Lessons from the bell thief over China’s dirty secrets

There’s an ancient Chinese tale about a thief who stole a bell so heavy he had to carry it away on his back. Every time he took a step, the bell rang out, and the thief feared the sound would betray him. He ripped his shirt and stuffed the cloth into his ears. “Nobody will hear it now,” he said to himself.

Stupid or what?

It’s easy to scoff. But we’ve all done it. Denial is one of the curses of modern life, and nowhere is that more evident than in our uneasy relationship with modern day China and its leader Xi Jinping.

China has changed out of recognition since Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to the People’s Republic in 1972. It has embraced capitalism in all but name. Its founding father, Mao, must be turning in his glass coffin a hundred times a day.

Chinese money oils markets around the world. Many countries, particularly in the developing world, rely on its cash, its expertise and its technology. But it’s not just the developing world.

China has invested billions in Ireland and Britain. Our lifestyles depend on cheap Chinese goods – our iPhones, tablets, televisions and gaming consoles all come from China. You’ll see nothing about it in the Little Red Book, but materialism not Maoism is China’s biggest export.

The conventional wisdom is that China’s growing role on the world stage is a good thing. Nixon made the right call back in the seventies, and the world is safer as a result. Okay, there’s been the odd blip – Tiananmen Square in 1989, for example. But in the grand scheme of things it’s better to engage China than not.

But beneath the surface lies a very uncomfortable truth – and it is particularly uncomfortable for those of us who think of ourselves as left-leaning liberals. China under President Xi is a renegade state which does not see itself accountable to the world for what it does within its borders.

The charge sheet is long: oppression in Hong Kong, disappearance of dissidents, farming human organs on death row, eradication of evidence about the spread of Covid-19, the suppression of religious belief – among many others. In any list of injustices, it is invidious to single one out.

But if anything should trouble our consciences, it is the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Northwest China. Concern about human rights abuses has been in the ether for quite some time: the suppression of religion, the ‘re-education’ camps, the destruction of Uyghur communities, the sterilisation of Uyghur women. But there is increasing evidence that the Uyghurs are victims of state-sponsored enslavement and genocide.

China claims it is dealing with a terrorist threat. That is a mere cover for a deliberate policy to wipe out the Uyghurs. Although there is increasing uneasiness about China’s course, too many of us are stuffing our ears like the bell thief rather than facing up to this genocide.

Among those under attack is Pope Francis, challenged last week in The Tablet by Chris Patten over his silence about China’s behaviour in Hong Kong. The Vatican, which signed a deal with China two years ago over ecclesiastical appointments, is cosying up to the People’s Republic like many other states.

The Pope is not the only world leader trying to figure out whether to use carrot or stick diplomacy. But if history has taught us anything, it is that carrots do not work with dictators.

I am suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives in calling out China now over espionage, Covid-19, and its threat to the west – it is a convenient diversion from his own culpability in the decline and fall of the United States.

But whatever his motives, the fact remains that he is right to warn about the threat China poses. And, one way or another, Xi Jinping must be called to account. The bell is ringing. Genocide is a crime against humanity.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 30 2020