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End of the ‘golden era’? The growing calls for a ‘decoupling’ from China

Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a UK-China Business Summit during his 2015 state visit

17 min read

The Chinese Ambassador to the UK last week warned that increasingly vocal criticisms of Beijing from Conservative Members of Parliament risked “poisoning” UK-China relations. What’s behind the rift, and how should the UK approach one of the key foreign policy challenges of the coming decade? Sebastian Whale reports

A curious by-product of the coronavirus pandemic could be not only a potential recalibration of British foreign policy, but of globalisation itself. It could force a rethink of how countries engage, encourage greater self-dependency, and cause pause for thought over relations with countries such as China, whose actions have become a source of concern.

Beijing’s handling of the outbreak has focused the minds of its critics. Last month a number of Tory MPs, led by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Neil O’Brien, a former Treasury adviser, launched the China Research Group, saying it was time for “fresh thinking” about Britain’s approach. Concerns have been brewing for years and plans for the group have been in the works for around six months, but the pandemic has given them added impetus. “[Coronavirus] didn’t spawn it; it accelerated it,” Tugendhat says, adding that the “reality of engagement with China has been made very stark” by this crisis. Interest in the group has been “very strong”, he adds, with several politicians in other parties now seeking to get involved.

These increasingly vocal criticisms – over human rights, punitive economic policies, and a democratic deficit – have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, last week accused some UK MPs of being addicted to a “Cold War mentality”, and warned that “if they go unchecked, they will poison the China-UK joint effort, and even international solidarity, just as it’s needed most.”

Given China’s dominance in certain markets, particularly in relation to technology, and its essential role to play in combating areas such as climate change, there is a realpolitik facing those who may want to cut and run. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, neatly sums up the conundrum. “There is no global problem that can be solved without China’s input,” she tells us.

In this reality, how should the UK approach one of the key foreign policy challenges of the coming decade?

The coronavirus crisis has led to a mindset change in how the UK approaches diplomatic ties with China, or more pertinently, its ruling Communist Party. Speaking in Downing Street last month, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said there was “no doubt” that there can be no return to “business as usual” after this crisis. “We will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn't have been stopped earlier,” he added. 

There is no global problem that can be solved without China’s input

The CCP’s handling of the outbreak, which included obfuscation and intimidation, confirmed what some already knew to be true. “What we’ve always known is that all dictatorships find it very difficult to manage crises,” says Tom Tugendhat. “Sometimes it’s because people are terrified of telling the truth, because they fear they’ll be punished for it, sometimes it’s because the regime is vulnerable for one reason or another, and therefore then hides the bad news in return. What we’re seeing here is that the consequences of that have led to a global pandemic.”

The evidence for this claim has been well documented: the authorities tried to silence Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who was the first to raise the alarm about a new virus, and later died of Covid-19. On New Year’s Eve 2019, China alerted the World Health Organisation of several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province with a population of 11 million people. 

Officials initially insisted that only those who came into contact with infected animals could catch coronavirus. Some senior MPs claim China downplayed aspects of the crisis in order to sign phase one of a trade deal with the United States, which came into force on 15 January 2020. By the end of the month, the death toll in China had risen to 170, with more than 7,700 reported cases in 31 provinces. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, announced a global emergency. 

The pandemic has exposed varying degrees of preparedness in the international community, and poked holes in the fabric of many global institutions. WHO has faced criticism for taking China at its word towards the start of the crisis, while Donald Trump was among those to claim the organisation was too in hoc to Beijing. The US President later froze funding for the UN body.

The US, UK and Italy are among those to now have more deaths from Covid-19 than China – though there are doubts over the country’s reporting of fatalities and other statistics.

Benedict Rogers, a human rights campaigner and senior official at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says: “While no government in its response to the pandemic has been perfect… at the root of this is the repression of the truth rather than the repression of the virus in the early stages by the Chinese regime, that has caused this pandemic.”

Lord Patten, the former British governor of Hong Kong, wrote to Dominic Raab to say there is an “overwhelming case” to send a mission to Wuhan to investigate the origin of the coronavirus outbreak. “Since Chinese communists are adamant that they have nothing to hide, they would presumably welcome such an inquiry,” he noted.

Though Beijing has resisted calls for an independent international investigation, saying such a probe would be politically motivated, the country has been on hand to provide data and medical equipment to countries suffering outbreaks. Chen Wen, a minister and first staff member of the Chinese Embassy in the UK, claimed China’s shutdown of Wuhan on 23 January helped to reduce the spread to other countries “by 77%”. “Chinese people have paid a high price for that,” she told the BBC. 

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, says it’s “a mixed picture”. “As well as there being obvious concerns about how information was filtered out of Wuhan into the outside world and some of the actions taken by the Chinese government, there has also subsequently been a level of global cooperation around data sharing and information sharing that’s been really important for other countries in tackling the virus.”

Nandy adds: “So, when this is over, there is going to have to be a global inquiry into what has happened to make sure that we learn the lessons, particularly the lessons of what we got wrong. But I think it is a bit too early to definitively judge China’s role in the whole episode.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory party leader, argues: “Since their outbreak they are busy producing masks for everybody and saying this is all about international cooperation. But if anyone buys that, then they’re completely naive.”

So if relations cannot return to business as usual, what needs to change?

In October 2015, George Osborne hailed a “golden era” between the UK and China, after a week of deals worth more than £30bn were signed between the two nations. President Xi Jingping addressed both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery. During his state visit, he shared a pint with David Cameron at a pub near Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.

Duncan Smith, who sat in Cabinet at the time, argues: “I was very concerned about the great drive under Osborne to open up China and for us to go and charge over there and talk about doing business with them. It’s been a very one-way street, frankly. We run a significant trade deficit with China. It is not a very healthy position to be in.”

Tugendhat says it would be “absolutely wrong” to criticise Osborne and David Cameron, as the pair “looked at the world quite reasonably in 2010 and saw opportunities that they sought to take based on the perfectly reasonable idea that China would evolve and open up and this would be good for everyone”. “That was the plan,” he adds. “The reality is, it hasn’t panned out like that.”

In the ensuing years, Xingping has secured himself the presidency for life, and outlined an eponymous political philosophy, which has been enshrined in the constitution. In short, the president has enacted a power grab that has rendered hopes of his being a liberal premiership all but dead.

Tory MP Neil O’Brien, who worked as an advisor to Osborne at the time of his “golden era” speech, says: “When Xi first came in, you could think that China would still be on a path of reform that it had been on since Deng Xiaoping in the late 70s. It’s the things that have happened since then that make you think that something profound has changed.”

China’s Belt and Road initiative – a programme that seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks – has not lived up to the expectations set out seven years ago, with projects marred by delays, debt and negative publicity. In the South China Sea, Beijing has continued its attempts to claim the resource-rich water as its own.

Meanwhile, China’s human rights abuses to the Uighur Muslims, with hundreds of thousands detained in so-called re-education camps, have caused horror and consternation. “This is the largest surveillance and internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust,” Conservative peer Baroness Warsi wrote in The House earlier this year. She added: “We are witnessing a repeat of the horrors and we are failing to protect – it's clear we have forgotten and failed to learn.”

“The list you keep ticking is phenomenal,” Duncan Smith says. “Their behaviour in human rights terms is shocking. They use the Uighurs for slave labour in reeducation camps, which is appalling. Their treatment of Christians, the Tibetans, and then on top of that you’ve got China’s complete dismissal of international rules in the attempt to take over the South China Sea.”

China’s state-led economic model has also concerned Western policy-makers. “You also have a decade worth of promises to stop doing all the things that they do, be it industrial subsidies, be it massive support for state-owned enterprises, be it aggressive capture of IP through either industrial espionage or forced joint ventures where you lose your technology,” says Neil O’Brien. 

In 2002 or 2012 it was an optimistic take to think that China was going to reform. By 2020, it’s pretty clear that's not the direction Xi is taking

“We are not seeing progress on those things anymore, we’re seeing regression and a determined attempt to be number one in all of these things using very, very aggressive and unfair economic policies.”

He adds: “If you were writing about China in 2002 or in 2012 for that matter, you might think it was an optimistic take to think that China was going to reform its economy and keep doing that as it had done for a long time. By 2020, it’s pretty clear that it’s not the direction Xi is taking China in.”

Lord Alton, a crossbench peer and longstanding critic of the CCP, says the UK has “pursued a naive approach of kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party regime, being too often silent in public on the grave human rights concerns, turning a blind eye to the regime's increasing aggression well beyond its borders, and compromising national security.”

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, says the UK changed tack after William Hague left the Foreign Office in 2014. “Rather than a foreign policy, Britain adopted a path of economic and trade policy which subsumed everything else,” she says.

In its place, Nandy advocates a foreign policy that prioritises human rights and values. “The dominance of economics and trade relationships at the cost of other terms of engagement has been really damaging for Britain and has been damaging globally. Not least because what we’ve seen is that if you neglect issues like human rights, you increase instability across the world; if you neglect issues like climate change, then you can’t possibly build a solid economic foundation globally,” she says.

“All of these things are intertwined, and if we hadn’t learned that already, we do need to learn that now. There has got to be a much more comprehensive, internationalist, values-based approach from Britain going forward.”

Benedict Rogers agrees. “We should be much bolder at speaking out on the human rights issues, certainly defending Hong Kong where we have a specific responsibility under the Sino-British joint declaration, but also speaking out against the terrible atrocities that the Uighurs are facing.”

Lord Alton says: “I would not want to advocate a position that suggests that trade does not matter. But trade should not be values-blind and it should be conducted as far as possible in ways that benefit both the people of the UK and the people of the countries with whom we trade, and human rights concerns should be at the centre of foreign policy.”

The reality is that, by dint of the size, influence and power of China, few would argue that ties should be severed all together. Lisa Nandy calls for a twin pillar strategy that first centres on working constructively with Beijing to tackle major issues such as climate change or responding to pandemics. “The second is how do we build greater strategic independence as a country,” she adds.

This is a view shared across contributors to this article, who note that modern economies cannot be reliant on one country for certain aspects of trade. Iain Duncan Smith says: “The free world now has to come together and understand that it has created this leviathan, and now it has to figure out how to get all this back under control in a normal and reasonable way. No one country is capable of doing it alone.”

He adds: “The truth is the Chinese do not see themselves as reacting to the rest of the world, they always see themselves as the rest of the world reacting to China.”

Benedict Rogers says: “It seems crazy that we are seen to be so dependent on China for certain things in the supply chain. We should be not stopping trade with China – very few people would advocate that – but diversifying, looking to other markets in the developing world… but also looking to produce more at home. I certainly wouldn’t want us to pull up the drawbridge and end globalisation. But we should rethink globalisation and diversify more.”

Rogers and Duncan Smith also recommend strengthening ties with Taiwan, a neighbouring country that China sees as a breakaway province, along with other countries in Asia such as Japan and Korea that are “closer to [our] democratic values”, says Rogers. 

The Huawei deal is finished. They’ll never get that through the Commons

An immediate headache for Boris Johnson comes in the shape of the decision to allow Huawei some involvement in the UK’s 5G network. Senior Tories who oppose the move on national security grounds believe the policy is now dead in the water, and the United States has expressed continued discomfort at the decision to allow the technology company access. “That’s finished because they’ll never get that through the House,” says Duncan Smith.

Reports suggest that Washington is drawing up contingency plans of how to react if the UK persists with the current plans. America is in the midst of repositioning its approach to Beijing following a high-profile war of words, as each side seeks to assign blame for the spread of coronavirus.

MPs such as Neil O’Brien feel this could force the UK’s hand. “The US is doing a lot of legislation to decouple from China in lots of ways and favour domestic supply,” he says, adding: “The other thing that changes the facts on the ground is the China-US technology competition has really kicked off in a big way, and that will pose inevitable questions for us about how we’re going to manage that.”

In June last year, protests began in Hong Kong over plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Since 1997, after Britain returned the colony to China, it has been under a one country, two systems arrangement. The moves to allow extradition – dropped in September – has led to renewed calls for full democracy. Clashes with police have often been violent.

For Benedict Rogers, who founded Hong Kong Watch, a charity that monitors the freedoms of the region, the recent sea-change in how people now talk about the Chinese government is welcome.

“I don’t know if I would use the word vindication, but certainly I do welcome the fact that more and more people are now waking up to the fact that this is an exceptionally repressive and aggressive regime,” he tells me.

“What we’ve seen in China under Xi Jingping is that he’s taken both internal repression to a whole new level, but also external aggression and the propaganda and bullying, particularly around the coronavirus. It has made people wake up. I certainly feel that things that I was saying a few years ago, now people are recognising.”

Critics of the CCP are keen to draw a distinction between the actions of the Chinese government and its countrymen and women. The coronavirus outbreak was greeted with a rise in hate crime against Chinese people, with 267 reports made across the UK between January and March. Some 375 hate crimes were recorded against the same group for the whole of 2019. 

Morally we don’t want a backlash of anti-Chinese racism and sadly there have been incidents

“Morally we don’t want a backlash of anti-Chinese racism and sadly there have been incidents,” says Rogers. “If we did go down that path, it actually plays into the Chinese Communist party’s narrative of nationalism, ‘this is China against the West, this is the West trying to defeat China’. If that was fuelled, that would be very counterproductive. So we need to convey the clear message that... we are for the Chinese people and China as a country. It is specifically how we approach this regime that we should rethink.”

Lord Alton, vice chair of the cross-party Westminster Friends of Hong Kong group, says: “We must be very clear – it is not China as a country or the Chinese people with whom we have a problem – quite the reverse. Indeed they are the primary victims of the Chinese Communist Party's cruel and inhumane rule.”

Tugendhat and O’Brien say their China Research Group aims to improve the quality of conversation and knowledge of China in Parliament by looking at the wide range of issues. Interest in the group has been “very strong”, says Tugendhat. “Suffice to say that it’s a very, very large percentage now of the parliamentary party, and indeed with quite a lot of people in other parties wanting to be involved and informed.”

Duncan Smith says the Chinese leadership is increasingly ratted by the emerging bloc of Beijing-sceptics in the UK. “The Ambassador put out some pathetic statement about this being a small minority trying to reinvent the Cold War,” he says. “You can see what the Chinese are up to now, worried as they are about being blamed for this outbreak. They are out bullying everybody and threatening them. They’re doing it in America, they’re doing it here.”

For his public utterances, Tugendhat has been on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. In a tweet, he revealed that he had been the subject of a hack. “... A pretty sophisticated hacker is seeking to impersonate me and hack others. Any ideas who it could be?” Tugendhat says now: “People are sending out emails claiming to be me. It is a moderate nuisance, but it’s fine.”

For the past three years, the European Research Group – a band of predominantly pro-Brexit Tory MPs – has been at the centre of British politics. With the divorce phase of Brexit been and gone, and the trade deal in the offing, attention will begin to shift away from the European debate. Could the CRG become the new focal point?

“The whole issue of how to deal with the Chinese government is going to be a massive and inescapable issue that will go and on,” replies O’Brien. “So, we better get our thinking clear.”

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