Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

A true voice of reason in the ‘China threat’ debate

  • In a recent debate between two famous public intellectuals, Kishore Mahbubani and Orville Schell, it’s clear which one talked the most sense

Over the years, I have come to have more respect for real hardline anti-China hawks in Western capitals than those liberal China “experts” who follow the party lines in Washington and constantly gauge which way the political wind blows. It’s much easier to take a forthright enemy seriously than a sneaky hypocrite.

At least those Western hawks are consistent and honest, and they make no bones about what the fight is really about: China’s potential to challenge the global hegemony of the United States.

Geopolitics is a very cruel and ruthless business. It’s little different from gang warfare, and has as much moral legitimacy as the latter. That’s why there is all this massive 24/7 propagandising going on in the mainstream Western media to cover up the underlying real conflict.

When one gang boss declares he has to take out a rising rival to nip the threat in the bud, I can respect that. It’s not pretty but they are at least brutally honest about it.

It’s all the constant holier-than-thou moralising and editorial misdirection from Western pundits, “experts” and politicians about fighting evil China to save humanity and freedom that gets on my nerves.

This intellectual class – the TV talking heads, think tank “scholars” and public intellectuals – are the foot soldiers of another sense of hegemony as understood by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. They are indoctrinated and it’s also their job to indoctrinate you.

Rather than outright coercion or repression – which is usually not the preferred method of first resort in ostensibly democratic countries – you need to establish a kind of cultural “hegemony” over the educated class.

Such class members, especially those in the humanities, have learned early on and have internalised what it takes to secure privileged access to power not only in public institutions and government, but also agencies such as the media that establish and spread the acceptable boundaries of opinion, value, standards and norm. These also set the parameters of acceptable public debate.

You can have free speech and free debate within those boundaries, which are in flux and often not clearly defined, but you know it the second you have crossed them. As a result, such “hegemonic intellectuals”, as Gramsci calls them, constantly need to keep their eyes and ears open and stay in tune – and stay in line.

How swift is the punishment when you cross those boundaries? In the past few months, dozens of university professors and senior journalists have suddenly found themselves out of a job after publicly criticising or merely questioning Israel’s acts of genocide in Gaza. They must have really believed academic freedom and free press were absolute and sacred values and norms in America! Didn’t they know criticising Israel outside acceptable discourse is tantamount to committing career suicide? I salute their courage or foolhardiness, though, as I certainly wouldn’t do what they did in this column space if I were working for a US media company or a university. Well, I wouldn’t be hired in the first place.

Recently, I came across a pure confrontation between common sense and intellectual “hegemony”, in Gramsci’s sense of the term, in a debate between two famous public intellectuals: Kishore Mahbubani, retired Singaporean top diplomat and former president of the UN Security Council, and Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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The occasion was a forum from last week in New York on “The United States, China, and the Future of the Global Order”, run by the Asia Society, itself an archetypal Western “hegemonic” institution.

I will just offer a few quotes, and you can easily determine who stands for what.

Schell: China is not just another great power. It is a Marxist-Leninist regime that under Xi Jinping has become very, very different than we experienced in the 80s and even in the 90s.

So I’m curious to know how you view the internal political shift in China, its turning into sort of a Maoist mode, not completely so, and how other countries, the comfort level they feel about accepting China’s hegemony in Asia if not in the world.

Are you comfortable with this? I mean Singapore is a small, little country.

Mahbubani: Your point about the internal political make-up of China and isn’t China becoming more Marxist-Leninist or communist and are we worried about that?

I want to emphasise that there is only one country in the world that passes judgments on the internal political systems of other countries. It’s a very exceptional country. And I think you all know about American exceptionalism.

I can tell you that the UN is not too far away from here. It’s a mile or two away. If you walk into the United Nations, you will find that one of the most sacred principles of the UN Charter, which is actually held to very strongly by member states of the UN, is that we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs …

When the United States first fell in love with China, in 1971, can I ask you, who was the leader of China at that point? Was it Mao Zedong? Would you call Mao Zedong a great defender of human rights? Would you say that this is the man with a liberal mind, a liberal spirit, someone you can develop a kinship with?

You know what I am getting at, right? When it comes to geopolitics, it’s a very cruel business. Ideology can be put aside when necessary, brought to the fore when necessary. Even today, if you say that the United States will stand up to communist party regimes, why are you cultivating Vietnam? What’s the difference? Doesn’t Vietnam also have a communist party in power?

I am only saying this because the rest of the world has changed, they’ve become much more sophisticated. They see through all this, that yes, there’s a serious geopolitical contest going on between the United States and China. They are very worried about it. They want to maintain good ties with both and they won’t pass judgment.

And it’s not just, to be fair, Orville, Singapore. I can give you, if you want, a list of one hundred countries that are in that position.

Simple and penetrating! As I have always said, common sense is actually terribly uncommon, especially in politics. But it may be the only real mental guard against intellectual hegemony.