China – national security threat?

I first visited Hong Kong in the summer of 1989, a few weeks after the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  At the time the people of Hong Kong feared for their future, whilst the rest of the world considered how to deal with a regime prepared to shoot its own people to remain in power.  Over the next decades I would come to work and live in China, receiving the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2002 for developing the Economist’s business in China.   Whilst recognising that we were dealing with an autocratic state and rightly concerned at its human rights record, we considered that by engaging with China – and in my case helping Chinese businesses align their commercial practices with those of the West – we were helping to create a new partner in the global world order.

However, since Xi Jinping’s ascent to power over a decade ago, things have gone backwards. Instead of a partner China is increasingly setting itself up as an adversary to the West, set on undermining the liberal world order.  Within our own liberal family, some condemn our engagement back then with China – arguing that we should have foreseen what was coming.  On a recent trip to Berlin, I met up with an old friend who at one time ran the business operations of Siemens in China.    I asked him for his thoughts on whether we had got it so wrong back then.    He defended our actions, but with our knowledge now of China’s recent behaviour, we cannot carry on with business as normal.  Germany that has invested 10 times more in China than the UK and therefore has much more to lose, is having to face some tough decisions.

In recent years we have seen the Chinese Communist Party CCP prepared to resort to ever more extreme measures to maintain its grip on power.   In its repressive treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang – classed by many as genocide – to its crushing of Hong Kong’s civil liberties, to the oppression of civil society in mainland China itself – it has become ever more autocratic.  In today’s Hong Kong commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square in public – a major public event up until only a few years ago – will now land you in jail.  People are afraid to criticise the government even in the privacy of their own homes. The CCP has clamped down on activities within China itself that it feels unable to control.  Shanghai Pride – an amazing weeklong celebration attracting thousands of LGBT people from across China – was closed down last year.  It’s main organiser having to flee the country or face arrest.  A similar fate has brought thousands of Hong Kongers to live in the UK.

And in our battle with Putin’s Russia which is primarily aimed at stopping the spread of liberal democracy, where Ukraine is the front line – China has aligned itself with Russia.  We should be under no illusion that should Russia succeed in its plan, that the invasion of Taiwan will be next on China’s agenda.

It is imperative that we send a message to China and companies doing business with China that whilst we are prepared to engage with them on issues like climate change that we cannot carry on as before to find shared technology and trade being used against us and our societies.

For the past three years the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee, of which I am now Chair, has made it a priority for us as a party to develop a coherent and robust policy towards China. Indeed, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in its report released in July criticised the British Government for its lack of a China policy and called on them to work with Opposition parties to develop one.  The UK must not fall into using the anti-China rhetoric of the USA and other international partners, but still find a way to stand up and challenge them.

We have an opportunity in Bournemouth to set the tone in the debate about China and continue to punch above our weight in international affairs by selecting the Emergency Motion – China A National Security Threat – for debate.  Establishing a policy on China is the most important international issue of our time- as liberals we must not shirk away from the challenge.

* David Chalmers is Chair of Federal International Relations Committee.

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  • Steve Trevethan 21st Sep '23 - 8:29pm

    Might we please have more differentiation in our governmental classification of ruling group types?

    Polity data series scores and classifies countries according to government type.
    China. -7. Autocracy
    Russia. 4. Open Anocracy
    Ukraine. -4. Open Anocracy
    USA. 8. Democracy
    UK. 8 Democracy
    Ireland. 10. Full Democracy

    Anocracy is semi democracy.

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