Is China the West's friend or enemy?

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Media captionHong Lei: China regards good relations with the West as 'essential'

The sudden growth of China as a world economic power has alarmed a great many people in the West. For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, I decided to find out whether China is the West's friend, or its enemy.

People worry that China, which is still notionally Marxist-Leninist, will use its huge economic power to threaten liberal Western values.

China certainly offers lavish support for systems in Africa, Asia and Latin America which the West regards with distaste.

Western governments and environmental agencies are worried that China is hoovering up the natural resources of countries across four continents.

American and European intelligence agencies have often accused China of breaking into the communications of corporations and governments (a charge which has, of course, been seriously weakened by the revelations of the American defector Edward Snowden about British and American electronic surveillance).

In the past couple of weeks the new leadership in China, headed by President Xi Jinping, has been harassing its own citizens who have been demanding greater personal freedom.

It all seems, from the Western viewpoint, to add up to a disturbing pattern.

But is it a pattern which the new leaders in Beijing recognise? Do they see themselves as being in an inevitable struggle with the West and its values?

Some months ago, with this programme in mind, I applied through the usual channels for an interview with a senior Chinese official on the subject of China's position in the world.

You might think it was a normal enough request. The BBC, like every other major news organisation, interviews senior politicians and officials right around the world every day of the year.

Not, however, in China. Sometimes Chinese ambassadors and senior embassy officials based in London have accepted invitations to speak on the BBC's airwaves, and acquitted themselves well.

But in Beijing the BBC has not been given a political interview with a senior official for at least 20 years, and probably for a long time before that.

China often blacks out BBC broadcasts and online reporting - something that very rarely happens anywhere else nowadays, apart from a few countries like Iran.

Yet it became clear, from the moment our interview request went in, that we would be able to interview someone senior. It turned out to be Hong Lei, deputy director-general in the foreign ministry.

Image caption Hong Lei gave a careful answer when asked about relations with the UK

It was all the more surprising, since the Chinese government was infuriated by the decision by Britain's David Cameron to meet the Dalai Lama in early May. There were warnings that British-Chinese relations would be put in the deep freeze.

Yet our interview went ahead in an atmosphere of remarkable friendliness and hospitality. The filming was followed by an excellent banquet for my colleagues and me, and I was also given an off-the-record briefing with an even more senior official, to make certain I got the message.

And the message was this: China regards it as essential for its continuing economic and political development to keep good relations with the West.

It may be that the new leadership feels it wants to build up a parallel relationship with Europe, and especially Britain, to counterbalance its often difficult links with America.

Image caption China had been unhappy about David Cameron's meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012

So, I suggested to Hong Lei, all this must mean that the relationship with Britain was back on course, after the freeze which followed the Cameron-Dalai Lama meeting.

But here in China, top officials dislike answering blunt questions openly. The official reply, as recorded by our cameras, was careful and studiedly imprecise.

Nevertheless, a senior figure put it to me in the clearest English, off the record: "We have a new start in our bilateral relationship."

Is this simply another diplomatic manoeuvre? Possibly, but I rather doubt it. The new president, Xi Jinping, knows that China faces real economic problems, and that economic problems could possibly bring widespread disorder or even a challenge to the political integrity of China.

Trade wars and political tensions with a West which is still suffering serious economic difficulties will not help China - on the contrary.

Two interesting phrases cropped up in my interview with Mr Hong. One was "the Chinese dream," an echo of "the American dream," meaning of course the hope, and perhaps the right, of ordinary people to improve their lives far beyond previous levels.

The other was "a win-win result". That means that if China and the West get on well, both will benefit hugely.

In the specific case of relations with Britain, China is willing to forgive and forget the Cameron-Dalai Lama meeting. The message was, there are wider issues which are more important.

By choosing an organisation with which China has had its difficulties in the past to make its point about better relations, the Chinese leadership was demonstrating in a graphic, incontestable way that it meant what it said.

And what it meant was this: under its new leadership, China regards itself as the West's friend.

Not its foe.

BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it on BBC One on Monday 29 July at 23:10 BST or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer and on BBC World News.

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