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Have we been played by China? We've got into bed with the emerging global power without a coherent strategy

Boris Johnson hosts Chinese New Year celebrations. Credit : Lauren Hurley/Getty Images

Boris Johnson hosts Chinese New Year celebrations. Credit : Lauren Hurley/Getty Images

February 4, 2020   8 mins

When I look at British politicians trying, and mostly failing, to work out a coherent policy on China, I am reminded of a conversation with Gordon Brown long ago on an aeroplane going somewhere else.

Early in 2007, as he prepared to replace Tony Blair, Brown made a trip to India to talk about its place in the world and its dealings with the UK. Brown being Brown, his starting point was big-picture economics and history, which is why he was talking about China.

Remember, this was 13 years ago. No one outside the telecoms sector had heard of Huawei. The coronavirus was years away. Xi Jinping wasn’t even a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. The world was waiting to see what China would become.

At this point, predictions that the BRIC group of emerging economies would attain global prominence were still novel, with India and China considered future superpowers. Somewhere in a chat with travelling reporters about the India trip, Brown was drawn into comparisons with China, which he (correctly) suggested would lead in economic growth.

But, someone asked him naively, what about democracy? A historian by training, Brown argued that over time, an ever-richer China would be “drawn into” the Western system of international trade and finance. That might not mean elected government in Beijing, but it would make China a relatively normal country to deal with, part of the club of developed nations in most important ways.

The following year, as PM, Brown went to Beijing for the first of several visits, hailing the possibilities for mutual enrichment from UK-China trade. During the great financial crisis, Brown repeatedly tried to weld China into a new global architecture, hoping that its emerging economic might would help steady a Western order teetering under the weight of debt.

Brown was succeeded in No 10 by David Cameron. In his early days as PM, Cameron had a meeting the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people whose country China claims as its own. That 2012 meeting put UK-Chinese relations into deep freeze, and Cameron spent the next three years seeking a thaw. In 2015, he declared a “golden era” in Anglo-Sino relations, drank pints in a Buckinghamshire pub with a visiting Xi Jinping, and signed Britain up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As an ex-PM, Cameron has spent some time trying (with, shall we say, mixed success) to establish a $1 billion UK-China investment fund.

This week, Boris Johnson decided to set aside warnings from American politicians and some of his own colleagues to allow Huawei, a Chinese telecoms firm, to help provide the country’s future telecoms network.
Brown, Cameron and Johnson are quite different politicians and very different characters. Yet all three have reached what is essentially the same view of China: engagement is in Britain’s interests.

My reason for starting with Brown’s prediction that China would gradually normalise in its dealings with the West is that this analysis underpinned a great deal of Western policy towards China in the past couple of decades. Consciously or otherwise, many of our leaders have dealt with China on the basis that working and trading with China is the best way to draw the Chinese into a world order that was largely built by Western nations over decades in which primacy flowed peacefully from Britain and its empire to the US.

That, I suggest, is quite a bet to make, possibly the biggest gamble of the post-Cold War era. And right now, it is not looking like a winning bet.

China under Xi has largely defied those optimistic predictions about normalisation. Much of that is down to Xi himself, who has captured power within the Chinese Communist Party more comprehensively than most analysts expected. The Chinese system isn’t democratic but it is still intended to have checks and balances. Xi has largely set them aside and established a personality cult around his leadership.

Meanwhile, technological mastery has allowed China to expand state oversight and control to levels scarcely understood by many in the West. Far from moving towards Western norms, China has moved further away from them in the past decade. That smiling Chinese gentleman who cheerily supped a pint with David Cameron in The Plough near Princes Risborough is the near absolute-ruler of a regime that has imprisoned a million of its own people in re-education camps and controls the everyday lives of a billion more to an extent that actually deserves the over-used term “Orwellian”.

All of which rather raises the question: just who are we kidding when we think we have influence over China?

More importantly, the unspoken assumptions that “they” will become more like “us” have combined with distractions such as Brexit to obscure a more pertinent — and uncomfortable — question: how much influence does China have over Britain?

The Huawei decision has brought one bit of that iceberg-sized question into view, but much more lies unseen beneath the surface. The 5G network may be the technological sinews of a modern economy, but a modern Western democracy like Britain relies on other, more important, sorts of wiring too.

One of the sinews of modern Britain is its education system, which does not just provide education but income and, sometimes, influence too.

Once upon a time, British leaders liked to think that education was a vital aspect of the country’s “soft power”, in part because by educating people from other countries who might use their education to achieve wealth and power at home, Britain was creating future allies and partners.

In 2014, for instance, a House of Lords select committee (chaired by Lord Howell, then father-in-law to Chancellor George Osborne) concluded: “The UK’s education sector is a major contributor to the UK’s soft power. Students returning to their home countries can be the UK’s “greatest ambassadors”.

If that view were correct, what would be the significance of recent figures showing that there are now more than 130,000 Chinese students at UK universities? They are the biggest non-EU group of students, and far more numerous than the 27,000 Indians studying here.

Chinese student numbers in the UK are up a third in five years. Has British soft power over China risen accordingly? Or have those rising numbers meant the precise opposite, that Chinese influence over Britain has grown?

The Chinese student population of Britain is a significant contributor to the HE sector, paying much higher course fees than British peers. At some universities, one in ten undergraduates are from China and half of all students on some postgrad courses.

Analysis by Times Higher Education suggests that Chinese fees total £1.7 billion, around 5% of all university income. Some institutions derive more than 10% of their income from Chinese students.

Not long ago, the prevailing official view of such figures would have been either indifference or even mild celebration at significant export earnings and the scope for soft power projection via Chinese graduates of British institutions.

But slowly, that view is shifting. More British politicians are considering a simple fact about Chinese students: they are, by and large, in the UK at the whim of the Chinese government. Should Beijing decide to slow or even stop the flow of Chinese students — and thus, money — to British universities, what effect would that have on those universities? And what could or would the British government do in such a situation?

These questions should be central to British thinking about engagement with China, yet they have mostly been addressed by a few foreign policy specialists; the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last year investigated Chinese influence over British universities. That is a good example of parliamentary scrutiny working well, but also one that raises questions about why what is essentially a matter of domestic policy (the integrity and autonomy of British institutions) was considered by a foreign affairs body. Doesn’t China’s potential sway over an important bit of Britain count as a domestic issue?

These questions are quietly troubling parts of the British intelligence community but not yet, by and large, MPs and peers.

Huawei and, to a much lesser extent, the university issue has focused a few political minds on Chinese influence, but how many people in Parliament have looked in detail at the experience of Australia’s recent dealings with Xi’s China?

There obvious differences between Britain and Australia in a Chinese context: Australia is closer and more important to China, and home to a significant Chinese community. Yet the Australian experience of Chinese influence should still be studied more closely in the UK, and not just in the context of education. Australia’s universities are even more dependent on Chinese money than Britain’s, and face painful questions about whether they have allowed their teaching and research to be swayed in favour of Chinese interests. There are darker stories too, of academics who say things China doesn’t like facing abuse and of sensitive Australian scientific and technical research being used to enhance China’s domestic surveillance state.

There are also questions about Chinese interference in Australian politics and dramatic warnings from Australian spooks. Duncan Lewis, a former head of the Australian intelligence service, said in November that China is seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign interference operations.

Such warnings have, in turn, sparked active debate in Australia about whether it is racist to raise concerns about Chinese influence. If such concerns receive more attention in the UK, ask yourself what the way we conducted our national conversation about Brexit suggests about our ability to sensibly debate our relations with China.

Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London, a leading China expert and a former British diplomat in Beijing, says Australia’s experience offers a clear lesson to Britain over China: “Ensure you know the tale that you want to tell about yourself before you dally with a country which will already be clear about the story that they have for you.”

Do we have such a story? Or have we collectively undertaken a hugely significant set of interactions with an emerging global power without anything resembling a strategy?

Chinese money helps sustain British universities. Chinese technology will help sustain our telecoms networks. Chinese investment is flowing into London’s prime real estate market and commercial property too: much of Canary Wharf is Chinese-owned. So too are football clubs, wind farms, oil rigs and much else besides.

Gordon Brown had a point when he said that is a “huge opportunity” to be had in British engagement with China. But perhaps it’s not primarily an opportunity for Britain.

Sometimes the most important thing about these deals is that they’re bad choices by Chinese investors, who end up losing cash on failing British firms: Pizza Express, House of Fraser and Thomas Cook have all had Chinese investment. And in general terms, being open to international investment remains overwhelmingly beneficial to Britain.

But China is different. Despite those fond notions that it will become more “normal” and play by our rules, it is not doing so and shows no sign of doing so.

It is important not to overcook this analysis. Caveats abound when considering Chinese influence. First, all big countries want to influence other countries and there is nothing inherently wrong with that, though no other authoritarian state has the sheer clout of China. Second, China isn’t always very good at meddling and influencing: attempts to bend others to its will can and do backfire. Third, China has little to gain and much to lose by overdoing its influence work; things like the rule of law make countries like Britain and Australia wealthy states worth trading with — unravelling the deepest wiring of Western states would do little to benefit China.

Fourth, and possibly most important, China’s actual aims via its influence policies are not wholly clear. Yes, some talk excitedly of Xi’s Chinese Dream amounting to a global vision but that does not mean China seeks global dominion. Strategic conflict between China and the West is possible in this century, but that does not mean it is inevitable.

And of course, the whole edifice could yet crumble: the party may lose its grip, demography, an environmental or health disaster, or some as yet unknown systemic threat could jam China’s economic engines.

But not yet. As things stand today, Xi’s China is attempting, with fair success, something that a Western worldview might consider impossible: achieving first-tier wealth for hundreds of millions of people without also granting them political freedom. And that wealth begets power and influence over others.

The three most important words in British politics in this century to date have been “Take Back Control” and our current national project is, in theory at least, dedicated to restoring the sovereign autonomy of the country, Britain’s elected leaders once again making the final decisions about things that affect Britain and the British.

Yet even as politicians have fixated on Brexit and Europe, they have — often without much reflection or debate — set the country on a course where some of the decisions that can affect Britain and the British will be made in China.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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