Ancient and modern

Does classical Athens give us a clue to China’s next move?

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

In 1984, China agreed a ‘one country, two systems’ treaty with the UK, designed to control the relationship between Hong Kong and China for 50 years after Britain ceded control of the colony in 1997. It has now broken the treaty, for no other reason than that it can. So what next in that tinderbox?

Classical Athens was at war three years out of four, and if arbitration had failed to solve the treaty problem, it would have gone to war. No Greek preferred war to peace, but fighting for life and territory was simply a given of the ancient world. Greeks felt war against barbaroi(non-Greeks) was an easy win (‘more like sight-seeing than campaigning’), and victory resulted in glory, pleasure and material rewards (‘war is not pleasant, but fear deters no one if he thinks he will profit by it’).


But there was a problem, as the statesman Demosthenes pointed out in 353 bc. In everyday life, ‘men’s rights are impartially guaranteed by laws applying to strong and weak alike’, but international relations do not work like that. In that situation, rights ‘are defined by what the weak are allowed to do by the strong’. Consequently, he concluded, ‘states will get justice only in proportion to their strength at any one time’. In other words, arbitration apart, international justice could be achieved only by demonstrating your strength was up to the challenge.

But even supposing it was so demonstrated — and Demosthenes agreed that ‘when others are doing wrong, for us to talk about justice and do nothing about it does not demonstrate love of justice but spinelessness’ — the crucial point ‘was to ensure it is to our advantage’. Since only results counted, justice was all very well, but without advantage from it, why bother?

The Chinese have calculated that the West will see there is no advantage in pursuing justice over Hong Kong, at least not by war, because the result of a war would be a catastrophe, possibly global, whoever won. They are right: the massive fire power on both sides ensures, paradoxically, injustice. Taiwan next?

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