A third serious setback was Egypt. The collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, amid giant protests, raised hopes that democracy would spread in the Middle East. But the euphoria soon turned to despair. Egypt’s ensuing elections were won not by liberal activists (who were hopelessly divided into a myriad of Pythonesque parties) but by Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Morsi treated democracy as a winner-takes-all system, packing the state with Brothers, granting himself almost unlimited powers and creating an upper house with a permanent Islamic majority. In July 2013 the army stepped in, arresting Egypt’s first democratically elected president, imprisoning leading members of the Brotherhood and killing hundreds of demonstrators. Along with war in Syria and anarchy in Libya, this has dashed the hope that the Arab spring would lead to a flowering of democracy across the Middle East.
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.
Anciently, primitive Iberian; then Carthaginian, Roman, Visigothic; the current identity is a product of the European Middle Ages. Catalans emerged at a Christian frontier of the conquering Dar al-Islam. Their knights took an important part in the Reconquista, driving the Moors back south from where they’d come; freeing their Christian slaves. All Europe is thus indebted to a heritage of Catalan warriors, saints, poets, artists; and as ever, patient and industrious farmers. Within Christendom, their autonomy has always been recognized, most recently by the Kingdom of Spain.