As recently as just four years ago, the government of the United Kingdom (UK) could characterise the relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as entering a ‘Golden Era’ of bilateral relations. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government coined the phrase to welcome President Xi Jinping on the Chinese leader’s first state visit to the UK in 2015. During this visit, Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan were welcomed by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, receiving a 41-gun salute in Green Park and a simultaneous 62-gun salute at the Tower of London. In addition to visits to Downing Street, Chequers, Imperial College, London, Lancaster House, and the London office of Huawei, Mr Xi was feted by the Alan Yarrow, the Lord Mayor, in the City of London.
Contrast that with a fortnight ago, when Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary – and candidate for Tory leadership – warned the PRC that it could face ‘serious consequences’ if it allowed the use of violence against protesters in Hong Kong, with an understanding that sanctions were not off-the-table. Liu Xiaoming, the PRC Ambassador to the UK – Beijing’s ‘threatener-in-chief’ in the UK – responded to Mr Hunt’s remarks with his own in a press conference, saying that UK-PRC relations had been damaged as a result of the Foreign Secretary’s words. That Mr Liu was then summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a full dressing-down compounded the diplomatic flair-up.
So how has the UK got the relationship with the PRC so wrong? How indeed did other countries get it so wrong?
To some extent, Britain’s 30-year policy on the PRC has gradually become outdated by fundamental changes inside the country. One could ignore the changes inside Beijing’s corridors of power for only so long without running into the real-world results of these changes. The previously cautious approach of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘bide your time, keep a low profile’ was – many experts think – jettisoned in 2015 in the wake of the Financial Crisis. In the wake of that, a new PRC has emerged, one that seeks a ‘China Dream’ that straddles half the globe in a ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
Another facet of this outward push has been a PRC more willing to make moves that threaten global sea lanes and rules, which directly impinge on the national interests of many nations – including the UK. Mr Xi’s green-lighting of his country’s island building across the South China Sea, a major maritime communication line for UK trade, is but one example of that. In his speech on the occasion of Mr Xi’s 2015 visit, Mr Cameron stated that the UK and the PRC shared ‘an interest in a stable and ordered world, in which countries play by the rules.’
Perhaps Britain’s biggest blunder has been to believe that the PRC might be a fast-rising, responsible power, which although admittedly semi-authoritarian, was still fundamentally moving toward economic and political reform. This is the image that Chinese leaders try to project. Mr Xi has claimed that ‘China attaches great importance to the protection of human rights’ and that ‘all countries need to continuously improve and strengthen human rights protection’. The PRC leader even managed to sound like the voice of neoliberal moderation at the 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos, declaring ‘Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean you cannot escape from’ and ‘any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries, and people between economies…is simply not possible.’
The UK simply has not come to terms with the implications of Mr Xi’s shift from collective rule to sole leadership.
But even then, it was clear that Mr Xi had different plans for the PRC’s future. Even before he visited London in October 2015, he had approved a protectionist strategy that would make Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policies look relatively tame. His approach – Made in China: 2025 – was a strategy that – according to the European Chamber of Commerce – amounted to ‘large-scale import substitution plan aimed at nationalising key industries…severely curtailing the position of foreign businesses.’ This emphasis on technological innovation and state direction and funding is stated even more clearly in the 13th Five Year Plan, published in 2016, which also presaged the Civil Military Fusion doctrine, which has compelled Chinese tech industries to carry out more research and development with the country’s growing defence-industrial base.
The UK simply has not come to terms with the implications of Mr Xi’s shift from collective rule to sole leadership. Nor has it understand his re-assertion of party-political control over Chinese companies, such as the 2017 revision of the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, compelling any enterprise with more than three party members to host internal party committees. The National Intelligence Law, also passed in 2017, required those same companies to cooperate in intelligence work, in the PRC and abroad, and to conceal that cooperation. If all of this sounds familiar, that is because many of these same points have formed the basis of both European Union and United States (US) criticism of PRC outbound investment into the critical national infrastructure of Western countries, with a particular resonance in the issues of supply chain security and 5G. If this logic were carried forward, then it is clear that Mr Trump was not the true instigator of the trade war, Mr Xi was – UK analysts are just not used to examining Chinese economic statecraft in the way that they do with the US.
That followed the PRC’s State (National) Security Education Day, in 2016, which emphasised the dangers of foreign espionage. The accompanying slogan epitomises the PRC’s drift toward totalitarianism under Mr Xi: ‘Everyone is responsible’ indicating that not only would the Chinese Communist Party police society, it would expect society – like a Panopticon – to police itself, blurring the line between the governed and the governors. The application of this tenant in technology has seen the building of a ‘social credit system’ that punishes ‘incorrect’ political thought as well as anti-social behaviour. The export of even more malicious versions of these systems to Tibet and Xinjiang have gutted what remained of the West’s 1990s vision of what the PRC might become.
The fact that David Cameron, when Prime Minister, could call China ‘rule-abiding’ in 2015 shows many British elites were determined to see what they wanted to see. Already in 2015, Mr Xi had personally greenlit the land reclamation and militarisation efforts in the South China Sea, a major international waterway host to one-third of global trade. The UK must begin to re-calibrate its policy towards the PRC so that it actually fits the real-world China and not the one British elites wished for.
If Britain does not, it will only continue to run into the hard reality of a Chinese Communist Party that is pulling the Chinese state, its people, and its society ever-closer to totalitarianism – and geopolitical revisionism.
This commentary is the first part of a two-part series by Dr John Hemmings, looking at British policy towards the PRC. The second part, published on Thursday, 19th July 2019, offers some prescriptions as to how the UK might respond to Chinese threats.