Chinese President Xi Jinping with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 2015. Photo: AP
Asian Angle
by Rana Mitter
Asian Angle
by Rana Mitter

Britain thinks China is the new USSR or Japan. It needs to rethink

  • China is neither. The truth is it is both a rival and a partner to the West
  • Could Britons one day gossip about China’s governors, share videos on Youku and monitor trends in Chongqing – while also speaking up on Hong Kong?
The British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG), a London-based non-partisan think tank, this week released a report titled “Beyond the Golden Age: Resetting China-UK Engagement”.

I co-authored it with BFPG director Sophia Gaston after we both became worried that Britain had moved from complacency about China to a state of paranoia without any intervening period of reflection about the relationship’s significance.

The report does not recommend policies but suggests a new mindset for engaging with China based on knowledge rather than assumptions. Britain has had to deal with the unexpectedly rapid rise of China at a time when the West is on the back foot politically and economically.
As a result, much of the criticism of China in Britain relies on China being cast as either the new USSR – among those focused on a perceived military threat – or as a new Japan among those who identify an economic opportunity.
The reality is more complex: China is both a rival and a partner to the West, and that situation has no useful geopolitical parallel. Nor is there a precedent for a state that creates enormous economic freedoms while clamping down on political ones so fiercely.

Being forced to think outside existing political categories is an important exercise in understanding why China is the biggest geopolitical challenge to the West since 1945.

Instead, recent British policy toward China has often been reactive and inconsistent. We argue for a proactive policy that is confident, friendly and frank. To achieve that aim, we suggest Britain needs to move past political framing that conceals more than it reveals.

That process should start by defining our fundamental values. One formulation often repeated in London policy circles is that Britain should work with “like-minded” states.

“Like-mindedness” includes a commitment to democracy, and it is right that Britain speaks out clearly when it sees a threat to existing freedoms. For example, the recent disqualification of some pro-democracy candidates for the upcoming LegCo election is very worrying, and the wider world should expect full transparency on the reasons for it. The preservation of Hong Kong’s limited democracy is a matter of deep concern to Britain, even though China is now indisputably the sovereign power. Yet there is sometimes an awkward silence on the question of just how like-minded British allies on democracy may be.

Turkey and the Philippines are democracies but they do not currently embrace or embody pluralist values, belying the idea that democracy on its own automatically separates liberal order from authoritarian darkness.

Britain told to balance ‘complacency and paranoia’ over Beijing by London think tank

Of course, there is an argument that China is fundamentally illiberal in a way that even those flawed democracies are not – but this rhetorical division should not be the basis for policy. Concerns about liberal values and security can be related but they are not identical.
To this end, British policy on China should be developed by thinking at least one or two steps ahead. The merits of the decision to exclude Chinese firm Huawei from Britain’s telecoms network will be debated for years to come. But few would suggest it was handled well politically. To announce in January that Huawei would be allowed to bid, only to reverse the decision in July, suggests policy made on the run.
Britain asks Chinese firms to bid for public contracts but deems it embarrassing if they succeed. This is not a practical strategy for the post-Brexit economy.
Protesters in Hong Kong with colonial flags and a gigantic British National (Overseas) passport. Photo: SCMP Pictures
Overall, we suggest consistency and clarity in our messages to China about values, in terms that encourage engagement. Western talk about the democratisation of China has always been baffling to the Communist Party (CCP), which has never sought to create a multi-party system.
However, there are plenty of other terms the CCP uses, such as “transparency” and “meritocracy”, that are relevant to its current form of governance. There is a crucial difference between telling China what the West thinks it should be and instead judging China’s global role according to what its government says about itself. But doing the latter will require deeper understanding of Chinese history, society and politics.

London’s political classes are obsessed with events in US politics and culture – they would do well to redirect some of that focus towards China.

Could there be a future where they swap anecdotes about China’s provincial governors, share the hottest videos on Youku and monitor the middle-class consumer trends in Chongqing or Zhengzhou, while at the same time speaking loudly and clearly about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea?

Must Australia choose between the US and China?

Hawks on China don’t think the first discussion matters, while the CCP wants foreigners to stop talking about the second.

But as the UK transforms itself into “Global Britain”, a consistent, sophisticated and principled China policy will need to understand how those challenges and considerations fit together. As our report says, it will not be easy. But it is urgent.

“Beyond the Golden Age: Resetting China-UK Engagement” by Rana Mitter and Sophia Gaston is available for free download at the BFPG website