Castigating Its Competitors: Western Hypocrisy and China

The West’s political and media assault on China increases week by week. Human rights has become the primary means of criticism and justification for sanctioning China over its actions in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uighers.

This info war is creating a divide – those pro-Western ‘values’ arguing China has to be brought to heel, and those that criticise Western hypocrisy for banging on about human rights abuses. If you fall in the latter camp, you are seen as an appeaser, a defender of China – and Russia – devoid of criticial reflection and guilty of ‘whataboutism’.

The situation is making discussion, and argument, difficult, to say the least.

It is not as if China is acting like a cuddly bear and being unfairly criticised (although the Uigher issue has been politicised and claims of genocide seem tenuous), but the media attacks are being rather blinkered, which is what gets the goat of many critics of Western policy and those seeking a more just world.

This was evident in a recent Financial Times opinion piece – Western companies in China succumb to Stockholm syndrome – in which Jamil Anderlini argued that Western executives are so fearful of antagonising Beijing that they’ve adopted a hostage mindset, aka Stockholm syndrome. “If you want to make money in modern China you have to toe the Communist Party’s line, engage in ostentatious displays of fealty and assist in its propaganda efforts,” he wrote.

This is true. Companies do make a Faustian pact to enter the Chinese market – the FT itself self-censors stories related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet on its Chinese language website. But one can say the same about Western companies and other autocratic regimes and markets, the Middle East and North Africa being a prime example.

The UK is the biggest foreign investor in Egypt, and the USA the largest military donor, yet there are few calls, if any, for imposing sanctions and for such transactions to halt despite the appalling human rights record, the near total erosion of press freedoms (I’ve been stopped for filming the Nile from a hotel balcony for ‘national security’ reasons; Egyptian academics refuse to give interviews as they are so fearful), mass surveillance of Egyptian citizens, and an ever tightening grip of the security state led by a former director of military intelligence, President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Egypt is too strategically important, too close to the European Union (EU) and Israel, to antagonise, and Sisi knows it (he threatened the EU a few years ago, saying he could unleash Egypt’s then 80 million people – now over 100 million – to sail across the Mediterranean if he didn’t get support).

It is a similar story in the Gulf, with Western companies and governments over looking the usual suspects list of violations for lucrative deals, oil revenues, and massive arms contracts.

Anderlini writes of ‘Hong Kong-based international business executives’, several from ‘democratic societies’, saying they ‘viewed the free press as their greatest enemy’… as ‘pesky journalists dared to report on these developments, thereby convincing head office to stop investing in the city’.

I’ve encountered a similar attitude, this ‘Stockholm syndrome’ of buying into the business-first narrative, in Westerners in the Gulf. In Dubai during the first year of the so-called Arab Spring, in 2011, and following Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout (which has been erased from the face of Bahrain’s earth, in case anyone might remember), I was covering an IT expo. Interviewing a British CEO, I asked how the Arab Spring had impacted business. He said Riyadh had done a ‘good job in bringing back stability’, and growth was back to normal. Human rights violations, freedom of expression and so on were clearly not as important as profit.

It is not a surprise, it is a capitalist mindset, but it is indicative of a wider trend. I noticed the same among many Western expats in the Gulf, especially Dubai. After a year or two there, they would take offence at any criticism of the Emirates, and even defended the leadership.

Many times I heard Western businessmen gush about the ‘vision’ of ‘His Highness’ or ‘His Excellency’. They weren’t very different from government employees in the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt or Syria I had interviewed, but the difference is that Westerners could be critical, whereas these government employees of autocratic states could not – they could not leave without repercussions unlike the craven Westerner.

Criticism of the Gulf has increased in recent years, particularly of Saudi Arabia following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, but business is still ongoing. Arms deals in particular.

And here we see real Stockholm syndrome. One of the biggest cases of corruption in the arms trade was the Al-Yamamah oil-for-arms deal agreed by Saudi Arabia and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which netted the British arms giant $55 bn in revenues from 1985 to 2006.

In 2006, a media investigation alleged that BAE paid over GBP1 billion to Saudi Arabian facilitator Prince Bandar to secure the Yamamah arms deal. The case went to the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. It was then squashed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, under pressure from the Saudis, but also the British monarchy, to maintain relations.

Over in South America, the Stockholm syndrome of siding with strong men and political meddling is apparent. The West went along with the coup in Bolivia in 2019, and Canadian mining companies in the 2012 coup in Paraguay. In the lead up to the 2018 Brazilian elections, a Dutch journalist friend living in Sao Paulo told me that the Dutch men he played football with, who worked for the Big Four accountancy firms, all backed Jair Bolsonaro as he was ‘good for business’. The destruction of the Amazon and labour rights be damned.

There are innumerable examples of businesses and governments looking the other way to get into markets. That is capitalism, and that is the real Stockholm syndrome at play here, of people hostage to an imperialist system they believe is better than any alternative, and use mental gymnastics to go along with. This includes racism and Otherness – how else to explain EU companies banned from selling toxic  pesticides containing glyphosates to spray on crops within the EU yet can export to third countries?

What is ultimately missing in the Western media’s critiques of China and elsewhere is objectivity. The raping of the planet, the massive inequality and so on, is being carried out by all sides – China, Russia, the EU, and the US. The human rights and the war of words is used selectively when politically expedient to do so.

Everyone should be held to high standards, to uphold the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Calling out the transgressions of another without looking at yourself is hypocrisy. And the West doesn’t have a leg to stand on, it hasn’t for years. Not after up to 2 million were killed in the War on Terror and the destruction of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen… Not after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, extraordinary renditions, the mass surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden, or the unjust incarceration of Julian Assange.

The US and EU can resort to sanctions that have more impact due to greater economic strength than China’s or Russia’s to rein in bad behaviour. Yet these are unilateral, or multilateral in the weakest sense, rather than being globally backed. As Jeffrey Sachs noted, the UN should be used to investigate the situation in Xinjiang – let’s have the accusation of genocide from the UN itself, rather than the US and EU.

Yet the West, especially the US, doesn’t want to use an organisation it was central to creating as it is fearful of the majority, the General Assembly, as it can’t whip everyone into line anymore. It is why there is no possible change in the structure of the Security Council – all the world’s top financial powers and arms dealers, Russia and China included – to be more universalist.

If the West practiced what it preached, it would have a higher moral ground to castigate its competitors, especially as the West established the so-called ‘rules based system’ and enacts globally reaching laws. But it doesn’t. Until it does – and that will require revolutionary change – accusations of human rights abuses will ring hollow, and only those with Stockholm syndrome, taken hostage in believing in the sanctity of the neoliberal, imperialist Eurocentric order, will keep believing otherwise.

Paul Cochrane is an independent journalist covering the Middle East and Africa. He lived in Bilad Al Sham (Cyprus, Palestine and Lebanon) for 24 years, mainly in Beirut. He is also the co-director of a documentary on the political-economy of water in Lebanon, “We Made Every Living Thing from Water”.