Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We need to talk about China

A Chinese government that is more self-confident externally, more insecure internally, and in a more powerful geopolitical position than at any time since the 19th century poses perhaps the single greatest challenge to Britain’s ability to be a progressive force in the world. Yet China’s transition from object of western power to rival to it has seemingly passed many progressives by: the reflex remains simply to keep adding additional items to the already-long list of things we would like China to do differently, even as Beijing’s pushback against liberal norms grows stronger. Denial is not the answer – a progressive strategy for the projection of power in an Asian century requires a reality check about what Britain can expect to achieve alone, but optimism about our ability to shape a values-based order if we act in concert with others.

When the Labour party was last in opposition, progressive debates about China were still playing out in the shadow of Tiananmen. The central policy question was whether the west should use its leverage to extract concessions from the Chinese government on human rights – or if integrating China into international institutions and supporting its economic growth would prove to be the best catalyst for political reform.

During Labour’s time in office, however, China’s tremendous economic take-off and transition from bit-part player to diplomatic powerhouse, alongside the seeming resilience of the Chinese Communist party, transformed the decision-making context for ministers calculating how best to use Britain’s diminished leverage. When one of us attended a speech in Beijing by Jack Straw nine years ago, a Chinese expert in attendance whispered that this was the first speech by a British foreign secretary they’d heard that didn’t mention human rights. In fact, it did – but it was preventing genocide in Darfur rather than abuses in China itself that was seen as the more tractable issue.

China’s transition – from an aid recipient whose governance we tried to influence to a great power whose government we need to partner – accelerated even more rapidly through the global financial crisis. The result was a palpable sense in Beijing that, with the United States faltering, a decisive power shift was under way. It manifested itself in a newfound assertiveness, whether exhibited through China’s efforts to enforce its position in territorial disputes, or in its comfort deploying a veto at the UN security council.

At the same time, however, China’s rulers are aware that much about their own position remains precarious. The failures of the Chinese Communist party to make progress on curbing corruption and social injustice – further highlighted by the enormous pressure on last weekend’s conclave of senior party leaders – are running up against rising expectations from China’s growing middle class and an explosion in Chinese social networking, which can quickly turn local grievances into collective action. From the high-level splits exposed by the fall of Bo Xilai to the new generation of prominent Chinese activists, such as Liu Xiaobo, the sense that China’s ossified politics is reaching a turning point has become pervasive. Beijing’s handling of these issues has only grown more prickly: relations with Norway are still frozen three years after the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, the ‘punishment’ of countries whose leaders meet with the Dalai Lama has been escalated, and the international press corps in China is facing a tightening squeeze after its revelations of the private wealth of the families of senior Chinese officials.

The question, then, is how to deal with a Chinese government that does not share western values about democracy and the rule of law at home nor a liberal order abroad, but which is nonetheless an important partner on issues ranging from the global economic crisis to nuclear security.

A future Labour government does have the potential to exert progressive influence in this context, but it will need to answer difficult questions in order to do so. How willing are we to revisit long-cherished foreign policy principles about multilateralism in order to address the risk that China’s rise poses to the progressive potential of the international institutions? And how can China’s politics be navigated in a principled way while maintaining a good working relationship on major areas of shared interest, including our economic ties?

The first issue transcends the bilateral relationship with Beijing – it is really about our willingness to work with a whole host of other countries to act as a counterweight to China in defence of a values-based global order. Yet a Prime Minister Miliband will also inherit from the Conservatives a diminished UK position in Europe and a transatlantic relationship in managed decline, weakening the west’s capacity to deal with China from a position of collective strength. The only way to secure our power is to pool it, including by investing far more seriously in the EU’s foreign and security policy apparatus and being more willing than we have traditionally been to bring the EU’s economic heft to bear in trade and economic disputes. But we also need to take a hard-headed look at what Mark Leonard calls China’s ‘defensive multilateralism – joining global institutions in order to protect China’s interests but not to support the broader goals of the institutions themselves’. It is time, for instance, to revisit Labour’s traditional idealism about the legitimising role of the increasingly deadlocked UN security council.

The second issue is as much matter of pragmatism as principle. While the perennial questions of human rights dialogues and meetings with the Dalai Lama are inescapable, in a period when China faces the prospect of serious political transition, conducting a relationship that relegates the internal situation there to the sidelines of policy is not only not progressive, it is also short-sighted. No one expects a revolution in China tomorrow but developments in the last couple of years have accentuated the need, as has been true across much of the Arab world, for a hedged policy that is as well prepared for the possibility of change as it is for the continuation of the status quo. The day-to-day dilemmas this now involves were vividly illustrated by civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng arriving to seek sanctuary at the US embassy while half its cabinet was in town for the ‘Strategic and Economic dialogue’. Similarly, debates about the UK’s exposure to Chinese state-owned enterprises and technology companies have often been reduced to a simple ‘open for business’ mantra rather than facing up to the distinct political and security questions they pose.

During Labour’s last period in government we failed to make responding to illiberal powers one of the organising concepts of British foreign policy and paid the price in Copenhagen, Geneva, and New York. If we want to avoid repeating that mistake, we need to face up to the scale and nature of China’s power. Labour’s future China policy must combine the humility to recognise the UK’s diminished leverage and the confidence to believe the west’s collective capacity to shape the environment in which Beijing makes its choices has not been lost.


Questions to discuss:

1)    Has China’s integration into international institutions changed China, or changed the institutions?

2)    What compromises should we be prepared to make to ensure a coalition of liberal countries can act as an effective counterweight to Chinese power?

3)    How can China’s politics be navigated in a principled and effective way while maintaining a good working relationship with Beijing on areas of shared interest?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: Nacho Arenas

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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall


  • The fact that a Peking Duck Dinner is primarily mainly all crispy skin is not known to most folk in the United Kingdom, or the West. The Chinese love of their Opera and their millennia-old culture is also a myster to most in the West — the Chinese were drinking the finest teas out of porcelain cups whilst we in Europe [the Picts, Angles, Saxons and others] were beating each-others’ brains out with the bones of a dead Ass. There is lots for us ‘Westerners’ to learn from the Chinese. Its a jolly good show [sic] to see our ‘Western’ scientists getting along so well, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the Chinese and their 1st Moon shot. To a lesser degree, the same can be said for various religious groupings who have found ideas in common, viz,Sino-West Christian church forums.

    Its the political cadres in East & West who come to blows, literally and metaphorically.

    So, if Science & Religion can get on with our Chinese ‘frenemies’, why can’t our politicians try to follow suit? Some ‘Western’ politicians should find out the recipe for a Peking Duck dinner before they start telling the Chinese chef[s] how its cooked.

  • I agree Roy, the West is still guilty of orientalist imperialism. Although I would say that when I was in China they did some amazing ‘fake-meat’ made out of tofu, and given the pressures on the global food system and the problems with food security, it would make more sense if ‘Western’ ‘politicians’ learnt the recipe for a Peking Mock-Duck Dinner than what you have suggested, no?

  • QED. Saviour, Dave C, the current PM [mahfgw], has made his name into the history books. But never fear, Ed’, the Chinese have a very long memory for old enemies, and the same applies for old friends. [Not sure about the tofu dressed up as duck though – goes agin’ the grain for most carnivores who like their meat raw and bloodied].

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