President Xi of China applauds the Hong Kong security bill

The courage to defeat Evil

Why are people fighting a long-dead slave trade rather than resisting the triumph of a real one?

Sounding Board

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

One of the advantages of being a clergyman is that I can talk about evil. When politicians try, they sound absurd; ask the “Axis of Evil”, whose labelling as such probably enhanced its targets’ reputation while diminishing poor old George W’s already limited reputation for wordsmithery. But clergymen? It’s rather our job description.

So what happens when evil wins? Obviously I desperately hope what I really mean is “if”. But there’s no guarantee that in any era “good” will triumph. Barack Obama got it wrong when he misquoted Martin Luther King Jr and said, “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” If history teaches us anything, it’s that the arc of history does no such thing.

Good guys lose all the time, good things disappear for good, liberties get watered down and then lost. To think that history is the advance of good people leading us inexorably out of a bad past is a privilege almost unique to our very specific place and time.

Many who toppled statues will eagerly watch a competition hosted in stadia built by modern slaves

After our time in charge, the liberal West faces a challenge not just to its geostrategic position but to its entire political and ethical framework. We are witnessing the coming of age of a political philosophy and ethical framework that has moved from the dictatorial commonplace of mass surveillance, suppression of free speech, and the occasional massacre, to that of an expansionist slave state.

Actions against the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province have tipped over into genocide. Millions are in concentration camps, have endured forced sterilisation, and had forced labour inflicted upon them; this is the eradication of a people and a culture. In 1945 we said, “Never again.” It is happening again.

This is not the fault of the Chinese people. The people of Hong Kong have shown, by their multi-millionstrong, heroic, doomed resistance to Beijing, that a love of liberty and a valuing of human worth is something every person can enjoy — with the right political and cultural ecosystem to nurture it.

The vibrant democracy of Taiwan shows this too, even as its people live under the daily threat that their liberty will be crushed by force.

But more than the economic and military threat that communist China is now presenting to its neighbours, it is the alternative system of morality that is the greater challenge to us. The heart of this anti-liberal slave economy might beat in Beijing but you can feel its pulse much closer to home.

In Qatar, for example: home to thousands of British expatriates, host of the next World Cup, and a state built on forced labour. This is where we start to explore the uncomfortable question of what happens when evil wins, and get the uncomfortable answer that most people will live with it comfortably and quietly.

Just wait two years, and we will put out our flags and head down to our pubs to cheer on our team, and many who have spent this summer pulling down the statues of dead slavers will eagerly tune into a competition hosted in stadia built by modern slaves.

We don’t need to go to Qatar to see this. Our phones, clothes, television sets and cars are all tainted with the blood and torture of the modern slaves of Xinjiang, and our universities, ports and nuclear power stations are mortgaged out to a system of government and thought that has properly exposed itself as evil. Do we think we have the moral confidence to resist this? If we do, when will we start?

This is where we can see a depressing overlap between what has happened during the pandemic in East and West. China stepped up the internment of its minorities, demolished Hong Kong’s democracy and invaded Indian territory, murdered its soldiers and bullied its leaders into backing down.

The brave stand of Hong Kongers for liberty came out of the British Empire

In the West we have seen a moral panic as justified outrage over the killing of George Floyd turned from reasonable questions asked about the status of race relations in Western nations into a questioning of all the underlying assumptions upon which we have built our civilisation.

Assumptions and narratives, one might note, which gave us the moral resolve to fight German tyranny in the twentieth century, French tyranny in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and devote almost 2 per cent of our national income fighting slavery in between.

For all the criticisms of British history and culture which have been made in the last few months, one thing simultaneously stood silently in its defence: the people of Hong Kong. Their brave stand for liberty did not come out of nowhere: it came out of the British Empire, and the truths we told ourselves and them.

It takes moral courage to fight evil. It is easier not to. We need to recover a sense of moral and cultural pride if we stand any chance of holding our own in this coming moral disputation — and one which can be shared by all of our citizens.

If we don’t, then evil will win. Those who have spent recent months proclaiming themselves to be on the right side of history might ask themselves why they were fighting a long-dead slave trade, rather than resisting the triumph of an all too real one.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover