Britain’s Conservatives Sold Out to Beijing Too Cheaply

Years of obeisance to Beijing have done nothing for Britain.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II listen as Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in London on Oct. 20, 2015.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II listen as Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in London on Oct. 20, 2015. Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool /Getty Images

“We went to a bar last night,” a senior Conservative member of the British Parliament vouchsafed to a group gathered in a private club in Beijing. “And the young people were all dancing. I couldn’t believe it!”

Nor could some of his audience. It was 2011, 22 years after the first modern bar opened in Beijing, and the U.K. government’s representative in China, Nigel Evans, was still shocked that Chinese people enjoyed dancing. Earlier that evening, Evans had delivered a bombastic speech about the need for further engagement. Other than slathering over the GDP figures, though (notoriously “man-made,” according to Premier Li Keqiang), Evans displayed little understanding of those he’d come to court.

The evening offered an unfortunate insight into how little Britain’s Conservative government gets about China—and how desperately it still wanted to heap praise on the country. That tendency is still in full force among some sections of the party today, as a squabble over Britain’s future with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei amid the fallout from COVID-19 threatens alienation from long-standing allies—and more dissent among a party still nursing the divisions over Brexit.

Privately, diplomatic staff in Beijing often confide that their masters can appear clueless—a senior British press officer, taken on a visit to Tiananmen Square, once pointed at the portrait of Mao Zedong that still adorns the entrance to the Forbidden City and wondered, “Who’s that?”

The Beijing Blue Club, to its credit, had managed to lure a veritable embarrassment of Tories to the inaugural reception that night, including Evans, deputy speaker of the House of Commons; Andrew Griffiths, then-MP for Burton; and Maurice Bennett, an ex-Tory treasurer and businessman with a history of bankrolling so-called fact-finding missions to China in conjunction with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The invitation, which sported a half-full martini glass, promised “free flow of imported wine, cocktails and snacks” for “Conservative supporters” and drew a wide crowd of thirsty foreigners and putative right-wingers, all willing to put up with a few speeches in exchange for some canapés and blue-hued cocktails.

In Evans’s keynote address, in which he made his observations about Chinese nightlife, the parliamentarian quipped about having to cut his holiday short to deal with “yobbos” in London (the city had been hit by riots over the summer), expressed his enthusiasm for China’s markets, and concluded on an unapologetically avaricious note: “We just want our fair share of the pie.”

The last time Britain decided it wanted a “fair share of the pie,” of course, its buccaneering excursions ended in national tragedy—for the Chinese. Two Opium Wars claimed nearly 60,000 lives and left an ash heap of resentment that smolders to this day.

The modern approach is less bullish, compelled to be sensitive to this checkered past. As a former imperial power, Britain is a diminished force, unable to rest on past glories or the days when “Perfidious Albion” was less a nickname than a policy. (Even something as seemingly trivial as politicians wearing a poppy, in remembrance of Britain’s war dead, is fraught with diplomatic anxieties.)

Often, this newfound willingness to address CCP grievances can lead to uncomfortable accommodations. The arrests of protesters during a 2015 state visit to London by Chinese President Xi Jinping, for “conspiracy to commit threatening behavior,” was one embarrassing example. Then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s publicity tour of Xinjiang, a border region in continuous clampdown that now hosts numerous so-called reeducation camps for its Uighur population, was another.

Then there was the fiasco over the Chinese critic and artist Ai Weiwei’s visa. After officials at the British Embassy in Beijing initially declined Ai’s application in 2015, citing his failure to declare a “criminal record,” human rights advocates argued that Ai had never been formally charged with any crime and that his initial arrest was politically motivated. At the time, a former embassy official described the consular officer responsible as a “joke,” telling me that the decision was “probably a politically motivated move to curry favor with the Chinese, but my God, they are just crap.” Then-Home Secretary Theresa May swiftly reversed the decision, but the damage was done. Meanwhile, China’s own motivations—to “construct a socialism superior to capitalism” that sees Beijing “win the initiative and have the dominant position”—are hiding in plain sight.

Some argue that the risks of engagement are outweighed by the rewards. In 2013, David Cameron’s government announced a $74 million deal to ship premium pig semen to China. Two years later, Osborne embarked on his ambitious trade tour to Xinjiang, seeking investment in the planned HS2 railway, the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, and real estate projects for the chancellor’s flagship Northern Powerhouse project. Xi’s return visit in 2015 was hailed as the start of a “golden era” between the two nations.

The headline-grabbing pork deal proved less seminal than it seemed: One of the two producers whose business the deal was supposed to invigorate went bust in 2015, while rivals JSR Genetics managed to ship only about $60,000 of the stuff over the same period. Another order was signed in 2018, but a nationwide outbreak of African swine fever in China last year, and subsequent mass cullings, has left little demand due to the loss of breeding sows. (Other, less newsworthy agreements, including a $368 million desalination deal and the sale of more than $7 million’s worth of Cantonese sauce, have fared better.)

It’s not unusual to see a shortfall between the sizzle of a big announcement and the actual meat of the deal. But the golden era’s signature agreements have proved distinctly underwhelming—or, in some cases, downright dodgy.

A multimillion-dollar property development intended to stimulate the market in the Northern Powerhouse cities of Manchester and Liverpool has unraveled amid allegations of fraud and incompetence. The Hinkley Point power plant, meanwhile, might end up being one of the worst business decisions in modern British history—by the time the “dreadful deal” is completed, experts say, the world’s most expensive power plant may already be obsolete.

Does the U.K. benefit from Chinese investment? The Beijing-based scholar Michael Pettis concluded last year that it does not; there is no Chinese equivalent to Nissan’s Sunderland plant, for example. Prestigious universities such as the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics stand accused of curtailing academic freedoms to appease Chinese investors, while the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has pointed to worrying levels of unprecedented cooperation between U.K. academia and the Chinese military. Perhaps the only U.K. sector that can boast benefits free of any controversy is tourism.

Meanwhile, all the fawning has little benefit—just ask any Chinese official who has started frantically loyalty-signaling before a crackdown. When Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, Beijing considered the former prime minister’s “political error” grave enough to freeze relations for over a year. Overall exports and tourism were unaffected, but the official junketeering suffered a blow. Ex-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke had to cancel a visit, with junior minister Oliver Letwin sent in his stead. Letwin duly met with executives from Huawei in Nanjing, immediately hailing the company as a “model for investment in Britain.”

It’s this wide-eyed “let’s do business” enthusiasm for the likes of Huawei—a company credibly accused of spying on foreign partners and enabling human rights abuses in Xinjiang—that has helped create the current crisis for Brexit Britain’s relations with the United States, European Union, and China.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise: Back in 2013, an Intelligence and Security Committee report titled “Foreign Involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure” had already observed a “disconnect between the UK’s inward investment policy and its national security policy.” Outspoken Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat has been less circumspect, expressing the “dire need” for a proper China strategy and describing the decision to allow Huawei further into 5G phone networks as letting a “fox in the hen house.”

In the United States, the FBI now has a unit dedicated to countering China’s “subversive, undeclared, criminal and coercive” political influence, which ranges from proxy groups such as the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, an arm of the United Front Work Department, to appointments of directorships in Chinese companies, research grants, and subsidized trips of the sort frequently favored by Conservative MPs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned that adopting Huawei’s technology would be “choosing autocracy over democracy,” while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called state-linked tech companies like Huawei and ZTE “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.” With the coronavirus causing a further crash in U.S. opinions on China, the messaging from Washington is displaying a rare form of bipartisanship—in that both sides have begun accusing the other of being too close to Beijing.

The red flags are finally starting to fly in parts of Europe, too: A recent Norwegian intelligence report mentions China 173 times over 126 pages. (Only Russia, with 225 references, merits more concern.) A similar 82-page report from Estonia brings up China’s covert operations more than 100 times, while Czech spooks consider Beijing the most aggressive threat to national security alongside Russia.

Why, then, have successive Tory administrations, from David Cameron to Theresa May and Boris Johnson, seemingly failed to grasp the issue?

They have, argued Rupert Allason, who writes as Nigel West, an intelligence expert and former Tory MP, who said Tugendhat’s remarks were “alarmist” but “intended to be.” “If we [Britain] walk into this deal with eyes open, then so be it,” Allason told me, pointing out that “we have a very different relationship with the Chinese” than the United States does: “We do not have PRC citizens in jail on national security charges, whereas there are dozens in the United States.” Perhaps reflecting a mainstream Tory view, Allason also claimed the Chinese are “contemptuous of smelly Westerners” and “have a commitment to their own ascendancy,” meaning the government has “to deal with them with a very long spoon.”

A willingness to hold one’s nose when dealing with certain regimes, of course, is part of the political landscape: Overlooking blood in return for the prospect of treasure has long been Tory foreign policy, from Margaret Thatcher’s relations with Chile and apartheid-era Pretoria to long-standing Conservative chumminess with Saudi rulers. Augusto Pinochet was many things—embezzler, torturer, dictator, potential client—but he was never a threat to Britain’s national security. But China isn’t just another promising partner wearing a blood-splattered business suit; it’s the world’s second-largest economy, with a long history of weaponizing that spending power in defense of its deeds and defiance of international norms.

There are signs that the more mutinous MPs will no longer sit on their hands. Since the pandemic, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday—Conservative Party newsletters, to all intents and purposes—have run numerous headlines (“No 10 Fury at China’s Lies,” “China Faces Reckoning”) suggesting the argot of Sinophobia has replaced the golden era among a powerful constituency of members. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has alluded to a “deep dive” into U.K.-China relations so things don’t revert to “business as usual.”

The final decision on Huawei still belongs to Parliament, with a vote expected within months. Already, Johnson—who purged his party of Brexit rebels before last year’s general election—has faced his first revolt, after 38 Conservative MPs voted against Huawei’s plans in March. It was a rare sign of dissent within a majority party already stuffed with obeisant loyalists and a telling sign of how the China threat now has the ability to rally consensus among unlikely allies in Western democracies.

If an amateur historian such as Johnson plans to handle the CCP with a mixture of public deference and backstage management, he should refer to the Dutch mission that submitted itself to a “ceremony of adoration” two years after Lord Macartney’s fateful snub in 1793; despite believing himself a success, the Dutch envoy was sent away with laughter and a flea in his ear. Beijing demands fealty but only respects power. If things do go belly up for the British, there’ll be no sending gunboats up the Huangpu: Beijing’s Trojan horses will already be galloping through critical infrastructure.

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a UK -based writer and China consultant. His forthcoming book on vice, crime and corruption in New China will be published by I.B.Tauris

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