Tom Tugendhat: 'China runs as a very big open prison'
Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat speaking to the media at the Armagh city hotel, Northern Ireland, June 2019 | PA Images
Despite his summer of receiving threats, Tom Tugendhat isn’t one to be silenced. The Foreign Affairs Committee chair speaks to Alain Tolhurst, about China, increasing Britain’s influence, and why he supports the ‘rebalance’ of less commuting
Tom Tugendhat is not one to be easily intimidated. The chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee and former Army officer is also one of the co-convenors of the China Research Group in Parliament. As such, he is no stranger to being targeted by Beijing for his interest in British-Sino relations.
After revealing he was the victim of hacking attempts and online impersonation by “Chinese actors” earlier this summer, last weekend he posted a copy online of an anonymous letter sent to his house from Hong Kong, calling it “a pretty crude form of intimidation”.
Speaking over Zoom from his home in Kent, Tugendhat says he didn’t feel “particularly targeted”. “I know for a fact that they’re sending similar stuff to a lot of people and it’s really an attempt just to convince people that they really shouldn’t speak out,” he explains.
“For some people if you had reasons to be concerned because of the influence that can be put on you in China or Hong Kong this might be enough to convince you to back down.
“The ‘I know where you live’ message is something that those of us who served in uniform have heard from various people over the years, and it’s designed to intimidate.
“I personally don’t find it terribly intimidating because I know that our security services are very good, and I’m confident in the security forces of the UK and I’m confident that we’re fine.
“But if I were an activist and outspoken and had family in mainland China I’d be concerned – and that’s why I’m calling it out,” he concludes.
Given that he has shown over the past few years he is impervious to such activity, why is he still being targeted, is it just to be a nuisance?
“But that in itself has a purpose,” Tugendhat replies. “You assume that there’s some sort of great strategic mind that is powering this, there isn’t. China has one of the largest security forces in the world, unsurprisingly as it runs a very big open prison, that prison is called China – you either cooperate with the guards or you end up in very serious trouble.
“And we know that it it’s literally how the country runs, it’s a country run by security forces and a very large surveillance state.”
He believes that as those who work for the Chinese state are “to a certain extent the guards of a very large prison, that level of control means that some of those guards do things abroad that are not particularly co-ordinated.”
“I suspect this is one of those things”, he adds.
The idea that we’re going to have nothing to do with our European partners as the PM has regularly said is wrong
One of Tugendhat’s priorities now is trying to convince Boris Johnson to focus more on how the UK will work with the EU after Brexit.
“We’ve had a lot of “no’, we need to learn where are the ‘yeses’, because the idea that we’re going to have nothing to do with our European partners as the PM has regularly said is wrong,” he says.
Giving the example of North Sea pollution, removing co-operation with other European countries will “leave Britain exposed to pollution being dumped on us by other countries”, Tugendhat warns.
“Another area is, frankly, we are seeing the world changing very rapidly away from the sort of distributed operating system that has really been in practise for the last 70 years of treaties and alliances keeping us broadly sort of stable,” he explains.
“And we’re going more and more towards hub and spoke systems, most obviously with China trying to effectively create a new imperial model.
“Thats a real problem for the UK as a trading power, so what are we going to do to reinforce the international rules-based system?” he queries.
Tugendhat is waiting for the Government to come up with a more over-arching policy in relation to China, rather than its current “responsive” approach. However, for him it is not about Britain taking on Beijing – but the world. “Our role within it is to work with others to help build alliances to help structure a response”.
When it comes to one of the major sticking points for the Government’s relationship with China and its own backbenchers, he welcomes the updated stance on Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s connectivity infrastructure. However, he has not diminished in his long-term view there needs to be a wider strategy on tech “where we do need to defend not just our own interests but actually many of our corporate aspects too”.
Unlike some of his colleagues on the Tory benches, Tugendhat was pleased to see the new plaque announcing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, put up just before we speak. He believes the merger to be “a real opportunity for the Foreign Office”.
“There is a need to align our interests overseas so we deliver a single unified arm of Government”, he explains.
“People expect that the money that goes on aid goes to those most in need, and those who really need the help, but it must also be aligned to British government policy.
“For two reasons; one we should never do anything that runs counter to the interest of the British people, and two for the very obvious reason that if you align judicial reform or trade reform or whatever it is, along with aid, then you’re going to increase the delivery that you’re going to be able to achieve.”
“When I was in Afghanistan there were certainly incidents where different people who were working for DfID told me that they didn’t work for the British government,” he says, adding: “Which I always found slightly bizarre, given that they were paid for by taxpayers.”
He is quick to praise the recent work of the department, and its final secretary of state Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s role with Gavi, the vaccine alliance.
However Tugendhat also believes that “more strategic alignment is exactly what Government should be doing”. “There is a real opportunity to leverage the fact Britain is now the largest donor to the World Health Organization. Where are we getting the influence that we should from that?” he questions, looking beyond the immediate Covid crisis.
“For many countries around the world, the WHO is the public health authority, there isn’t a ‘Public Health England’ version… We really should be making sure that the level of support we’re giving generates more than just a bit of mild goodwill. It should also generate a bit of influence, in the sense of delivering the kind of reforms we wish to see.
“Whether they are democratic reforms, police reforms, commercial reforms, whatever it happens to be, this definitely shouldn’t simply sort of be ‘aid for trade’ in a crude sense, but democratic reforms that promote good governance and lead to good economic outcomes for everybody – as the Marshall Plan discovered in the late 1940s.”
He is critical of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the WHO, calling it a “mistake” to step away from the table. “While you may not like the influence you have when you’re sat at it, if you leave it you’ll have less”, Tugendhat warns.
He added: “I understand it because of the way the WHO has behaved towards China but I don’t think it’s improved by leaving it.”
The biggest mistake we have made in recent months has been not bringing people with us
Closer to home, he has been supportive of the push to get all pupils back to school, saying the danger is we will see a “lost generation” of children and “exaggerate existing inequalities”. However, he is not as keen on the PM’s messaging on returning to offices.
“I want people to get back to work but what that means will be different to other people,” he explains.
Tugendhat adds: “Many people have been looking for a rebalancing of life for a very long time. I’m always cautious about the Government telling people how to run their lives. There are 65 million people in the UK and the reason I’m a Conservative is because I don’t think Whitehall knows best.
“I think 65 million people know best about how to run their lives and it’s not for me to tell people how to do it.”
“If people wish to commute less or they wish to work from different offices, in Tonbridge rather than going all the way to London, if they wish to structure their lives differently because the nature of society for the last six or seven months, they can use online communications rather than being present – I think that’s good,” he says.
Overall, he feels there has been a “challenge over messaging” from Government, adding that the “biggest mistake we have made in recent months has been not bringing people with us”.
“It’s not that the decisions were wrong it’s that we haven’t explained them, and that’s caused people to doubt, to not be sure,” Tugendhat adds.
“A real problem I think we’ve had in the last thirty tears is an over-centralisation on urban areas and a stripping out of towns – and I don’t care if that town is Tonbridge or Wigan – we’ve seen towns go increasingly towards dormitory status.
“I think a reversal of that is not a bad thing – lowering pressure on commuting and transport infrastructure and increasing the flow to our local areas I think is a good thing.
“So I’m not going to lecture people about whether they should go up to London or not.”