Relations with China are fraught. China is becoming more assertive, even aggressive. But China is a hugely important trading partner. Can we realistically rein in China’s excesses without risk, asks Victor Hill?
On Wednesday (31 March) the BBC’s China correspondent, John Sudworth, was forced to relocate from Beijing to Taiwan further to orchestrated intimidation against him. He said that he left with his family in a hurry, pursued by plain clothes police. Mr Sudworth’s crime in the eyes of the Chinese authorities was to write a ground-breaking report last year on the situation in Xinxiang. China’s Global Times reported on Wednesday that Mr Sudworth was now hidingafter Xinxiang officials threatened to sue him for spreading fake news.
If Mr Sudworth had felt obliged to flee one year ago, he probably would have gone to Hong Kong. But now, alas, that is not an option as Hong Kong is in the grip of China’s tight embrace. This week China’s parliament passed a law that rules that only patriots – that is, those approved by Beijing – will be allowed to stand for election in Hong Kong’s assembly. The extinction of the one country, two systems democracy, on the basis of which Britain handed over control of the territory to China in 1997, is now complete.
This comes further to China’s imposition of sanctions on seven British parliamentarians and academics, announced on 25 March. These include the former Conservative party leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith. Their offence? Spreading lies and misinformation about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Sir Iain and Tom Tugendhat MP, along with Labour’s Baroness Helena Kennedy QC have all been forthright in their condemnation of China’s actions in its western province. Sir Iain said that he would wear the sanctions as a badge of honour.
These sanctions mean, at the very least, that these seven individuals will probably never get a visa to travel to China again. They might even find it difficult to open bank accounts with HSBC (LON:HSBA) – it would be interesting to know. They will probably still be able to buy dim sum in London’s China Town (when restaurants re-open on 17 May). But a line has been crossed. China’s critics at home have long since been silenced; now China is sending a message that public figures who portray the country in an unfavourable light abroad will also pay a price.
Imposing sanctions on individuals who have allegedly engaged in nefarious deeds is something that the US, Britain and other western democracies has done for years now. Numerous individuals in Russia, China, Iran and elsewhere are currently subject to personal sanctions enforced by the British state. China is now signalling that this can work both ways. The Old Testament of the bible talks about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth[i]. The Chinese have a proverb which roughly goes for one tooth lost, two shall be taken.
This comes at a time when China is putting pressure on many of its neighbours in pursuit of historic territorial claims. There was ferocious hand-to-hand fighting between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley (Ladakh) in June last year. China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, which it claims as part of its own territorial waters. And just last week, Chinese military aircraft made numerous incursions into Taiwanese airspace. Australia has been vilified and its goods subjected to swingeing tariffs just for suggesting that there should be a UN enquiry into the source of the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan. The Deng Xiaoping (principal Chinese leader in the 1980s) policy of hiding and biding has now given way to something entirely different.
Over the last two weeks China has also begun to punish western companies such as Nike, Adidas, Burberry, H&M and Hugo Boss which have refused to buy cotton produced in Xinxiang on the grounds that it may have involved slave labour. They have been subject to a state-orchestrated boycott. These big-name brands are now uncomfortably pinioned between consumer pressure in the west and the dragon’s wrath.
Something very sinister and disturbing is unfolding in the western, central Asian Chinese province of Xinxiang (marked on older western atlases as Singkiang). Various snippets of mobile phone footage suggest that China has detained large numbers of Uighurs in remote detention centres where they are allegedly subjected to abusive treatment and exploited as slave labour. There are reports of the widespread sterilisation of Uighur women. Even if all this is the case, I’m not sure that we can conclude (as Sir Iain Duncan Smith does) that this amounts to the systematic eradication of the Uighur people; still less that, as Lord Alton and others claim, that this is genocide.
Lord Alton wants to grant the power to determine what is genocide to the courts – and that trade should be restricted accordingly. That would be to outsource foreign policy to the judiciary, which in my view could have disastrous consequences. I don’t know what is actually happening in Xinxiang beyond what I read in print media and online. But what I can do, like a good sleuth or intelligence officer, is to try to get inside the mind of the adversary.
One of the most consistent themes of the Communist Party of China (CPC) since its take-over in 1949 has been the necessity to re-establish China’s historical territorial integrity. The Chinese empire, in decline since the mid-18thcentury, made numerous territorial concessions in the 19th century, not least to European powers – the British in Hong Kong and the Germans in Port Arthur (Lushunkou). After the collapse of the Chinese monarchy (1911), the country fragmented; and for much of the first half of the 20th century, huge areas were ruled by local warlords. Much of the periphery – Tibet included – enjoyed de facto independence.
The CPC leadership has an almost pathological hatred of splittists – people who want to break away from the People’s Republic. An element within the Uighur community did prosecute a terrorist campaign with bombs in railway stations from 2010-14[ii]. It seems that this element has been ruthlessly crushed. More widely, China has closely followed events in Afghanistan, a country with which Xinxiang has a short border at the tip of the Wakhan Corridor.
Afghanistan was once a rapidly developing country. Herat, in the 1950s, was styled the Paris of Central Asia, with department stores and elegant cafés. Women could still wear mini-skirts in Kabul in the early 1970s – until about the time of the fall of the Afghan monarchy (1973). Thereafter, as we know, Afghanistan descended into internecine tribal and religious strife which has blighted both its own development and that of its neighbours. The Chinese leadership is absolutely determined that Xinxiang will remain secular – and Chinese.
This is no way to excuse what the Chinese are doing. My point is that when Lisa Nandy MP, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, or the Tories’ Tom Tugendhat MP et al fulminate against the plight of the Uighurs they should not expect the Chinese to listen. The Chinese line is that what goes on within Xinxiang is China’s domestic business and foreigners have no right to comment. I think it is legitimate to ask Western critics what they are really trying to achieve. Is it seriously to put pressure on China to mend its ways? That is an extraordinarily unlikely prospect. Or is it to parade their credentials as concerned citizens for a domestic audience?
Ms Nandy says that we should require China to adhere to international standards of human rights which are non-negotiable. So how do we do that? At the recent summit of foreign ministers in Anchorage, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, raised the issue of human rights in outline, only to receive a 17-minute tirade on American hypocrisy from his Chinese counterpart. Should we launch a cold war against China? No doubt many would think that justified; but the problem with a cold war is that it could quickly escalate into a hot war.
I heard Tom Tugendhat on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One last week (26 March)[iii]. He referred to the illicit fortune that President Xi has supposedly amassed. I think Tom – whom I respect, given his distinguished career in the British Army – is barking up the wrong tree here. I very much doubt that there is a bank account in Switzerland with Xi Jinping’s name on it, still less a deposit box in Zurich stuffed with precious gems. The truth is that Mr Xi, like Mr Putin in Russia, both effectively all-powerful presidents-for-life, have become de facto emperors. As such, they enjoy all the accoutrements of monarchy. You may as well fulminate against the illicit wealth of the House of Windsor (as indeed I believe many do online).
It is worth noting that the western media has fallen almost entirely silent in recent years over the fate of Tibet – another huge and ancient land which constitutes a strategically vital province of the People’s Republic of China. Tibet, whose valiant cause was embodied by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was for many years a central concern, with no shortage of voluble celebrity endorsements. Western leaders relished the chance to be photographed beside the Dalai Lama. Until China put a price tag on such photoshoots. Norway was put in purdah by China for about six years after the Dalai lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
China argues that it has brought Tibet into the modern world. When the People’s Liberation Army stormed Tibet in 1950, the country was a feudal theocracy: landowners held the peasantry in thrall and the state was administered by autocratic monks. The young God-King Dalai Lama theoretically had power over life and death. Mao’s China had an aversion to religion – and set about the destruction of the monastic system on which Tibetan Buddhism was founded. Despite the material progress the country may have experienced, Tibetans are still wedded to their extraordinary religion, culture and language. Tibetan sages were analysing the workings of the human mind high up in the Himalaya one thousand years before Freud. Ironically, that wisdom tradition is now flourishing in the West – so long as it remains beyond China’s lengthening reach.
Rumours of war
William (Lord) Hague this week was comparing the rise of China today with the rise of the German Empire in the decades before WWI[iv]. This is not a new historical analogy – it has been around at least since Professor Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and fall of the Great Powers (originally published in 1987). Professor Kennedy was keen to underline the interdependence of economic and military power. His thesis was that, throughout history, when rising powers challenge the hegemony of the primary world power, war normally results. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s aggressive foreign policy succeeded in driving Britain, France and Russia into a defensive alliance; while Germany formed a partnership with a doomed central power, Austria-Hungary. The assassination of an Archduke in a provincial Balkan city in 1914 plunged the world into Armageddon.
This time we know precisely what the casus belli is likely to be. China has told anyone who will listen that Taiwan is a renegade province that must return to the motherland – voluntarily or otherwise. For their part, the Taiwanese are happy with their prosperous and democratic independence for which they are likely to fight if necessary.
As far as I can see, the only English-speaking country where there is an open debate on how to respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is Australia. Australia naturally feels itself to be on the front line and is a victim of Chinese bullying. A recent conversation between Sky News Australia’s Alan Jones and Liberal Senator Jim Molan, a defence expert, was very revealing. Senator Molan thinks that war with China is not just possible but more likely than not.
Australia has just joined the incipient military alliance dubbed the Quartet – along with Japan, India and the USA. Joint military exercises are already underway, designed to give China pause. Some voices suggest that Britain – which has already sent a new aircraft carrier out East – might make up a quintet with these security partners. That could even be announced during Mr Johnson’s forthcoming trip to India.
The home front
Perhaps, instead of attacking the Chinese leadership, our political class should defend us against its encroachments at home. As Charles (Lord) Moore has revealed in his column in The Spectator, the CPC is rampant in our universities, many of which receive funds from China in return for their cooperation. Jesus College, Cambridge is a case in point. The Confucius Institute, allegedly a Chinese state-backed institution, is permitted to report back on Chinese students studying at British universities. We could stop that if we wanted.
Similarly, we can ring-fence our technology from Chinese hands. Mr Johnson was persuaded to change tack on Huawei late in the day. We can stop selling strategic assets – ports, steel companies, power stations, mines – to Chinese players, all of which are ultimately subject to the will of the CPC. The Australians have finally grasped this.
Fund managers like Fidelity’s Tom Stevenson believe that the long-term case for investing in China is still strong[v]. The context is the long-term shift of economic clout to Asia. China’s CSI-300 Index hit an all-time high in February and is still rampant. A well-balanced portfolio will have some exposure to China – despite corporate governance issues which I have touched on before. (By the way – how is Jack Ma?)
Finally, we must maintain the edge in technology – especially AI – though that will be an uphill struggle. I’ll explain soon why a Chinese digital currency backed by AI will be momentous.
We should not stop trading with China or engaging in dialogue. China understands us much better than we understand China. I would encourage any young person to study Mandarin (I wish I had) and to enter the treasure house of Chinese culture.
Strength and weakness
China knows that westerners have short attention spans, and even shorter collective memories. While the west is convulsed with acrimonious arguments around toxic masculinity, transgender rights, misogyny, white privilege, structural racism and the climate catastrophe, China can be confident that, very soon, the Uighurs will have fallen as far down the compassion league as the unfortunate people of Tibet.
What worries and depresses me most is not so much China’s strength as our weakness. In fact, President Xi, alone at night, probably smiles in the knowledge that for China to become the pre-eminent global power for generations to come it needs do nothing but allow the west to destroy itself.
[i] Exodus, 21:24. Quoted by Jesus in Matthew, 5, 38-42.
[iv] The Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2021, China’s aggressive strategy of divide and rule is a historic miscalculation.