Heated exchanges – and maybe another Cold War

Toxic: “Cold War II is happening now,” says academic, author and commentator Niall Ferguson.

Has a second Cold War begun? China has been busy flexing its muscles in Hong Kong and elsewhere, suggesting that it sees the Covid-19 pandemic as a chance to claim global leadership.

It was as if social distancing had never been invented. On Sunday, thousands of people marched defiantly through the streets of Hong Kong, wearing black T-shirts and carrying the umbrellas that have come to symbolise the pro-democracy movement.

Some tried to build roadblocks as riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at them. At least 180 people were arrested.

The protests were sparked by a move in the Chinese parliament to introduce a new security law for the territory. This could see police from mainland China brought in to bolster Hong Kong’s own force; it would also make “subversion” – such as mounting anti-Beijing protests – a criminal offence.

Two hundred leading politicians from around the world have issued a statement criticising the plan as an attack on Hong Kong’s “autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”. The UK, US, Australia, and Canada have all expressed deep concern.

But Hong Kong is not the only place where China is antagonising the international community. Its troops are reported to be “eyeball to eyeball” with Indian soldiers at four points on the countries’ shared border in Ladakh. Each side accuses the other of making incursions into its territory.

Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese coastguard vessels have confronted each other off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, after the Chinese chased away a Japanese fishing boat. The islands are controlled by Japan, but claimed by Beijing.

There is also renewed tension over Taiwan – another territory China claims.

Two Chinese aircraft carriers are being sent on manoeuvres nearby, while mocked-up propaganda images on Chinese social media show fighting outside Taiwan’s presidential palace, with dead US Marines on the ground.

“Cold War II is happening now,” the historian Niall Ferguson said in a radio interview on Sunday. “It’s happening in the realm of technology, where the US government has just imposed effectively sanctions on Huawei.”

China’s refusal to come clean about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, he added, had “fuelled the fires of anti-Chinese sentiment” across the world.

Has a second Cold War begun?

Chill winds

Some say, yes. China has been building up its strength for years, and now sees a perfect opportunity to use it, with the rest of the world distracted by the coronavirus, and China’s main enemy (the US) led by an incompetent president. Other countries are looking for ways to respond that fall short of military action, such as trade sanctions and a boycott of Chinese companies like Huawei.

Others point out that the original Cold War was largely about ideology, with the USSR wanting to impose communism on the rest of the world. But China is communist in name only: it simply wants power and influence – and a vital part of that is economic clout. It may enjoy sabre-rattling, but it will never undermine its foreign trade by pushing its rivals too far.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live as a rich person in China or a poor person in the US?
  2. President Trump has threatened to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation because he claims China has too much influence on it – refusing, for example, to allow Taiwan to join. Would you hold back the money if you were him?


  1. The Chinese authorities were furious when Gap sold a T-shirt with a map of China that did not include Taiwan. Imagine that you are a pro-democracy protestor in Hong Kong and design a T-shirt to promote your cause around the world.
  2. Draw a map of the Chinese coast showing the islands it claims, but does not control.

Some People Say...

“Great historical progress always happens after major disasters.”

Xi Jinping, president of China

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The original Cold War began shortly after the end of World War Two. The US and the USSR, along with their allies, did not dare embark on a direct military conflict in case it led to a nuclear war which devastated all the countries involved. So, they pursued hostilities through other means, such as propaganda, trade embargoes and supporting rival countries in local wars. The term is believed to have gained currency from an essay by George Orwell about the atom bomb written in October 1945.
What do we not know?
How relevant the Covid-19 pandemic is to the current situation. Some people believe that the virus was actually manufactured by China to weaken its enemies. Others suspect that the recession, which now looms, could cause unrest in China, and President Xi Jinping has decided, in Shakespeare’s phrase, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”. But if other countries respond by restricting trade, that will only make Beijing’s domestic problems worse.

Word Watch

A new security law
Under the Basic Law (the mini-constitution introduced when Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997), the territory is largely responsible for its own internal affairs. Critics say the proposed new law would undermine that.
Self-government. It comes from two Greek words meaning “self” and “law”.
A mountainous region of northern India, which has been the focus of disputes between India, China, and Pakistan. The name means “land of high passes”.
Invasions or attacks, especially sudden or brief ones.
After Communist forces won control of China in 1949, their nationalist opponents retreated to the island of Taiwan and set up an independent state. The Chinese have offered Taiwan a similar status to Hong Kong if they are allowed to take over, but most Taiwanese oppose the idea.
Example, design, or model of the real thing.
Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
The US has just introduced a rule requiring foreign manufacturers using US chip-making equipment to get a licence before being allowed to sell semiconductors to the Chinese telecom company.
A system of ideas, usually political, which believers tend to stick to whatever the evidence against it.
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also known as the Soviet Union, was a federal socialist state in Northern Eurasia from 1922 to 1991, and was the largest country in the world.
Influence; power; a heavy blow with the hand.
Displaying or threatening military force. A sabre is a type of sword used in fencing.


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