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13 September 2023

Britain is asking the wrong questions about China

A new realism is needed to deal with the threat from Beijing.

By Chris Patten

That the Chinese government allegedly has spies in Westminster should come as no surprise. It would be more surprising if the government responded to China with anything more than a mix of strong nouns and weak verbs. Just consider the events of late summer. 

James Cleverly visited China in August, becoming the first foreign secretary to visit Beijing in years. His trip came after a report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. That document suggested there was in fact another document detailing a British strategy on our relations with China, but that the Foreign Office – and presumably Downing Street – was reluctant to make it public or even to show it to ministers across government departments. For its part the parliamentary Intelligence Committee had argued earlier in the summer that China represented a national security threat to Britain – particularly in academia, industry and technology. These reports followed several warnings from security chiefs in Britain and the US about China. Less than a year ago the head of Britain’s MI5 had drawn attention to the internal and external threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

What should the British government do and say? It is not Sino-phobic to devise policies that reflect our values and the real nature of the Chinese Communist Party. In doing this we should always try to distinguish between China and the Chinese people on the one hand, and the Leninist Chinese Communist Party on the other. The Hong Kong civil servants who worked for me when I was governor of the colony between 1992-97 were talented and patriotic Chinese men and women. But they were extremely reluctant to define their patriotism in terms of how much they loved the Chinese Communist Party, not least since so many of them came from the families of refugees from the mainland.

These parliamentary reports, and the arrest of that alleged “spy researcher” in Westminster, raise a blizzard of questions. Is China a threat to us today or simply “a strategic competitor” with particularly sharp elbows? Should we turn a blind eye to the cybersecurity attacks, to their potential espionage and their intellectual property theft? Should we overlook what the head of MI5 called overt and covert acts of coercion directed at our institutions and citizens? Are we in danger of showing insignificant sensitivity about Beijing’s feelings when we refer to any of this? Should we simply turn the other cheek when China sanctions British parliamentarians and even ministers when they express their views on human rights abuses by Beijing or the position of Taiwan? Should we pretend that China did not rip up the agreement we made with them in the 1990s about the future of Hong Kong, and which was lodged as a treaty at the United Nations? Should we simply “tut-tut” when the Chinese communists threaten Hong Kong exiles living in this country and bully their families back in Hong Kong?

Why do we decline to treat China when it behaves like this, in the same way that we would treat any other country? Is there “a mandate of heaven” that gives China a free pass when it behaves in such a loutish way on the international stage?

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China has the second-largest population in the world, a very large, powerful economy, and a long and often admirable history. It would be difficult to overcome our global problems without some buy-in from Beijing.

Moreover, China’s spectacular growth since it joined the global economy in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping has been important to all of us. Our own trade with China has increased and so has theirs with us. Britain exports almost £40bn worth of goods and services every year and China exports around £70bn worth to us. We regularly have a large deficit with China partly because Beijing’s cavalier attitude to fair trade and to the rules of the World Trade Organisation does not give much room to the concept of reciprocity. 

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak have to be tougher on China?]

Before his visit to China, Cleverly mentioned climate change as one of the reasons for his visit. It is true that if the world is to make the changes that are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions then China’s role will be vital. So we should talk to the Chinese about how we can collectively achieve this aim. Plainly, if we persuade our own citizens to make sacrifices to meet the global targets agreed with China and others, it will be deeply damaging to the credibility and authority of our governments if people see China breaking its word and doing whatever is convenient to it.

Cleverly also referred to the need to prevent any future pandemics, and argued that in doing this we had to work with China. That was widely recognised after the Sars epidemic in 2002, when other nations persuaded China to sign up to the World Health Organisation’s international health regulations. But when a coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China ignored its commitments to give information about what was happening. At the same time it was buying PPE equipment from Australia and others. The Chinese security services silenced brave whistleblowers in the medical professions in Wuhan, as well as citizen journalists who tried to write about what was happening.

While we have no other option but to accept that China has to be a full partner in making decisions – economic, health, environmental and security – that will affect the whole world, and while also understanding that we have not always kept our own commitments (consider Iraq), one thing that the UK has to be very careful about is China’s reliability as a partner. Didn’t we learn this from China’s behaviour in Hong Kong, where it vengefully and comprehensively set about demolishing the freedoms that it had promised to safeguard in a treaty? The Foreign Office and its officials should not need to be reminded about this.

When Cleverly was asked what we ever achieved by raising concerns with China he retreated into a paragraph of doubtless well-meaning “pother”, as Alan Bennett’s mother would have called it. To take one current and important example, in Hong Kong a British passport holder, Jimmy Lai, remains in prison on trumped-up charges, principally because he is a critic of communism and believes in freedom of speech and the rule of law. I assume Cleverly raised the question of the refusal to allow Lai consular visits. If he did raise this question, what did the Chinese say?

There are other questions Cleverly might have raised. Has the Chinese government curtailed its surveillance of Hong Kong exiles in Britain? Has it in any way moderated the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in Tibet, which many lawyers regard as genocidal. Our Foreign Office may well be right that it’s better to talk than to stamp one’s foot. But where exactly has that got us in dealing with China?

If you give the impression that China is doing us a great favour when one of its leaders agrees to meet a British minister, and that in order to retain this privilege we should keep our noses clean, how are we to react? This is where self-respect comes in. I wonder how impressed the Chinese were when our Prime Minister appeared desperate to meet with Xi Jinping, should the Chinese premier have deigned to appear at this month’s G20 meeting. Was Rishi Sunak simply looking for a post-Brexit photo opportunity, to show that Britain was still a player in the world game? But if this wasn’t the reason, what exactly were the practical benefits Sunak was advised he could secure from such a meeting?

“And so?” as my old boss, Britain’s foreign secretary in the early 1980s, Peter Carington, used to say. Well we are now dealing with post-peak China. After several decades of astonishing growth, its economy is flatlining or maybe worse. This is not just because of the environmental and demographic problems that it faces. It is down to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party. As many Chinese scholars such as Frank Dikötter have argued, the Chinese Communist Party is simply unable to carry through the serious reforms that are necessary to recharge its economic batteries, and to enable it to break out of the middle-income trap. What used to be regarded as China’s inexorable rise to be the dominant economic power in the world seems to have become all too exorable.

The communist leadership used to have an implicit deal with its citizens. They were assured that provided they kept out of politics they would be allowed to go about their own lives without too much interference. This was particularly relevant to the success of the private sector. But that was the past. Under President Xi, old-fashioned Leninism has got its hands around the throat of the economy as well as around the throats of its citizens. This is not in China’s interest nor is it in our own. But the recent suppression of economic figures such as those covering youth unemployment and consumer confidence, makes it very plain that China’s immediate economic prospects are poor.

I hope that when a strategy document on China eventually emerges from Downing Street and the Foreign Office, everyone will be able to see that it has been written by people who are prepared to stand up for what we believe in as a country. We still have values of which we should be proud – belief in free speech, the liberties of an open society and the rule of law. It is not wet or self-destructive for us to continue to stand up for them. We should also recall the wise observation of a famous Chinese literary critic, writing a century ago, whose remark provides the epigraph of a book by one of the greatest students of China, Simon Leys. The remark by Lu Xun noted that historically the Chinese had always found themselves looking up to foreigners or looking down on them, and had always found it difficult to treat foreigners as friends, as people like themselves.

We might say that if we are not friends, we cannot make ourselves dependent on China in some of the most important areas that affect our security – for example: telecommunications and vital commodities like rare earth minerals.

In Beijing, James Cleverly should have said that while we are happy to play a part in educating young Chinese men and women in our own country, we insist that their experience should be the same as that of other students – namely, that they ought to be educated according to our values, including free enquiry and free speech. We do not want to see surveillance or worse at our universities by the Communist Party, orchestrated by the very large Chinese Students and Scholars Organisation (based in the Chinese embassy). We will continue to encourage the study of China and its language; we do not need the Confucius Institutes (which are funded by the communist United Front organisation) in order to do this. We believe that until China’s friendship is more manifest, there are some areas of research collaboration that have to be out of bounds to Chinese scholars. We want to see more exchanges between our academics and students and those in China, but we deplore the way in which the Chinese authorities deny visas to those who are not prepared to take the Chinese Communist Party’s line in their studies.

In order to achieve these objectives, we will need to look – government and opposition – at the present funding model for higher education; the present one has encouraged some universities to regard recruitment of Chinese students as a vital part of their ability to make ends meet, and some are reluctant to face up to the consequences of this when Beijing tries to interfere with them.

Finally, what is the answer to the question of whether or not China is a threat? Neither Britain nor liberal democracies elsewhere first defined China as a threat first. The Chinese Communist leadership did this themselves at the beginning of President Xi’s reign almost a decade ago. He instructed government and party cadres to engage in “an intense struggle” with all the values that we hold dear in open societies. They are values that Chinese communist leaders regard as an existential threat to their ability to hold on to power. We cannot base our foreign policy on ignoring this.

When standing up for the values of freedom we should remember that there is one Confucian and Chinese society that embraces the liberties we take for granted. I hope it will not be regarded as too provocative to point out that I am, of course, thinking of Taiwan.

[See also: The end of globalisation]

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