The veteran British diplomat the late Sir Percy Cradock said that Chinese leaders may be ‘thuggish dictators’ but ‘they were men of their word and could be trusted to do what they promised’. Well, the past year has put an end to the latter half of that statement. From coronavirus to the brutal treatment of Hong Kong, the behavior of the Chinese Communist party has made it clear that the approach of liberal democracies to China must change.
Last week, when the West’s media was distracted by the chaos in the US Capitol, police in Hong Kong arrested 55 pro-democracy activists on the charge of subversion. It is the latest example of the consequences of the national security law imposed by Beijing on the city in June.
The law has been accompanied by what amounts to the takeover of the city by a CCP boss and enforcer, Luo Huining, and a gang of security officials, all directed by Han Zheng, a Chinese vice-premier and member of the CCP’s standing committee of the politburo. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s nominal chief executive, does what she is told. In a few months, the elected legislature has been trashed; democracy campaigners and supporters are being locked up; and civil servants are obliged to pledge their support for the new law. Free speech has been curtailed. The police, who colluded with triad gangs to deal with the demonstrations, have in effect been placed above the law. ‘Patriotic education’ is being forced into schools, and teachers threatened with the sack if they step out of line. Universities, too, are being forced into the communist straitjacket.
The separation of powers — a fundamental part of Hong Kong’s constitution — has been junked. Judges have been targeted by pro-Beijing thugs for not taking a harder line with demonstrators and for throwing out clearly fabricated police evidence. People have also been encouraged to become ‘snitches’, informing on neighbors and workmates for alleged breaches of the law.
Such measures are familiar in China’s police state, where the law was once described by the American sinologist Perry Link as like ‘an anaconda in the chandelier’. Step out of line, even unknowingly, and the python falls down on your head; enveloped by its coils, you are dragged to a secret trial.
The effect of this on Hong Kongers’ sense of their own citizenship is obvious; the damage on the economy remains to be seen. Hong Kong has thrived as a great international financial hub on a tripartite foundation — freedom of capital, freedom of information and the rule of law. Without all these attributes, it is difficult to imagine a future remotely as successful as its past.
It is not China that is the problem. It is communism. China and the CCP are not politically consubstantial. But party bosses are adamant: to love China is to love the party. Most citizens in Hong Kong and Taiwan have found this impossible to swallow.
For the first dozen or so years after 1997, Beijing by and large stood by the core principles of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. But Xi Jinping’s ascent to the dictatorship changed that. By the end of his predecessor’s term, Chinese leaders were starting to become nervous about their ability to hold on to absolute power in an era of globalization, urbanization and the internet. The enemy in their sights was liberal democracy and its attributes, many of which they saw exemplified in Hong Kong.
In 2013, instructions were given to party and government officials by a committee chaired by Xi to fight every example of western liberal democracy. These orders, ‘Document No. 9’, have been at the heart of Xi’s policy since he became lifetime boss and have been followed by similar instructions for universities and schools. They make up a comprehensive assault on the values that sustain open societies, from human rights and western-style journalism to constitutional development and ‘historical nihilism’ (essentially the pursuit of evidence-based truth about the past).
Teachers are regarded in the words of Stalin as ‘engineers of the soul’. Ambassadors and their acolytes are instructed to fight against democratic values, engaging in intellectual property theft, malign use of social media and ‘road rage’ political behavior in foreign countries. They are supported by United Front activists, a network of Beijing toadies organized and heavily funded by the CCP.
Attempts to construct a sensible policy on China are bedeviled by lobbyists in our own democracies who believe that China should never be publicly crossed. Mao’s first chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, was derided as a ‘whateverist’ — whatever Mao had said or done was fine with him. Here, in the West, our own whateverists resort to ‘what about’ arguments based on moral relativism. Criticize what amounts to genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang and they come back with accusations of Islamophobia in America and Europe. Mention censorship of the media in China and they point their fingers at Fox News and Rupert Murdoch. What is the difference, they ask, between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors and the rioters who attacked the US Capitol?
Then there are half-baked economic arguments purporting to be about the national interest. Of course Britain should want successful economic partnerships with the surging Chinese economy. But China, which breaks the letter and spirit of trade and investment rules, does not do business with the UK as an act of charity. China today has a trade surplus in goods and services with the UK of about £20 billion ($27 billion). Not a bad bargain for Beijing.
As for Chinese investment through state-owned enterprises in the UK, when that money arrives it is directed to projects which make a profit and give China a foothold in key industries such as nuclear energy. But some of the money never arrives. Provided that British ministers visiting China stick to Beijing’s script and keep quiet about human rights, they are invariably promised a dollop of investment as a reward. But the UK still awaits much of what was promised during the ‘golden age’ of our relationship with China.
So how should Britain respond? For starters, it is worth remembering that we are dealing with ‘peak China’, to borrow a phrase from the former diplomat Charles Parton. China is probably stronger economically in dealing with the UK now than it ever will be again. In the decade ahead it will increasingly have to overcome the problems of debt, demography and drought, as well as the existential weakness of its system of government.
Meanwhile, Britain should be absolutely clear that it is not seeking to launch a cold war on China. But the CCP is fighting a values war against the West. We should call it what it is, and work with our democratic friends to stand up to it. The UK has already done much that should be applauded. Boris Johnson’s government was right to offer all those who hold British National Overseas passports in Hong Kong a route to work, study and even assume full citizenship here.
The British PM should establish a government committee that manages the totality of the UK’s relationship with China. The British should work with the new Biden administration, the G7 countries and others such as Australia, India and South Korea to form a partnership of open societies for a balanced world order based on agreements that are kept, free markets and the rule of law.
President Trump rightly recognized many of the threats posed by China. But to counter them the West needs alliances, not megaphones. What is required are strong partnerships with like-minded countries on trade and security and the digital economy. When our friends and partners are threatened and bullied by China — as is happening with Australia — Britain should speak out on their behalf.
In Britain, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and the China Research Group have provided a useful agenda, from investing in technology and other products and services which ensure that the UK is not dependent on China, to insisting on more transparency from British universities over research funding. This week’s report from the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission calling for a ‘co-ordinated, comprehensive review of UK-China policy’ shows how much the mood has changed from five years ago, when George Osborne declared that Britain was China’s ‘best partner in the West’. But there is more to be done. Britain must never forget Hong Kong and encourage its friends to do the same. Britain should also speak out on China’s genocidal policies in Xinjiang; the UK government was right to announce this week that the UK will outlaw imports with any links to human rights abuse in response to evidence that Uighur Muslims are being put into forced labor.
Britain should perhaps ask those whom it still regards quite properly as friends in Brussels whether this is really a good moment for Europe to sign a trade and investment deal with China. It is delusional to think that China will keep its promises on issues such as investment rules and trade access when it has broken its word so regularly since we negotiated its entry to the World Trade Organization earlier in the century. It is also absurd to think China will implement international labour standards, as the French and German governments claim. Our European leaders might also notice how many heads of the Jewish community have drawn attention to the similarities between the Holocaust and ethnic genocide against Uighurs.
The West must also press for a full independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. When doctors in Wuhan tried to blow the whistle about what was happening, they were forced into silence. Countries were obliged by the International Health Regulations agreed after the Sars epidemic to give ‘timely, accurate and detailed evidence’ about new public health problems. But Beijing kept quiet. The world knows now that Chinese communism kills, and even today the CCP is blocking a World Health Organization mission to investigate the origins of the pandemic in China
Britain does not want to contain China, but it must constrain its determined assault on international agreements and liberal democracy. Pursuing our national interest does not involve abandoning any sense of right and wrong. The thought of acting in a principled and informed way should not make us go weak at the knees. Maybe China will change. Britain cannot accomplish that itself, but it can stop China changing Britain. And if the UK does that, perhaps one day Hong Kong will be free once more as well.