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Mrs Zhu’s chicken and the UK’s China policy

China UK
Written by Hugo de Burgh

We need a China strategy that serves British interests and reflects understanding of Chinese politics as well as wariness at China’s apparent power. A companion article, The Gloomy Investor’s Chinese Lessons for Britain, argues that what’s going on in China is a wake-up call for us.

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In China in September 1976, Mrs Zhu, a teacher who had been born a peasant, heard that Chairman Mao had died.  She promptly strangled her only chicken and roasted it for a family celebration. The family partied privately, because most of their neighbours, of necessity, were out on the street weeping. Soon after, millions of people who had been turned into serfs by the Communist seizure of their land and means of livelihood, clandestinely started up businesses, opened markets and resisted the party officials who tried to drive them back into pens – the ‘communes’.

History revised

In the three decades following Mrs Zhu’s celebration, the Communist Party (CCP) slunk into the background, allowed people their head, and goggled at the most spectacular economic transformation ever. A population traumatized by incompetence and barbarity (in what we can call the ‘Great Leap Backwards’ of 1949-1979), who had seen smashed all the progress achieved under the Republic of China (1912-1949)[1], undertook the industrial revolution and the information revolution in 30 years – one tenth of the time that took Anglo-America.

Until recently, the paragraph above would have expressed what thinking Chinese agreed about recent history. It was reflected in screen dramas such

as Like a Flowing River (2018) and A Wenzhou Family (2015), in which the courageous and enterprising are seen surviving CCP obstruction to restore their livelihoods and rebuild their communities. The revulsion against CCP ideology was publicly acceptable[2]; after all, the leader who authorised the rejection of Communist economics, Deng Xiaoping, had told people not to ‘talk theory’ and to eschew ‘modern superstition’. In 2022, woe betide you if you talk like that.

The rejuvenation of CCP ideology and its practices – arbitrary repression, confiscation of assets, cultural persecution – does not matter only to the 20% of humanity that is Chinese, or to the 128 countries for which China is the main trading partner, but to all of us. It has particular lessons for Britain.

Politics is in Command

Whereas, in the 30 exhilarating years from 1980, economic development, and the putting right of much of what the CCP had done wrong, engaged everybody’s energies, today, in Chairman Mao’s words ‘Politics is in Command’. Xi the Leninist has replaced the narrative of how Deng Xiaoping rescued China from ideology with a fantasia in which China’s wealth and influence today are the fruits of that ideology[3]. Orwell might have called this doublethink. Memory is erased. Discussion of the abattoir of the 1950s, the homicidal economic policies of the 1960s and the charnel house of the Cultural Revolution, that last great heave to obliterate Chinese civilisation, is forbidden[4].

Xi the Marxist believes that Anglo-America is doomed to inevitable capitalist decline, ‘consumed by its own internal political contradictions’[5]. The evidence he finds for this is both in the performance of our economies and in the fracas of political and cultural wrangling. What he fails to see is how open societies reinvigorate themselves, or that the ability to disagree without killing each other may be a firmer basis for cooperation than forced unanimity.

The oligarchies of developing countries may like this pitch, but we should not be duped by it. Despite its achievements, China faces manifold difficulties, some created by him and all by the CCP. The economy is slowing, demographic change threatens, the problems of environmental degradation do not go away, international assertiveness has moved China’s neighbours to cosy up to the USA. He has appointed a cabinet of sycophants. State officials, who model themselves on Tang Dynasty executives rather than Soviet commissars, must be wondering: How much more damage can he do?

Towards a China strategy for an Open Society

Long ago, Lee Kuan Yew warned[6] that the West should never treat China as an enemy. ‘This is the biggest player in the history of the world’ he said, and it’s not going away, however much you wish it would. How you treat it will determine how it treats you, so you must give up your assumptions that your ideals are universal, accept that China celebrates its difference and plot how to get from it what you want, how to influence its behaviour.

Unfortunately, instead of thinking through a long term game plan for dealing with the crucial actor in all the great transnational issues from global warming to nuclear proliferation and international pandemics, some of our politicians have been infected by American jealousy at China’s apparent success, believed Xi’s boasting and conflated the CCP with Mrs Zhu and her long-suffering compatriots. They have wilfully interpreted everything that China does as an attack on the West and an attempt to wrest hegemony from the USA, whereas it can equally be construed as a desperate grasp for security. Then, despite the importance of the Chinese market and Chinese investment to our industries, they have trumpeted their antagonism and tried to rupture relations. In so doing they have strengthened Xi’s repressive hand at home, abandoned his victims, our natural allies, and so made essential cooperation more fraught. Who is happiest, the CIA or the CCP?

While it is essential that dangers posed by the CCP to us and our allies be brought to our attention, these dangers should not scatter our wits[7] or ignore our own interests. Let us understand China, distinguish it from its current rulers and think through how to work with ‘the biggest player in the history of the world’, without indulging the CCP.


Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and the Director of China UK Creative Industries CIC, based at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

[1] The best short summary is: Dikotter, Frank (2008) The Age of Openness: China before Mao  Berkeley: University of California Press

[2] Shi Yinhong (2004) The Issue of Civil Society and its Complexity, Chapter 18. In: Sato Yoichiro (ed) Growth & Governance in Asia, Honolulu: Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, pp 230. I quote from this in my (2020) China’s Media in the Emerging World Order London: UBP p199.

[3] Why he has done this is a whole issue in itself, but the return to religion probably started with ‘Document Number 9’, published in 2012, which condemned the influence of pernicious liberal ‘western’ ideas. Ironical, since Communism is even more of a Western idea.

[4] The LSE’s Kent Deng confounds the myth of economic progress in Deng K. (2012) China’s political economy in modern times London: Routledge, pp 136- 141. Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in their remarkable investigation of poverty (2006) Will the Boat sink the Water? London : Public Affairs exposed the claims to social progress; most powerful in its revisionist challenge is the trilogy by Frank Dikotter The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution: A Peoples’ History 1962-1976, of which the most provocative is The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution 1945-1957.

[5] Rudd, Kevin (2022) The World According to Xi Jinping in Foreign Affairs, November/December 2022, p111

[6] Allison, Graham et al (2012) Lee Kuan Yew Cambridge: MIT pp42-3

[7] John Bew makes the point that our interests may diverge from those of the USA and implies that we need

to work out how to retain our vital alliance with the USA without jettisoning our relationships with China. accessed 271122

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About the author

Hugo de Burgh