Brexit confirmed China’s view that the people should not make the important decisions – Richard Graham MP

This is a cross-post from a recent article written for the Times Red Box by Richard Graham MP, MP for Gloucester and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary China Group.

The divisions in British thinking about China have long been there, but are more visible now after our implicit change of government.

On the one side is British real politik: some politicians, businesses, economists and civil servants who see growth via trade and investment as the overriding basis for our relationship. They certainly talk about the rule of law, critical to the safety of our investment, and go through the motions of listening to the Dalai Lama, dissidents, human and animal rights campaigners – but little more. Their bottom line is we need their investment, and our value is in welcoming it without restriction – the most open economy in the West, almost the cheerleader of the Chinese “go global” policy.

On the other side is an eclectic mix: Cold War warriors who know the reality of Chinese cyber activity, socialists who disapprove of socialist regimes so intensely relaxed about the filthy rich (so long as they don’t challenge The Party) and libertarians never reconciled to an autocratic (and successful) alternative to democracy.

Then there are the greens who were told by China for decades that it couldn’t yet afford to be more environmental (and now discover it can’t afford NOT to), and the idealistic, shocked by a regime that pursues its own ends so shamelessly.

While William Hague was foreign secretary (2010-14), the government pivoted between the two approaches – recognising that you would always be in the doghouse with the Chinese government for something, such is their sensitivity, and that trade and investment would continue and grow if we had the right offerings. Indeed inward investment from China to the UK exceeded that of the rest of Europe put together during the period when China declined to see ministers.

When Hague retired, the balance, especially in the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit, was rather lost. We took too long to articulate why, as joint guarantor of Hong Kong’s freedoms, we needed to speak up when a million and a half people took to the streets there. Legitimate security concerns, or any definition of assets whose sale we might not want to see, appeared to be ignored: and the banning of the foreign affairs select committee from Hong Kong got little government support. The deals to be had were what counted.

Now that balance has been restored: a department including industrial strategy is back, the limitations of the market more recognised – we will hear more on this – and restrictions on foreign ownership of key assets re-introduced. The caricatures can be redrawn: not all business is simply “pro-China” and some Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians want strong relations with China.

What do the Chinese make of all this? They have been discombobulated by changes they absolutely did not predict: Brexit’s success, the resignation of David Cameron, the election of Theresa May, changes in most departments, a review of the Hinkley Point C nuclear project, new people at No 10 their embassy did not know, and the loss, perhaps, of us as their champion for free trade (and Chinese access to European markets) in Brussels. None of this was exactly welcome to the CCCP. Brexit confirmed their (and some in Whitehall’s) view that you do not let the people make such important decisions.

In fairness, virtually all of us were caught by surprise to some extent, and anticipating what was going to happen next this summer was an exam very few diplomats scored well in. But the special difficulty for China is that the CCCP has to believe that all electoral change means instability, and that not knowing the result beforehand makes it worse. The fact that our changes (despite or because of no written constitution) this summer after the referendum made for stability, not instability, is not helpful to their world view. They prefer backing leaders with a long and predictable shelf life.

So we all have to reassure them that just because George Osborne no longer leads government positioning on China does not mean that suddenly the UK is less of a friend. Only, I suggest, that we will be a bit more honest and discriminating in our partnership – as good partners should be.

Our summer, to put it another way (and pace di Lampedusa’s The Leopard), amounts to everything had to change for everything to remain the same. This concept, key to western democracy, is going to test China in presidential elections over the next year in the US, France and Germany. And whereas the surprising (to them) stability in the UK makes life easier for Chinese investment (a lot has already gone through, at post-Brexit currency discounts) it doesn’t make her case for denying Hong Kong proper democracy any stronger. If Trump were to win, and then their worst fears not come true, some CCCP assumptions about the world might be challenged.

All this is fine for China specialists, but what I think will be more important in the long run than the issues our governments choose to disagree on – global, regional or bilateral – will be the increasing people-to-people engagement. At any one time over 100,000 Chinese students are studying here, and the lists of those who already have grow longer and longer. They will all reach their own conclusions about what we are like, and the increasing numbers of British travellers to China likewise.

Ultimately no government policy towards another country can far outstretch its citizens’ own views. The days of anti-Britain protests on the basis of the Opium War are past their sell-by date in modern China, and any remaining images we have of a land of little red books and rice fields likewise. A modern partnership will champion exchanges at all levels – films, football, pupils and WeChat/Facebook. Seeing each other as we really are, in all our imperfections, will bring West and East closer. And because both countries do matter, in different and often complementary ways, getting the balance right is worth working for.

– Richard Graham MP

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