The UK needs to be a lot smarter to challenge the rise of authoritarian regimes

Chinese President Xi told President Putin at their summit in Moscow this year: “Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together”.

Repressive regimes – such as China’s under the CCP, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others – are linking up. Democracies around the world are being subverted. War is raging in Ukraine. China and Russia are in cahoots together, in particular enlisting many developing countries from the Global South to their cause through their disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

That’s why the FCC has agreed that I propose an amendment to the F23 pre-manifesto motion on behalf of the Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC) which calls for the UK to have a comprehensive strategy to challenge regimes such as that led by the CCP in China. My article in the latest Liberator gives the full background.

I also support FIRC’s emergency motion on China to be selected at the ballot for debate at autumn conference.  

Back in 2019, the European Commission was already calling China a “systemic rival”. This summer, President Xi’s intentions became even clearer when he boycotted the G20 summit, which unites major developed and developing economies, in favour of posing as the leader of the beginnings of an alternative world economic system at the BRICS summit as well as lobbying the Global South at the G77+China summit of 135 developing countries.

China’s new Global Development, Security and Civilisation Initiatives say that China’s development model shorn of human rights is more suitable for developing countries, that Western military alliances are a threat to world peace and that criticising the CCP is a racist assault on the Chinese people.

As many authoritarian governments grow wealthier, and the West’s clout weakens, an urgent new approach is needed if the post-Western global order for human rights and the rule of law is to remain centre-stage.

What Must We Do?

This party believes that the UK must always stand on the side of democracy, human rights, international law and multilateralism.

First of all, we need to fix our own societies. Western democracies are increasingly being seen by others as “decadent, in decline, messy and slow” (The Economist Interview with Indonesia’s former Trade and Investment Minister, Mr Tom Lembong, issue 9th September 2023). People in developing countries used to think that the liberal rules-based order is best. We need to reform our institutions and become the role model we used to be for everyone. It will be a massive task.

Secondly, we need to face and deal with the realities of political power in the world. By 2040, the UK economy is forecast to have shrunk to 2½% of World GDP. We need to recognise that what we say is not necessarily heeded, work out the right balance between principles, values and interests in our relations with countries and be seen to be consistent in their application by the world. We need to persuade our partners, rather than over-relying on the use of sanctions to make our point which will become less potent as time goes on. Misinformation must be countered Our own citizens need to understand better the implications of what is happening in the world.

Thirdly, we need to embrace and win back the Global South. Seduced by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, many developing countries are heavily indebted – and China does not do debt forgiveness. We must cut the rhetoric and have the Global South as real partners. Many of them say the time for traditional overseas development assistance is over – they want truly open markets for their goods, investment especially in processing their own raw materials and skills transfer. In other words, strategic autonomy for themselves, in their own right, which they should get with our help.

To achieve all this, this country – and indeed our own party – needs a comprehensive strategy on how we conduct our relations with these rising regimes. This Government has been woefully negligent about it. Most notably, it has recently been heavily criticised by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee for not having a strategy on China.

FIRC’s amendment to the manifesto motion therefore calls for a comprehensive UK strategy. This should be based on our values, respect for human rights and rule of law, aligned with our European partners.

It is only right that the Liberal Democrat Party – as the torchbearer of human rights and freedom for this country – should lead the way.

* George Cunningham is Chair of the Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee and an Elected Member of the Federal International Relations Committee, Twitter: @GFCunningham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Steve Trevethan 21st Sep '23 - 8:40pm

    Before going any further might we use a more refined, and probably more accurate, differentiation of government types?

    Polity data series scoresand classifies the government type of counties. Here are some:
    China. -8 Autocracy
    Russia. 4 Anocracy
    Ukraine. 4 Anocracy
    USA. 8 Democracy
    UK. 8 Democracy
    Ireland. 10 Full Democracy

    Anocracy = semi democracy

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