To add some effervescence to its viewing numbers, GB News now features a new section with Nigel Farage drinking pints with guests from 7pm. It’s a refreshing format, no doubt – not least due to the thought of Farage buying a mini keg of Doom Bar on his way to work each day. The Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson and the MPs Graham Brady and Bob Stewart have all been guests thus far and, as you’d expect, there’s a heavy dose of reminiscing most nights.
On 26 July, Farage’s punter was former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable – who since leaving politics in 2019 has rehabilitated his academic career and is pursuing a couple of business ventures alongside writing for newspapers. In a recent article for the Independent, he argued that criticising China could jeopardise the West’s ability to cooperate with Beijing on issues such as climate change. After trading some blows over Brexit, Farage accused Cable of being “something of an apologist” for the Chinese Communist Party. “I’m a believer in realism and recognising that this is probably now the biggest economy in the world,” Cable replied.
On Hong Kong, Cable was quick to justify the crackdown from the Chinese government’s perspective as an attempt to restore “order”, and said that the demonstrations last year “became extremely violent [with] people throwing petrol bombs at the police. I mean that’s not freedom of speech.” Despite describing what is happening in Hong Kong as a “tragedy”, he argued “that is unfortunately the way the Chinese system operates”.
[See also: China in 1983: a miracle waiting to happen?]
What proved even more provocative was Cable’s comment on the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. He said the use of the word “genocide was not right here”, adding: “I mean there are terrible human rights abuses in many countries of minorities, and China is one of them – and they have abused those minorities for sure. But calling it genocide I think is hyping the language.”
One might expect the former leader of the UK’s liberal party to offer a few words of solidarity for a persecuted population, instead of quibbling over the correct label for human rights violations. As the human rights lawyer Philippe Sands told the New Statesman’s Ido Vock last year: “What’s happening [to the Uighurs] is terrible, period, and it is not less terrible if it is not genocide”. And, of course, simply pointing out that human rights violations occur elsewhere does not detract from the abuse in question.
Cable’s comments show that it’s not just the Conservative Party that is at risk of fracturing over China. Following the GB News show, Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uighurs Alistair Carmichael tweeted: “Vince was a long-standing colleague whose views I always valued, especially on the economy. But on this he is wrong.” Cable’s comments are also at odds with the Liberal Democrats’ official line that “the Chinese government is engineering a genocide”.
Farage’s soirée also served a warning about the direction of the UK’s debate over China’s rise – a debate that will only grow in importance as Beijing grows bolder in flexing its muscles. Cable’s commitment to a “practical, business-like approach” mirrors the current government’s concerns that confronting China will have economic consequences for Britain. For Farage, whose populist instincts reliably trump his support for free trade, the rise of China is an opportunity to brandish the emotional appeal of nationalism. (“Where’s the condemnation?!… Where is it? What are we scared of?” Farage cried at one point.)
With the Brexit saga mostly concluded, Farage has been clear that China is “his next big battle to fight”. If Farage were to capture the debate around China, the discourse could become riven with the uglier sentiment he channelled during the Brexit debate. Though Labour MPs and human rights activists have been vocal on China for a while, there’s a risk that populist voices such as Farage become louder and louder as the night draws on.