A new Cold War seeps into cultural corners

This time it’s about China. The old Cold War was so all-encompassing that it pervaded almost every aspect of life except, notably, actual war. The closest that came was proxy conflicts in places like Vietnam.


It reached into the tiniest cultural corners, as in CIA funding of left-wing but anti-Soviet magazines like Encounter, whose editors didn’t seem to know where the money came from. . Or publication of regime-critical Russian novels like Doctor Zhivago. For the new Cold War, this time with China, book launches are now included.

Last week, the Confucius Institutes (which are funded by China) at two German universities abruptly cancelled launches of Xi Jinping — The Most Powerful Man in the World, a somewhat critical book by German journalists about the Chinese president.

The publisher, authors and politicians lined up to say this proved that the book is right and China, via the Confucius gambit, is “trying to push its values internationally — values which are aimed against our freedom.” The Chinese embassy defended them as a “platform for better understanding China,” without “politicization.” The usual suspects rounded up the usual suspects, as usual. It felt familiar.

On the more ominous end of the paranoia spectrum, last week China also launched some long-range missile tests, with mixed results. The top U.S. military officer called it almost a “Sputnik moment,” for those who recall western existential dread in 1957 when the U.S.S.R. sent the first satellite ever into space. Military budgets swiftly began ratcheting even farther up, with accompanying risks.

It’s this range, from the niggly to the catastrophic, that proves the Cold War is truly back.

So, accepting it can’t be stopped, is there anything to learn from the last Cold War? One thing, I’d say: try and see these moments and events from “their” side, and it looks almost exactly the same, but upside down.

Why is China testing “offensive” missiles that could slither through the U.S. missile “shield”? Because everyone considers that shield a deft way to threaten a first strike without fear of being hit back. So if you show you can get past it, you’ve pre-empted any first strikes, so actually it’s not offensive, it’s defensive! This kind of tit-for-tat will proliferate endlessly, like Zeno’s paradoxes. The only way to stop it is to step outside the obliteration circle together.

As for China’s menacing behaviour in Hong Kong and Taiwan — bien sur. But it’s the U.S. and its allies who surround China militarily, not vice versa. China has one military base abroad; the U.S. has up to 800. It’s the U.S. that sends drones “over the horizon” everywhere and its elite units into Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden. How would the U.S. feel if China sent its elite killers into Winnipeg?

Those hundreds of Confucius Institutes? I’m willing to speculate that they’re sheer government propaganda. But how must it have felt to see the ghost of Cold War demonization rise from its grave, seemingly overnight, in full grue but now directed against China? You’d want to do something in response.

Is it necessary to take a side? Personally I’d rather not, on the grounds that power corrupts and great power corrupts greatly. Indeed, there was a group during the last Cold War called the Non-Aligned Movement that still exists, though dormantly. It included some formidable figures, like India’s Nehru, South Africa’s Mandela, and Yugoslavia’s Tito. Compare them to the current versions.

But Canada? Well, it’s intriguing that Justin’s dad, Pierre, spent his last days as our PM on a world tour trying to assess and assist prospects for global peace. He rode out like Quixote on his noble nag and IMO, never looked better.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[


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