China and its challenge to Liberal Democracy

Anti-Chinese rhetoric is growing, and it is amazing how seamlessly our enemy number one has shifted from Islamic extremism to an expansionist China with barely the blink of an eye. 

No longer do we have a War on Terror but the spectre of a new Cold War. 

Accusations against Chinese President Xi Jinping are beginning to mirror those against Middle Eastern dictators when complexities of cultures and societies were concertinaed into cartoon-style characters of evil such as with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. 

We all know what happened there and, unless we are vigilant, we may be walking into another disastrous trap. 

With gulag-style camps in Xinjiang and the crackdown against political dissent in Hong Kong, such criticism against China are justified. 

The question is, however, what can liberal democracies do that is effective. 

A first step is to look more at ourselves and reestablish liberal democratic values that in the past two decades have fallen into a sorry state of repair. 

Liberal democracy was once heralded as a beacon for delivering security and freedom. Failure in the Middle East and North African conflicts has shredded that reputation. 

It was also held up as a political mechanism that delivered higher standards of living over a dictatorship. 

Yet for hundreds of millions, China is seen to be doing more with poverty alleviation and, in swathes of the developing world, building roads, hospitals and infrastructure. 

Over the decades, China’s values and belief in the authoritarian state have barely shifted, while our view of China has undergone somersault after somersault. 

Thirty years ago, Beijing stood condemned as a pariah for its violent repression of the Tiananmen Square protests. Yet, the same one-party state with the same repressive policies was welcomed as a saviour in the 2009 economic crisis. In 2015, Britain went as far as declaring a “golden era” in U.K.-China relations. 

This was precisely the time Beijing was building its military bases in the South China Sea, drawing up plans for the mass imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, establishing how to violate its agreements on Hong Kong and defining the future international landscape as a struggle between the capitalist and socialist systems. 

Our intelligence agencies knew this. Political leaders did not listen because they prioritized access to Chinese money over liberal democratic values and national security.

Until we reaffirm these values, in the way we did after the Second World War, we will go round and round in circles with the rise of authoritarian powers. 

As of now, Britain has no China strategy, and it needs one. 

There are areas, such as climate change, where Chinese and liberal democratic values can work together. 

There are others where boundaries must be identified, such as Chinese investment in critical infrastructure. 

Moreover, we need to know exactly where we stand on issues of obvious contention such as the Xinjiang camps. To what extent can the U.K. continue business with a government that imprisons a million of its citizens because of their ethnicity? 

Far better that we establish now how to balance Chinese money and technology with our values and national interest than getting caught out in a crisis and make policy on the hoof to feed the 24-hour news cycle.

Humphrey Hawksley is a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham branch. He will be talking on China and its Challenge to Liberal Democracy at a National Liberal Club virtual event at 6pm on September 14th   Zoom Login

* Humphrey Hawksley is a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham party and on the executive of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

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12 Comments

  • I can’t Imagine living in a country where politicians decide who you can see, where you can stand, ban live events, insist that people remain celibate unless they are in a long term relationship, issue on the spot fines to protestors and face no real opposition.

  • Robin Bennett 10th Sep '20 - 1:19am

    Indeed, the greatest threat which ruler-for-life Xi poses is to his own people. It is the all-pervading power of one man which must cause the greatest concern.

    This can also affect us. The current example is Covid-19. As the late Dr Li Wen Liang learned, evidence was hushed up until orders came from Beijing weeks later. In western medical circles there would have been free discussion and pressure for quick action by government. One wonders whether Xi knew about it but dithered, did not want to know, or simply did not know because tiers of bureaucrats were afraid to pass bad news up the line.

    China is probably not a military threat to its neighbours or to others, apart from Taiwan and, potentially, North Korea. It never has been. But keeping Huawei out of infrastructure is still appropriate as a matter of national security.
    Although it would be mutually beneficial to trade with China we must be on our guard for any attempts to become more than just the world’s economic superpower by infiltrating or manipulating third-world countries and even western democracies.

    A liberal democratic approach should be that trade is good, even with this regime. But no opportunity should be lost to champion human rights in China by all peaceful means and setting a good example. But can we any longer?

    Many overseas Chinese, understandably dazzled by the record-breaking rise of the Chinese economy, claim that China is all good because the greatest human right is to come out of poverty. If we extol Western democracy, they look at Trump and Johnson and think: why bother? And now, to our greatest shame, if we complain about broken promises in Hong Kong, international obligations and the rule of law, we can expect China’s propaganda machine, already skilled in whataboutery, to cite Brandon Lewis’s admission in the Commons this week.

  • Moves made by Britain to introduce democracy in Hong Kong were very little and limited to the period from the 1980s onwards once Britain knew it would be withdrawing.
    As in the original cold war it is a question of co-existence but this time with China. The immediate hope is to make China part of a rules bound global order but Perfidious Albion is hardly likely to be seen as leading this effort.

  • The time has gone for the uber-globalist lib dems. `The Wuhan flu` came from China. People have lost their jobs, livelihoods and LIBERAL freedoms. I’ve lost my ability to socialise and lost my job as did 30 of my colleagues. The owner of the company lost their business.

    Yet I hear NOTHING from the LIBERAL Democrats. Truth is they’re so far left they’re no longer LIBERAL.

  • The virus origins are most likely natural. The slow response and inconsistency of the UK government has not helped to contain the pandemic in Britain.

  • James
    I’m hearing a lot of similar stories. Until we have a political class capable of dissent and able to question why we’re still in this ineffective cycle of societal wreckage I can’t take the sad pretence of “liberal democracy” seriously. Instead of asking why if this threat is so serious the medical advice is not to bother the medical profession because the main symptom is not having any symptoms and they only find new cases by increased testing. The hospitals are not being flooded and there no correlation between increased infection rates and hospital admissions. All we’ve got now is leaders not wanting to admit they overreacted and can’t give up the power they grabbed, so we all have to jump on command.

  • @Manfarang: I agree we need to ensure China is part of a rules bound global order, but Boris has just made that more difficult. It is also more difficult now that we have left the EU, losing power and influence and indicating an attitude that we no longer put international cooperation near the top of our priorities.
    I largely agree with Robin Bennett. Trade with China is in principle good, but care is needed because of the way China uses trade to exploit weakness for its own advancement in other countries, such as in Africa, where it leaves a country dependent on its help rather than supporting that nation’s long-term independent development.

  • The covid realities

  • The reality of this coronavirus is that if you have symptoms you are told not to bother the medical profession and if you test positive but have no symptoms you are told not to bother the medical profession. This has been drummed into the population day after day for the last 6 months. The official message to the young is not “protect yourself”, it’s don’t kill your Gran. Frankly, it would be cheaper to issue the vulnerable with space suites at this point. Then there are the mixed messages. Go to the office or other workplace full of people, but don’t invite anyone home and don’t eat with them at lunchtime. Go to the pub with up to six people you know, but don’t meet up with friends. This is not dictated by “the science”, it’s political theatre and an obsession with control. We’re now going to get Boris wardens to make sure we stick to the arbitrary rules he seems to make up on the spot when he his mildly grilled by the timid opposition (personally, I would prefer to see him properly grilled by cannibals) Plus, on the one hand you have the Great Leader talking about moonshots and constant testing . On the other you have commissar Hancock talking about the need to reduce the numbers without symptoms taking tests to priorities people with symptoms.
    But, mustn’t grumble or show any dissent, we can just keep wrecking civil society, jobs, people’s family lives, not testing for or offering early treatment for cancers, heart disease or other serious conditions and pretend that no one is dying of anything else. Anything, but ask if it is worth the effort or is even working.

  • @Glenn “All we’ve got now is leaders not wanting to admit they overreacted and can’t give up the power they grabbed”
    They didn’t ‘grab’ power, they already had it…

    What we are seeing is the politicians and their advisors waking up and realising just how much power the Government/Executive actually has, and now wanting to wield some of that power. Expect a post-Brexit UK to lurch very much towards rule by the ‘monarchy’ aka the Executive, neatly bypassing a ‘sovereign’ Parliament…

  • @Glenn ” Go to the pub with up to six people you know, but don’t meet up with friends. This is not dictated by “the science”, it’s political theatre and an obsession with control.”
    The current situation has really thrown science and politic’s into the spotlight. The science is very clear in its own way, however, translating that into something that can clearly and unamiguously be communicated to Joe Public and to give the Police clear grounds to enforce is something else…

    The fact that cases of CoVid19 are rising across the country and not just in specific places – requiring the application of nationwide restrictions, indicates that the government hasn’t got its containment strategy right. Personally, we should still have a bar on foreign travel and probably also a bar on long distance travel/commuting within the UK.

    FYI, a good example of the theatre you talk about is one my daughter gave me: Several school friends are turning 18 in the coming weeks; they can meet within their year group 5 days a week whilst at school; however, having a party (which involves exactly the same people) outside of school is against the rules. I’ve suggested they use one of their free periods to have a party on the school field….

  • Roland
    I’m not being pseudo nuanced. I’m pointing out that our representatives are wrecking the country over a virus that barely impacts on health, hence the advice is to not bother the NHS if you have symptoms or test positive. They overreacted and know it, but don’t know how to end it.

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