Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: 2020 was a reality check on China. Trade offers opportunities for the UK to assert its values.

15 Feb

Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.

Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.

Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).

It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.

A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?

Trade and Environment

As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.

Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?

Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.

Recent Assertiveness

China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.

Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .

This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.

Action Together

China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.

David Green: The new Commission on Unalienable Rights allows us to compare America and Communist China

3 Aug

David Green is CEO of Civitas.

Is it time for a change of policy towards China? As we rethink our strategy, instead of referring to China, we should speak of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to remind ourselves that we are dealing with an authoritarian dictatorship. We will constantly misunderstand Chinese rulers if we fail to recognise a simple truth: the ruling party in China is an organisation for keeping power in its own hands. It is as much in conflict with the Chinese people as with foreigners, as the experience of Hong Kong has reminded us.

The party doesn’t even have the excuse of believing that its high ideals justify violent methods. Everything is an instrument for keeping power. If voicing highfalutin ideals helps, then they will be proclaimed. If ideals widely shared in human history are obstacles, such as universal values and an autonomous civil society, then they will be denounced. Power is everything.

In the West, we are reluctant to think that a regime could be quite that bad. There is good in all of us and we never stop looking for it. But the internal documents of the CCP repeatedly give the game away. Take one prime example, the infamous Document Number Nine, distributed to party leaders in 2012 soon after Xi Jinping came to power. It was leaked the following year and we know that the person responsible was jailed for seven years for revealing state secrets. They didn’t want us to know about it. A translation is freely available on the website of the online publication, ChinaFile.

The document highlights seven false ideological trends found among the Chinese people. The first is promoting Western constitutional democracy, whose dubious characteristics include the separation of powers, the multi-party system, general elections, and an independent judiciary. The goal of Chinese enthusiasts for Western constitutional democracy is seen as undermining the CCP’s leadership and abolishing the People’s Democracy.

The second target is the promotion of universal values. Chinese people who champion them aim to “weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership” and supplant the core values of socialism.

The third ideological tenet is “promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation”. This dubious doctrine holds that individual rights are paramount and that they “ought to be immune to obstruction by the state”. But advocates of civil society want to “squeeze the party out of leadership of the masses at the local level”. The fourth target is the neoliberal market economy, which aims to “weaken the government’s control of the national economy”.

The fifth target is promoting the West’s idea of journalism, which challenges “China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to party discipline”. The ultimate goal of advocating Western-style journalism “is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of press, oppose the party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology”.

Sixth is promoting “historical nihilism” or questioning the CCP’s interpretation of the past. The aim is “to fundamentally undermine the CCP’s historical purpose, which is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance”.

Finally there is questioning reform and “the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. If these ideas are allowed to spread, “they will disturb people’s existing consensus on important issues”. Within China’s borders, some private organisations were creating “reactionary underground publications”, filming documentaries on “sensitive subject matter”, and “defaming the party and the national leadership”.

The seven ideological trends must be resisted by strengthening “leadership in the ideological sphere” and forcefully resisting “influential and harmful false tides of thoughts”. The party must not permit “the dissemination of opinions that oppose the party’s theory or political line”. There must be “unwavering adherence to the principle of the party’s control of media”. We must persist in “correct guidance of public opinion, insisting that the correct political orientation suffuse every domain and process in political engagement, form, substance, and technology”.

Finally, the party must reinforce our management of “all types and levels of propaganda” and “allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread”. The party must “strengthen guidance of public opinion on the Internet” and “purify the environment of public opinion on the Internet”.

If the document had aimed to define totalitarianism as succinctly as possible, it could hardly have done a better job. As it happens the US State Department has just published the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which allows us to compare America and Communist China.

There are plenty of Americans who criticise their own country, most notably for failure in race relations, and there are some who detect a whiff of unbridled power seeking in President Trump’s proposal to delay the November election. He was, however, overruled by Congress within a few hours (whereas no one in China can overrule the supreme leader).

The report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is a nuanced defence of a free society, which steadfastly defends its own values without arrogance or righteousness. The preface begins with an acknowledgement of America’s faults. With recent racial divisions in mind, it says:

“With the eyes of the world upon her, America must show the same honest self-examination and efforts at improvement that she expects of others. America’s dedication to unalienable rights – the rights all human beings share – demands no less.”

The report reaffirms America’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) because it reflects America’s founding values. Perhaps with China in mind, the report asserts that there can be no moral equivalence between “rights-respecting countries that fall short in progress toward their ideals” and countries that “regularly and massively trample on their citizens’ human rights”.

Maybe the sharpest contrast with Document Number Nine is found in the declaration that “in a free society, the laws will leave a vast range of human activity to the conscience of each” and in its reminder that the US Constitution protects freedom of speech “by declining to give Congress the power to pass laws prescribing or proscribing beliefs, utterances, and publications”.

The report urges the American Government to defend human rights with renewed vigour, with pride in what has been accomplished, combined with humility born of the awareness of her own “shortcomings and imperfections”. But, it proclaims that in the war of ideas between liberal democracy and autocracy, “the uneven progress of liberal democracies does not invalidate the lofty goals to which they are dedicated”.

About the same time as Document Number Nine was being sent to Communist leaders, our own David Cameron and George Osborne were declaring a “golden era” in relations with China. Looking back we can perhaps see that this was one of the biggest foreign-policy blunders of recent times.