Leader: The revenge of history

China’s autocratic turn shows why the UK must end its dependence on the country for essential infrastructure.

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On 1 July, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate 100 years since its creation. At that time, China was mired in what it calls the “century of humiliation”: the period when this ancient civilisation was in decline, abused and manipulated by imperial Russia and Japan. Now, as the world’s ascendant superpower, China is intent on revenge.

In the aftermath of Covid-19 – the discovery of which it initially suppressed – China is forecast to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than anticipated. This remarkable growth has had positive consequences, most notably the removal of around 850 million Chinese from extreme poverty. But contrary to the expectations of Western politicians such as David Cameron and George Osborne – who spoke of a new “golden decade” for Sino-British relations – economic liberalisation has not been accompanied by political liberalisation.

[See also: How Joe Biden’s $1.9 trn stimulus could further destabilise US relations with China]

President Xi Jinping has abolished term limits, making himself the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. He has intensified the persecution of the Uighur people and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang through re-education camps and forced sterilisation. He has destroyed the last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong in defiance of the “one country, two systems” model.

Abroad, as the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson writes, China has “forged a powerful alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and is snuggling up to countries with a grudge against the West, such as Turkey, Iran and North Korea. It is persuading others – Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – to think of China as a more attractive counter to the United States.”

By 2024 the People’s Republic of China will have existed for longer than the USSR did. Owing to its breakneck economic growth and technological capacity (and population of 1.4 billion people), China represents a far more formidable geopolitical foe than the Soviet Union ever did. In the world of international relations, analysts have long feared open conflict between the US and China. The Harvard historian Graham Allison warned in his widely debated book Destined for War (2017) that the two countries could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, “when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result”. The spark could come from Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty and has threatened to take by force. On 30 April Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, warned that tensions with China were “the biggest problem for America, the biggest problem for the world”.

[See also: We are living in a world made by Xi Jinping – and Britain is desperate to find its place in it]

For the UK, this darkening outlook is rightly prompting a realignment. The government has announced that the Chinese tech giant Huawei will be excluded from the UK’s 5G network and has offered citizenship to 350,000 British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong (with a further 2.6 million residents eligible). But Britain remains compromised by its dependence on China. The state-owned China General Nuclear Power holds a 33.5 per cent stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant under construction in Somerset (the UK’s first since 1995). Added to this, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has become the largest operator in the North Sea, boasting on its website that it accounts for “more than 25 per cent of the UK’s oil production, and 10 per cent of the country’s energy needs”. In 2012 the firm’s chairman, Wang Yilin, declared that “large-scale deep-water rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon”. China’s sovereign wealth fund, meanwhile, owns a 10 per cent stake in Heathrow Airport and a 9 per cent stake in Thames Water.

For decades, rather than investing adequately in infrastructure, the UK has subcontracted the task to foreign or private companies (allowing borrowing to be kept off the government’s balance sheet). But China’s autocratic turn has shown the folly of this approach. In a new era of great power conflict, the UK can no longer depend on the kindness of strangers.

[See also: What China’s Five-Year Plan means for the rest of the world]

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?

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