Do the Liberal Democrats know where Shenzhen is? And why it matters

Have you seen Gary Johnson forgetting ‘what’ Aleppo is? If not I’d recommend it. His baffled expression is hilarious.

But when you have finished chuckling, may I ask you a question? Where is Shenzhen?

My guess is most of you are now stumped. I only know because I once had to catch a train from Shenzhen station. Which is embarrassing because by one definition it is the 8th largest city in the world. It is adjacent to but several times the size of Hong Kong. Which, remarkably, is no longer among the twenty largest Chinese cities. And China is an enormous country in an enormous region:

Credit: Redditor valeriepieris

Credit: Redditor valeriepieris

Despite this the last Liberal Democrat manifesto includes more references to Israel – which has 0.001% of the world’s population – than to all the countries in the Asia-Pacific combined. And they are only mentioned in the context of advocating EU membership. There are (or have been) groups declaring themselves to be “the Liberal Democrat Friends…” There are the Chinese Liberal Democrats but they exist “to promote closer links between the Party and the Chinese and South East Asian community in the UK.” of Israel, Palestine, Kashmir, India and Turkey but not of China, Indonesia or Vietnam. Basically, if a Lib Dem says they care about foreign policy that usually means they are interested in Europe or the parts of the Islamic world somewhat adjacent to it. 

We have done better than that in the past. Before Hong Kong’s return to China, Paddy Ashdown was the foremost advocate of giving passports to the city’s residents. This helped prove the Party’s relevance after the disaster of merger but my impression is that our credibility on the issue depended on the fact that Ashdown had lived in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese. I struggle to think of another senior figure in the Party who has anywhere near that insight.

This matters because Britain has close connections to the Asia-Pacific. We once ruled much of it and as a result many Britons can trace their ancestry there. China is our second largest import partner. When money moves to and from the Asia-Pacific, it often does so via British banks like ‘the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’. More than 100,000 students from the region study in the UK. And thousands of British citizens, myself included, live there.

We must not imagine that Asia has been placid amidst the turbulence in Europe and the Middle East. That the British media often makes it seem that way simply demonstrates our national blind spot for the region. Its economic transformation has been staggering. In 1990, 65% of East Asians lived in extreme poverty. Now just 3.5% of them do. And its international relations are changing to reflect that. China (and North Korea?) now have enough military might that it is no longer a given that the US can hold the ring in East Asia. But the most significant development for a party called the Liberal Democrats is probably an ideological one. The Singaporean model of authoritarian technocracy – from which the Chinese Communist Party borrows extensively – has emerged as a viable competitor to liberal democracy.

When a crisis eventually pushes one of these issues into the spotlight of British politics will the Liberal Democrats have more to offer than a Gary Johnson style blank stare? Will our leaders understand the region or will they be looking to Lord Ashdown for a primer? If that winds up being the case then that will be a major failing on our part. The Asia-Pacific is set to be the fulcrum of the twentieth-first century. If we have nothing to say about it, in a real sense we have nothing to say about the world we live in.

* The author is a Lib Dem member living (and renting) in London. He works in a politically restricted role.

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  • In answer to your question posed in the headline – hastily, without reading your article yet – at least I know where Shenzhen is, and what it represents (or maybe represented). I have travelled through Shenzhen on the train, from Guangzhou towards Hong Kong. It represented a Chinese prototype of outward looking less regulated capitalism, almost like a Chinese version of an “Enterprise Zone” only much deeper. It is relatively near Hong Kong, and was at least in part an early Chinese reaction to the freewheeling capitalism which has existed in HK over the years. I will read your article in a bit, and further comment then!

  • I may also mention that my son has worked extensively in HK and mainland China, and my daughter in law is Chinese.

  • paul barker 9th Oct '16 - 1:07pm

    Are you quite sure about that graphic ? I tried adding up the 2013 populations of India, China, ASEAN & Japan & they came to 3 Billion, ie about 40% of the World Population in 2013. Where is the extra 10% coming from ?
    That is not to take away from the thrust of the article, 40% of the World is still an enormous blind spot ( & you can add most of Latin America) & there are rumblings of crisis coming from China.

  • Do you know where Zaoyang is?

  • Alex Church 9th Oct '16 - 2:33pm

    Paul Barker,

    If you follow the link in the credit there’s a fairly long discussion about the map, which can probably tell you for sure.

    But of the top of my head I can see that as well as the countries you list the circle also covers Bangladesh, both halfs of Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia. It may also need to includes parts of Pakistan and Russia. So add their populations to 3 billion and I think you get there.

  • paul barker 9th Oct '16 - 2:54pm

    OK, I somehow managed to forget Pakistan & Bangla Desh, thats worrying. Too much mental space taken up by Trump, UKIP & Corbyn, my brain needs a clear-out.

  • Joseph Bourke 9th Oct '16 - 3:26pm

    Good article, Mark.

    I visited Shenzen in 1983. I had travelled from Tokyo to Hong Kong. Although, Hong Kong was a modern city it was a bit shabby at that time compared to Tokyo. Taking the hovercraft to Macau (outside of the Casinos) we arrived in a area that appeared to be about a century or so behind Hong Kong in terms of development and basic ameneties. From Macau, we travelled to Shenzen. Travelling through the Chinese countryside at that time seemed like going back a thousamd years o feudal times. There were no tractors or other mechanised farm equipment to be seen, a few oxen and a multitude of peasants working in the rice paddies up to their waist in water. When we returned to Macau (with a changed perspective) it looked pretty good in terms of comparison.

    China has changed out of all recognition over the past 30 years. Things change fast, In the 1980’s Japan was booming, but for the last 25 years economic growth has been stagnant there. A lesson for us all on the effects of overpriced real estate, zombie banks and businesses and the ineffectiveness of monetary and fiscal stimulus in dealing with core structural economic problems.

    If the 21st Century is to be the Chinese century, then we would do well to pay heed to these lessons and your warning that a crisis in the Asia-Pacific region will effect us all.

  • Mark Inskip 9th Oct '16 - 8:37pm

    I’m a Lib Dem and I’ve been there

  • I think you are doing your fellow LibDems a disservice Mark. I think plenty of us know where Shenzhen is, and you can add me to the list of those who have actually been there (twice, along with a number of other Chinese cities that aren’t Beijing or Shanghai).

    Plenty of us have an interest in foreign policy that extends beyond Europe and the Middle East. China doesn’t get mentioned as much as other countries at the moment simply because it’s not at war, not a driver for terrorism, or a significant source of refugees or immigrants.

  • Paul Reynolds 10th Oct '16 - 3:34am

    … and I am another LibDem..working closely with the Party on foreign affairs… who has worked in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Guangzhao, with the Ministry of Finance, Ministries of Works, Rail & Energy, and with the Central Party School on economic reforms. I have also worked in New Delhi & Mumbai with the Indian Government, and in Ulan Bataar (Ministry of Finance), Tokyo, (Ministry of International Trade & Industry (as was), Ha Noi, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, Yangon, Colombo, Islamabad, Dhaka, Bangkok, Manila, and Vladivostok. There are others in the Party involved in foreign affairs and international economics with similar extent of experience. However, the point that the UK authorities need to take more heed of East Asia in policymaking is a good one. Unfortunately, instead of being more ‘Asia-aware’ the UK is going in reverse and becoming more insular generally…

  • David Garlick 10th Oct '16 - 9:14am

    Thought provoking article. As a Green Lib Dem I travel and then contribute to the planting of trees to repair some of the damage I have done to the planet and so I have not travelled extensively or often. Only a couple of months ago I was saying to my daughter in Law who comes from China that I feel very insular/insulated from much of the world and that is something I need to address. I am not a leader of this Party but I suspect that although many who are will be better informed and more aware than I am the point made as to the importance of the area in the circle and our need to engage with it is well made.

  • Denis Mollison 10th Oct '16 - 11:53am

    “Israel – which has 0.001 % of the world’s population”
    A common confusion – 0.001 % would be around 70,000.

    Israel is not as small as that – at 8 million it’s just over 0.001 as a fraction, which is 0.1 %.

    Still smaller than Shenzen.

  • Richard Warren 10th Oct '16 - 12:38pm

    Yes, have been to Shenzhen and have lived in Hong Kong. When I lived in HK, the Lib Dems were championing the rights of HK people to reside in Britain; later, the Lib Dems championed the rights of Gurkhas to live in Britain, so we have taken a positive interest in the past. Today, we ought to champion HK’s pro-democracy groups, Tibet and a whole host of other similar causes in that part of the world.

  • I’m a Lib Dem, and I go there frequently as we have offices in Hong Kong and our HQ is in Shenzhen.

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