have dreamed of. In 1995, Bill Clinton famously said trying to control the internet would be "like nailing jello to the wall". “A decade later,” says Inkster, “Chinese walls were covered in jello.”

First of all, they set up the Golden Shield project, known in the West as the Great Firewall of China, to block externally-generated content. China now has the world's largest online user community and digital economy through Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, the CCP-controlled versions of Google, Amazon and Facebook. The internet has become a means of monitoring and suppressing all forms of intellectual dissent.

Yet if modern China sounds like hell on earth, Inkster says there is widespread public acceptance of this degree of social control. People feel secure. There is less crime, pornography and hate speech. Freedom of thought, democracy and individualism are seen as alien vices that can lead to chaos and unhappiness. Mind you, in such a tightly-controlled country, can anyone claim to know what people really think? Are ordinary Chinese people genuinely happy or just acting the part for the cameras?

The absence of overt dissent may be largely a product of thought control. There is certainly no shortage of dissent right now in Hong Kong, Tibet or amongst the one million persecuted Uighurs in Xinjian province being held in re-education camps. There is the bitter memory of Tiananmen Square in 1989 when hundreds, perhaps thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by Chinese troops.

President Xi believes the surest way to avoid dissent in future is to deliver economic growth and a consumer society. The Chinese economic miracle is genuine enough. From an essentially peasant society 40 years ago, it’s become the world’s second-largest economy, and likely to soon surpass the USA. That this capitalist economic miracle has happened under communist government may appear to be one of the great paradoxes of modern history. However, since the days of Mao Zedong, the interests of the CCP have always come first and socialism second. If political stability requires a dose of Western capitalism, so be it.

Decades of double-digit growth were based on cheap labour and regimented working practices – plus, according to Inkster, a rigged exchange rate, unfair trading practices, theft of intellectual property on “an industrial scale”, and ruthless exploitation of the environment. China's growth was based on coal and it still mines half of all the coal in the world despite promises to reach net-zero by 2060. Inkster says 20% of China's arable land is polluted by heavy metals.

But these issues don’t figure in public debate. The “glass heart” social media campaigns, combined with the so-called “wolf warrior” approach to diplomacy, has precluded critical scrutiny of rapacious Chinese capitalism even in the West. President Xi is now turning to modernising the Chinese army, already the largest in the world. China is challenging America’s military presence in the South Pacific and remains determined to annex Taiwan. This Great Decoupling, as Inkster calls it, is unlikely to end well.

An adviser to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, Inkster used to work for MI6. Perhaps this has coloured his view of China. The book reads more like a charge sheet than a dispassionate assessment of China's new world standing. But the central message – that this profoundly regimented and authoritarian country is about to achieve global economic and military hegemony – is sound, well-documented and a disturbing challenge to the West as it emerges, battered, from the Covid nightmare.