By Phil Entwistle
Suddenly everybody is talking about China again. It wasn’t long after the proclamation of the ‘Golden Era of UK-China relations’ following Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain in 2015, that we became too preoccupied by our own domestic convulsions – Brexit, two elections and the associated political carnage – to give the world’s largest rising power much thought.
In 2020 this has changed. From the Covid pandemic, which has underlined China’s interconnectedness with the wider world, to the UK’s debate over Huawei’s role in our telecoms infrastructure, to Hong Kong’s introduction of repressive new national security legislation, to the mass extra-judicial internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, China has rarely been out of the news.
Furthermore, attitudes towards China are hardening across the industrialised world – whether in Europe, Australia, or the USA, where the incoming Biden administration’s approach to China is likely to be just as firm, though less mercurial, than that of Trump. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has added its voice to the chorus of those calling for a tougher line on China, as has the China Research Group, founded by a group of British Conservative MPs earlier this year.
The UK-China Relationship
Indeed, a rethink of the UK’s approach to China had long been in order. In the 1990s and 2000s it was possible to argue that healthy relations with China brought benefits to all sides; and that despite ongoing abuses, China was moving in the right direction: living standards were improving, the party-state was retreating from regulating every aspect of citizens’ lives, and millions of Chinese were exposed to foreign cultures for the first time as they travelled abroad in increasing numbers for study, work or tourism.
However, China has not been immune from the wave of populist authoritarianism sweeping the globe in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis: following his installation as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, Xi Jinping has taken an increasingly hard line at home and abroad. Domestically, Xi has cracked down on any groups that could potentially challenge CCP rule – whether civil rights lawyers, academics, feminists, NGOs, internet celebrities, Hong Kong activists or ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs. Abroad, Xi’s China has used economic power to bully its critics, stepped up influence operations in foreign countries, hardened its stance on Taiwan and the South China Sea, and launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure programme that some view as an attempt to entrench PRC dominance of the Eurasian continent.
In response, Tory policy on China has been a lurching rollercoaster of inconsistency. In 2012 David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, enraging Chinese officials who view His Holiness as a separatist leader. Cameron then switched course, launching the short-lived ‘Golden Era’ of UK-China relations, during which the government brushed aside questions of human rights and national security in favour of the promotion of economic ties.
The Conservatives are now divided over China, with increasingly hawkish backbenchers pitched against a Johnson government that is part-wedded to the still-twitching remains of Golden-Era fantasies of a Chinese economic bonanza, now re-branded in the language of post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’.
Labour must be proactive, consistent and internationalist
Labour must do better. Our policy on China must reject both uncritical engagement and disengagement in favour of critical engagement - uncompromising on morality or national security, whilst recognising the areas in which the UK’s interests do align with those of China and keeping the door open to constructive dialogue.
It should be proactive, founded on long-term strategic policy goals and not on reactions to short-term political exigencies. It should be consistent, based on clear transparent principles. It should be internationalist, underpinned by a commitment to human rights. It should be unified, developed in consultation with like-minded allies - particularly the EU and its member states. Finally, it should be well-informed, rooted in a deep understanding of China and not in the simplistic, pre-baked views promoted by the Communist Party or those of its bitter foes.
With this in mind, Labour should focus on the following six strategic priorities in its China policy.
Firstly, Labour policy must safeguard the national security of the UK and its allies in dealing with China – especially in the areas of cybersecurity, supply chains, and China’s influence operations. Labour needs to be more proactive in advocating the blocking of transactions that go against the UK’s national interest; in incorporating into its future industrial strategy the development of parallel domestic supply chains that can be scaled up should imports from China be disrupted; and in promoting more strategic approach to CCP interference operations. As Charles Parton has argued, the government should launch ‘a cross-Whitehall effort to map the extent of the problem in the UK to alert, quantify risks and agree measures’ and brief leaders in law enforcement, regulatory agencies and universities about specific challenges emanating from PRC party-state-affiliated bodies.
Secondly, Labour must take a principled stance on China’s human rights record. Public condemnation of human rights abuses is necessary but insufficient. Labour must push for the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to be strengthened to introduce penalties for businesses whose supply chains include the use of forced labour from China. Chinese companies complicit in human rights abuses in China, such as Hikvision, should be banned from operating in the UK. Similarly, Labour should continue to promote the extension of Magnitsky sanctions to Chinese officials who have designed and implemented repressive policies.
Thirdly, whilst drawing clear red lines on issues national security and human rights, a future Labour government nevertheless needs to be willing to work with China in multilateral forums to tackle global challenges – most pressingly, the climate emergency.
In the run up to COP26, Labour is right to push the government to lead by example with a green economic recovery that prioritises the creation of jobs to accelerate the UK’s decarbonisation. Xi has outlined ambitious proposals to make China carbon neutral by 2060. Labour should promote co-operation with the EU in developing benchmarks by which to hold China accountable to this pledge and in rolling out a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) to ensure that carbon-intensive industries are not outsourced to the global South.
Fourthly, Labour policy should aim to pursue economic opportunities with China - but to be realistic about the constraints we face in doing so. These include the above mentioned concerns over national security; restrictions that a UK trade deal with the EU (a much more important market) or the USA may impose on any future FTA with China; and considerations about the amount of political leverage that economic enmeshment may grant China.
Areas of UK-China relations that have borne economic fruit include higher education and tourism. Therefore, fifthly, Labour needs to promote an open and welcoming environment for private Chinese citizens to enter the UK - for study, tourism, business, immigration and political asylum.
As Rana Mitter has argued, ‘The fact that we have hundreds of thousands Chinese who come to this country is a huge soft power experiment. […] That long-term engagement and interaction is very important indeed.’
Encouraging interaction between British and Chinese people will also bring economic benefits to the UK in terms of talent, student fees, and tourist receipts. It will, however, require that Labour advocate policies to combat both domestic anti-Chinese racism and the harassment of UK-based Chinese citizens by organisations and individuals linked to China’s Party-state.
Finally, we need to promote China literacy amongst the UK population. The UK’s greatest weakness in dealing with China is ignorance; a deeper understanding of China’s politics, culture and society will lead to wiser, more nuanced policymaking.
Therefore, as part of wider decolonisation efforts, Labour’s education policy should aim to incorporate more China-focussed content – whether language, history, art or literature - into the national curriculum. Increasing government funding for China-focussed research at British universities and think tanks will reduce the UK’s reliance for knowledge on China on dubious partisan research funded by Chinese party-state-linked bodies or the CCP’s ideological enemies.
The rise of China is a significant long-term trend in global politics, one that Labour cannot afford to ignore. A future Labour government must take a firm line with China, but not a hostile one.
However, it should go without saying that the best way to further Labour’s progressive values abroad is to create a flourishing society at home - a Britain whose greatness derives not from international isolation, nor misguided colonial nostalgia, nor from being the playground of global financial elites, but from a demonstrated commitment to fairness and social justice for all.
Phil Entwistle is an academic headhunter and freelance writer. He previously held the roles of Lecturer in Chinese Studies at University College Dublin and Academic Visiting Fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), having completed his DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford. His research and writing have focused on the politics of China, particularly the intersection of religion and political engagement. He tweets @82hou.