UK’s prime minister Rishi Sunak talks tough when it comes to China. But the rhetorical brandishing of British democratic values vs Chinese authoritarianism, is hypocritical, argues Jane Hayward.
In a widely publicised speech at the end of November, Rishi Sunak declared the end of the “golden era” in UK-China relations, a reference harking back to David Cameron’s beer-in-a-pub moment with Xi Jinping in 2015, but an empty claim by Sunak since nobody anywhere thought we were still in that era. Sunak is right, however, that Britain must find a path which eschews a misleading yet overused Cold War-like rhetoric (which wrongly implies that China is, like the old Soviet Union, firmly outside the global capitalist system) as well as naïve and self-serving beliefs about how economic engagement will induce political reform in China to make it, supposedly, more like Western liberal democracies. Doing so has to start with recognising that our politics resemble China’s more than we might like to admit.
Sunak named China a “systemic challenge” which requires “robust pragmatism”. The speech has been lightly mocked for its vacuity and lack of specifics, but to be fair to Sunak, he did promise to fill in the blanks later, when the updated Integrated Review comes out early next year. We should not be surprised if a new Prime Minister might take a while to figure out a renewed and meaningful stance towards China. Sunak faces the difficulty of navigating between hawkish backbenchers and business interests keen to encourage Chinese investment, as well as a lack of clarity about China’s own path forward.
There is no consensus among China analysts on whether internal troubles will result in a more restrained China, or if the regime will turn to nationalism coupled with outwards aggression to boost its legitimacy
Chinese policymakers currently face a near perfect storm of domestic problems. Widespread public dissatisfaction about seemingly endless lockdowns on account of Xi Jinping’s flagship Zero Covid policy boiled over last month into a spate of public protests of rarely seen simultaneity across the country. This is layered onto pre-existing discontent about poor working conditions, slow growth impacting on livelihoods and local government revenue streams, and disruptions in the property and tech sectors following government efforts to rein in excessive wealth accumulation which will have, we may be sure, unsettled powerful vested interests. We cannot know at this point where all of this will lead, or what impacts domestic issues will have on Chinese policies overseas. There is no consensus among China analysts on whether internal troubles will result in a more restrained China, or if the regime will turn to nationalism coupled with outwards aggression to boost its legitimacy. Given these crucial unknowns, Mr Sunak is right to tread cautiously.
Mr Sunak is, however, clear on one thing: Britain must be robust in its defence of democratic values against an authoritarian regime. In his speech, he admonished China for the recent assault of a BBC journalist covering the lockdown protests, and abuses in Xinjiang, a province where citizens of the Uighur ethnic group, as well as other Muslim peoples, have been subjected to intense surveillance and repression, including the confinement of at least hundreds of thousands to internment camps, supposedly for purposes of ‘re-education’.
However, if Sunak wishes to brandish the shield of British democracy at China, he should take care – it is not very shiny. Authoritarian streaks in different countries, including liberal democracies, tend to cooperate, and the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is not as clear as some would like to think. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, anthropologist Darren Byler discussed the back and forth between UK experts involved in the controversial counter-extremist Prevent programme and Chinese counterterrorism experts, as they exchanged ideas on how best to exercise surveillance over their own domestic populations. This was as recent as 2017, as the internment camps in Xinjiang were being set up. Are strategies of surveillance and population control in China and Britain the same? Of course not. Yet, as British parliamentarians criticise repressive actions in China, they must also hold the mirror up to themselves.
If Sunak wishes to brandish the shield of British democracy at China, he should take care – it is not very shiny
Indeed, we should be wary of how denunciations of Chinese governance practices serve all too easily to distract from increasingly authoritarian policies over here. There is much that can, and has, been said on the slow but sustained erosion of British democratic institutions over the last two decades.
It is noteworthy and timely that the National Security Bill is currently passing its way through parliament. The bill which, among other things, seeks to guard against foreign espionage, has been strongly criticised by the National Union of Journalists for being so open-ended and vaguely worded that it will overreach its stated goals to threaten journalistic freedom here in the UK. As such, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat’s tweet on November 27th promoting the bill over an image of Chinese university students in Beijing calling for freedom of expression portrayed a twisted logic that should ring alarm bells. We may well be concerned about China, but so often the threat comes from within.