Dispatches from a cross-party trip to China
Richard Graham reports on a recent all-party mission to China intent on forging a brighter future with one of the world’s great new powers
China has played a big part in my life. I first visited there as a curious tourist from Hong Kong in 1980, and not long after for work (aviation) purposes. As a diplomat, I was British Trade Commissioner China and HM Consul for Macao immediately after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and later created and chaired the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai when living there as a businessman in the 90s. I was part of the 1993 Anglo-Chinese expedition that crossed the Taklamakan Desert on foot for the first time.
My wife and I helped enable the first jv British-Chinese charity (Care4Children, which set up the first foster care system in China and has helped over half a million children to be fostered.) Our younger son was the first British baby born in China since the 1949 revolution. I’ve been a director of a firm advising British businesses in China, of a New York-listed China investment fund and on the council of the China Britain Business Council.
So, it was inevitable that China would play a part in my time in Parliament, not least as a Mandarin and Cantonese speaker, and I’ve chaired the APPCG since 2012.
We try and do two things: firstly, enable as many MPs as possible, and some peers, to visit China – in most cases for the first time. And secondly to be the platform of debate in Parliament on all issues of bilateral debate – from animal rights to geostrategy in the South China Sea.
We currently have about 330 members, making us one of the largest APPGs. And this is right because whereas two decades ago most British interest in the region was focused on the handover of Hong Kong (with two former governors in the House of Lords), today it is the influence and presence of mainland China and/or Chinese businesses in the world, in every sector and even in most constituencies that MPs need to understand, while not forgetting our valuable role of guarantor of the freedoms of the joint declaration.
Every year we aim to make two if not three trips to China and one to Hong Kong. That includes – alternating between Beijing and Britain – an in-depth discussion between the National People’s Congress and Parliament. Of course, the two systems, not least in elections and impact, are very different. In China, the Communist Party is master of all, including the military, the courts and the legislators. And whereas senior NPC members are often retired government ministers, our new parliamentarians may soon be future ministers.
I can think of at least a dozen current ministers who first went to China on an APPG delegation. There is no better way of getting acquainted with the style and structure of Chinese official meetings, of seeing both historical and current events from a Chinese perspective and understanding the extraordinary changes of the last 40 years since Deng Xiaoping opened up.
This year six MPs (three from each of the major parties) spent three full days in Beijing. We were briefed on our huge visa operation and the rise of inward bound tourism and education: on human rights and the situation in Xinjiang (which is not good, and likely to become a focal point of western concern); and on British business and the Shanghai International Import Expo. Current Trade Commissioner Richard Burn shared some examples of increased market access which the DIT team is working on, and which is important to show reciprocity with the openness of Britain to inward Chinese investment. This would also help address US concerns.
Inevitably we discussed the US/ China Trade War with Chinese government and think tank/academic representatives. We came away with a strong sense that China was willing to engage on the detail of tariffs, but that US concerns went much wider – security, defence and IP. The bottom line is that trade barriers are bad for us all – and will cause an Asian slowdown as well as impacting US exports and standards of living. But at the same time several US concerns, particularly around cyber and lack of access reciprocity, do ring true in the UK as well.
We also discussed the psychological implications of being close to the world’s leading economic nation. It puts China under scrutiny and a spotlight that she is not used to: and a Communist hierarchy does not welcome criticism, especially from the media or foreigners. So questions about China’s growing international role and decisions are invariably more sensitive than they would be here. Our own Prime Minister’s recent press conference about the government’s Brexit deal is unimaginable in a Chinese context, but they will need to get more used to that as China’s strength and involvement overseas grows.
Then we looked at ways of working more closely together in this era of strategic partnership. There are a multitude of state-to-state initiatives (for example with the China Centre for International Knowledge on Development, and more generally on aid work in third countries): also, co-operation through separate multinational bodies (like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, that Britain was the first western country to recognise), and between businesses.
On everything tech, there are discussions about how to do more together. Colleagues raised specific areas of opportunity – Lillian Greenwood as Chair of the Transport Select Cttee was impressed by a max speed 330 km/h high-speed train to Tianjin: Nigel Huddleston focused on DCMS opportunities and Jess Phillips on gender equality. Jonathan Reynolds raised ways of working more closely in the financial sector (for example using the London Stock Exchange to raise more capital), while questioning the scope of Belt and Road.
It was good towards the end to see what a small British NGO is doing to help with the education needs of migrant children in Beijing, with masses of volunteers for eg English lessons. Our engagement with China is, of course, institutional – government, parliament to NPC, business to business etc – but the people to people side is where trust and human relationships are developed. This was a wonderfully positive example of what an NGO can achieve.
At the end, one of our team wrote to me: ‘I’ve learnt so much, it’s been totally eye-opening and I will forever have an interest in China’. That’s exactly the purpose of these visits.
Every MP will make up their own mind about the balance of lifting millions out of poverty and a human rights record that has to improve: of extraordinary urban development and environmental challenges; of political stability and suppression. But the key thing is to engage with one of the world’s great new powers.
The previous generation by and large never really had to: our children cannot afford not to – and we are the bridge generation, improving our understanding. The APPG visits and the UK China leadership Forum provide great opportunities to discuss and debate with some of China’s most internationally focused officials. If any MP would like to be involved do let me know.
Richard Graham is Conservative MP for Gloucester and chair of the China APPG