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China trade wars? It’s just a family squabble

Who is the world’s best-read writer? Arguably, it’s a bloke called Han Han, a 30-year-old novelist, blogger, musician, racing driver and provocateur from China who looks like he could be in a Korean boy band. His cheeky, satirical books sell in their millions to the “post-1980s generation”, and his blog posts are big news.

Who is the world’s best-read writer? Arguably, it’s a bloke called Han Han, a 30-year-old novelist, blogger, musician, racing driver and provocateur from China who looks like he could be in a Korean boy band. His cheeky, satirical books sell in their millions to the “post-1980s generation”, and his blog posts are big news.
 
When the dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize, his post of two empty speech marks was viewed 1.5 million times. His criticism of the government often gets his posts “harmonised” (ie deleted). Last month a book of these deleted blog posts went on sale in Hong Kong and sold out in three days.
 
As Wen Jiabao made his final trip to the west as China’s premier last week, it’s worth reflecting that many of us in the west know little about China. Two of the most perplexing conversations I’ve had in recent months were with businesspeople from Greece and Italy who told me that Europe and America are currently involved in a war to become China’s trading partner of choice in the 21st century.
 
They both told me (they were the chief executive of a well-known family business and a Greek businessman) that worries about the euro's potential collapse was American propaganda to destabilise the EU. The UK, I was told, is a “spy” in the European camp. They clearly saw China as a frightening and destabilising force.
 
This is silly. The Chinese need both Europe’s solidity and America’s entrepreneurialism, not to mention both their consumers. The relationship is more complex than the “war” narrative suggests. The EU recently launched an investigation into whether China is illegally boosting its solar power exports. Another into its telecoms industry is brewing. The Americans are also complaining the Chinese cars are subsidised. This is not the behaviour of woo-ers. A better analogy is one of those complicated, choreographed mating rituals that exotic birds go in for.

One interesting sub-plot in all this is that Angela Merkel insists the solar power dispute is resolved with talks, not tariffs. Merkel, whose country is dominated by family businesses and who surely speaks to their leaders often, seems to think in a collaborative, consensus-building way when dealing with China. Maybe she’s recognised that in some respects it is like a German family business. Its leaders look to the long term and want steady growth. They are conservative. They want above all orderly successions. There are dynastic elements in the party – the recently purged Bo Xilai was one of the “princelings”, the children of the eight elders of the party who held power in the 1980s.
 
Han Han recently wrote that there will be no Chinese Vaclav Havel, and no great democratic revolution there. If he is right then we should get used to the way China works – by balancing personalities, blocs, the needs of different regions, generations, industries and so on.
 
This is all complicated, but it’s held together by a strong desire to keep things going. China works like a family – imperfectly, but it muddles through and keeps its arguments private. As we do more business with China, so international politics will come to resemble a family discussion. That means it’ll be complicated, messy and hard work. But better than a war.

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