It is not just that seeking to placate the public at home with braggadocio overseas will make it harder still for China to garner allies and respect. There is a deeper problem. Many countries around the world admire, and would like to emulate, the undemocratic but effective way that China has managed its decades of growth. If China’s domestic politics look less stable, some of that admiration will wane. And even if things can be held together, for the time being, admiration for China does not translate into affection for it, or into a sense of common cause. Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. Intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a “soft power” so strong, according to William Kirby of Harvard University, that “neighbours converted themselves” to it. Now, Mr Xi may know how to assert himself and how to be feared, at home and abroad. But without the ability to exert a greater power of attraction, too, such strength will always tend to destabilise.
Even at this reduced scale, the Hungerplan was a crime comparable in numerical terms to the Final Solution. Indeed, forced starvation was one of the instruments of the Holocaust. Eighty thousand Jews starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to December 1943, testifying before the Nuremberg Tribunal, estimated that ‘in the camp of Auschwitz alone in that time 2,500,000 persons were exterminated and that a further 500,000 died from disease and starvation.’ In The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food Lizzie Collingham makes the point that the failure to starve ‘useless eaters’ in sufficient numbers, sufficiently quickly, became a rationale for expediting their mass murder by killing squads and gas chambers.