David Cameron’s China visit

He won’t find many of his kind of liberal there.

In recent years there has been a stream of weighty publications about China, not least When China Rules the World by the former NS columnist Martin Jacques and Will Hutton's The Writing on the Wall (which, I'm told, earned him the nickname "the Great Will of China" among Observer colleagues).

There has also been some terrific reporting from the country, notably in this magazine by Channel 4 News's Lindsey Hilsum when she was based there, as well as the very odd column in that otherwise excellent periodical, Prospect, by a man who spends all his time moaning about what a God-awful place it is to live but curiously shows no sign of departing for somewhere he might find more congenial.

However, when it comes to the Kremlinology of China's leadership, the picture is still very far from clear. Next week David Cameron will lead Britain's largest ever delegation to the country, bringing five ministers and 50 businessmen with him. It has been suggested that although the purpose of the visit is trade, he will be expected to raise the issue of human rights – in particular China's treatment of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo – while he is there.

This is a familiar demand – every western leader is told to ask about human rights in China, regardless of whether it is likely to achieve anything or, indeed, just irritate their hosts, who have made their annoyance about being lectured by outsiders abundantly plain.

As Xi Jinping, who is lined up to be the next president, put it last year: "There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?"

In this instance, however, there is the extra encouragement that such talk might not be falling on entirely deaf ears. For a belief has grown up that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is an ardent reformist, a "lonely fighter for freedom and democracy", as the Singapore Straits Times's Peh Shing Huei wrote yesterday.

I recommend Peh's article "Is Wen really a liberal?" as a cold shower for those desperate to believe that the supposed censorship back home of Wen's "daring remarks" in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria last month is an indication of deep divisions at the top, with one faction ready to push for an Orchid Revolution. Peh quotes a Hong Kong analyst dismissing this point:

"This has happened before," said Willy Lam. "Interviews with the western press are not necessarily reported, even when they talk about non-controversial and completely benign matters."

You can read the whole piece, in which Peh takes apart the case for Wen as a liberal, here, but his conclusion is certainly sobering.

It would be more accurate to label him [Wen] a "centrist" than a liberal. He preaches reform within the party and, even then, at a glacial pace. China will change, but it will be to entrench, not weaken, the CCP's rule. It will be socialism with Chinese characteristics, as Mr Wen stressed in Shenzhen. Nothing else.

During the general election campaign Cameron spoke harshly about China. And this is not to say that the rest of the world is not right to be concerned about the plight of those who express dissent in China, or anywhere else. But although a few strong words may go down well with a British audience, they will ring hollow – or worse, ring of a misplaced and outdated sense of importance – in Asia.

The Prime Minister has no big stick to wield. If he wants to make a success of his visit, he should stick to trade talks. Whatever kind of "liberal" Premier Wen is, it's certainly not any kind that Dave would recognise.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.