An interview with Vince Cable

Former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has just written a thought-provoking new book about China. So what motivated him to do so, and how does he think the West should respond to the emergence of this Far Eastern superpower? We spoke to him to hear his thoughts…

1. What inspired you to write your book?

My interest in China has been growing since I did some China scenarios for Shell 25 years ago (the upshot was a successful industrial complex in Guangdong, now being expanded). I was heavily involved with the government in trade and other issues during the Coalition. More recently, I have been writing about the remarkable man who largely created modern, post Mao, China: Deng Xiaoping. The emergence of China and India as superpowers will shape the 21st Century.

2. What’s your argument in a nutshell?

My argument in the book is that whether or not we like the Chinese regime, we have to live with it and engage with it. Pontificating and finger-wagging by the West achieves absolutely nothing. There are some issues like climate change; the trade regime; pandemic management where we have to cooperate, added to which China has undoubtedly overtaken the US as the world’s No 1 economy. There are powerful forces in the Trump administration and among China hawks trying to mobilise an anti-China front for a new Cold War mainly to resist China’s economic advance. We should not be dragged in. There is a lot of paranoia. My model is Merkel.

3. So if you’d still been Business Secretary you’d have opposed the decision to shut out Huawei from Britain’s 5G mobile network?

I thought the May government had a sensible compromise allowing Huawei into the 5G network but not some core functions. When I dealt with Huawei in government the spooks always told me that the relationship could be managed and was good for the UK.

4. What about the way that China in effect discriminates against Western companies attempting to do business there? Doesn’t that need to be addressed?

Many emerging markets discriminate against foreign investors: China less than most (e.g. India, Brazil). It is currently opening up new sectors (finance) and the World Bank acknowledges big improvements in, for example, IP protection.

5. As a good liberal, don’t you find this quasi-police state (China) with its blatant disregard for the rule of law and free speech rather distasteful?

China has long been a one-party state with authoritarian features in which the regime offers economic progress and stability in return for its party’s monopoly of power. That is hardly new. What has changed is increasing assertiveness based on both its success and the failure of the West to demonstrate the superiority of the democratic model and to honour its own beliefs (Boris Johnson and the rule of law; Trump and democracy). China is more self-policed than a police state. The Chinese still have the freedom to travel abroad as many do and there is much localised dissent, tolerated unless it becomes a movement.

6. What about China’s well-documented human right abuses, particularly in relation to the Uighur Muslims? Aren’t liberals everywhere right to highlight such abuses?

The accounts of Uigur Muslim persecution are dreadful. As with Tibet, there is no tolerance of minorities which are seen as secessionist and which do not assimilate (as well as an over-reaction to terrorism by some Jihadis). The Myanmar [Burmese] persecution of Muslim Rohingas is probably worse and India is heading in the same direction.

7. And then there’s the clampdown in Hong Kong…?

The best response to Hong Kong was the one given by the UK government: to offer asylum (though I wonder if Priti Patel is prepared to open the doors to several hundred thousand refugees if it actually happened). On the bigger Hong Kong story, it is worth recalling that in the aftermath of empire, most of the bits and pieces left behind were taken over by force (India and Goa; Indonesia and Papua; Morocco and Sahara); China tried the longer, legal, route. And it could have suppressed the mass demos in Hong Kong by force but has used this draconian legislation instead.

8. And the way China is increasingly flexing its military muscles in the Far East and elsewhere – isn’t that a genuine cause for concern?

The Xi administration is behaving arrogantly (as super-powers tend to do) and unnecessarily making enemies in its neighbourhood (India, Australia). But we should distinguish aggressive rhetoric from action. The last time China engaged in military action with its neighbours was 40 years ago, in Vietnam when it got a bloody nose. Its armed forces are now better equipped but have no military experience (unlike the US).

9. How do you think China views Britain, and Boris Johnson, today?

I sense that the Chinese, like a lot of other countries, have given up on the UK. When the UK was seen, pre-Brexit, as a ‘gateway to Europe’ we had serious credibility: no longer. Germany is now the serious European country.

10. Lastly, the coronavirus pandemic began in China but it seems to have handled the outbreak better than much of the West (including Britain), incurring much less damage to its economy. What are the longer-term implications of this?

The Chinese have indulged in quite a lot of crude boasting about their belated pandemic response. But the long term effects are two: to reinforce the idea that they (unlike the US/UK etc) have a competent state; and to reinforce their relative economic strength.

China: Engage! Avoid The New Cold War (Bite-Sized Public Affairs Books), is out now in paperback

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6 Comments

  • Leekliberal 20th Oct '20 - 7:51pm

    Insight, decency, balance and common sense here as always. If only Vince could have been our leader in 2010!

  • John Littler 20th Oct '20 - 9:07pm

    Britain has missed out badly, in not having Vince at the helm, choosing clowns over expertise

  • Nom de Plume 20th Oct '20 - 9:31pm

    The West has lost an understanding of its own values and the ability to analyze rationally. It is screwed.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 21st Oct '20 - 9:47am

    This is a solid, measured and timely view with pointed arguments on China’s inexperence in fighting wars and the unecessary aggression of Xi Jinping. As the quasi Cold War rhetoric heats up, Vince Cable brings us down to Earth with balance and the long view.

  • David Evans 21st Oct '20 - 6:06pm

    @LeekLiberal – even better if he could have become our leader in 2014 when we really needed him. But if I remember rightly, when people were looking for him, he was in somewhere in China!! I think, conveniently for the Cling to power Cleggites, he was conveniently in some place called Communicado. 🙁

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