If truth be told (Foreign Affairs) -DAWN

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WHILE economic forecasters are a famously disputatious bunch, most would agree that by 2050, and maybe a good deal before that, China’s economy will become bigger than that of the US. A financial crash or two may throw that prediction off, as might President Xi’s cult of personality, but there is little doubt about the general direction of travel.

Alongside that, there’s the cultural and ideological degradation of the West. When an American president stands by, as Trump did on Jan 6 this year, waiting to see if a mob could overthrow the existing political order, and when Americans can’t even agree on whether demonstrably effective vaccines work, then the crisis is deep. Given the US culture wars, the rejection of science and the accumulation of ever greater debts, there can be few in China who would say “please give us the kind of society America has”. What’s left of America’s moral ascendency is dissipating fast.

The 20th century’s most consequential politician, Deng Xiaoping, dragged the Chinese Communist Party from its ideologically driven malaise into an era of prosperity with the simple slogan, ‘Seek truth from facts’. He wanted the party cadres to see the world as it was, rather the way their sacred Marxist-Leninist-Maoist textbooks told them it should be. It’s a slogan the US now needs to adopt. After all, Trump continues to insist that he won an election that he lost by seven million votes. And worse still, tens of millions of Americans agree with him. No seeking truth from facts there.

In Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, there is much satisfaction at the humbling of the arrogant West. But should Pakistanis share in this delight? Might that overlook the possibility that other imperialists could turn out to be even worse?

Many Pakistanis think that China will treat them better than the US.

Would Pakistanis really find Chinese global domination preferable to the Western version? ‘Of course!’ cry America’s detractors, many of them in Pakistan’s religious parties. ‘Didn’t Western colonialism impoverish and humiliate us? And even today, don’t Western governments occupy other peoples’ lands, kill and torture their opponents and discriminate against Muslims?’

And yet when it comes to occupying other’s lands, killing and torturing people and discriminating against Muslims, China too has form. Think Tibet, the cultural revolution and the Uighurs.

The people of Hong King may be able to offer some guidance on these matters. While many of them are adjusting to the reality of Chinese power, they are not doing so with much joy in their hearts. Despite Beijing’s solemn commitment to maintain “one country with two systems”, its grip on Hong Kong is ever tighter. Rallies defending Western values such as democracy and free speech have been broken up, government opponents arrested and newspapers raided. Those who use entirely peaceful methods to resist Beijing’s control are accused of disrupting the government and can face severe punishments. State control is so pervasive that children are being restricted to three hours video gaming a week by facial recognition technology.

None of which would suit many Pakistanis very well. After all, Pakistanis are not used to the government telling them what to do and think. The country has admirably loquacious protesters, dogged opposition activists (whoever is in power) and splendidly difficult journalists. Ayub Khan said governing Pakistan was like trying to control a bucket of frogs: as soon as you managed to get one back in its place, another would leap out. Frogs in Chinese buckets tend to find themselves unable to leap again.

China and Pakistan like to describe their bilateral relations in the most hyperbolic terms. Their bonds reach higher than the highest mountain and deeper than the deepest ocean. And so on. And yet it’s not really clear the godless Chinese and devout Pakistanis have that much in common. When Ayub was facing defeat in 1965, the Chinese advised him to let India overrun Pakistan, take his people to the mountains and fight a popular war of resistance for as many decades as was required. That sort of approach might work in China — and as we now know in Afghanistan too — but most Pakistanis have different priorities.

Many Pakistanis will probably hang on to their view that China will treat them better than the US. And we may all have to wait a long while before we find out if they are right. Because although few would challenge the idea that the West is on the slide, it could take a while before its wealth and strength is entirely spent. After all, Edward Gibbon’s magnus opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, covered a period of no less than 13 centuries. And while China’s Pakistani cheerleaders wait, they might be advised to give some thought not only to Deng Xiaoping’s admirable adages but also to an old Western one: ‘be careful what you wish for’.

The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.