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Getting along with China
Written by Alex Massie
7 January 2021
At the end of last month, a significant breach opened between the EU and the United States. It was not, of course, described as such, but the settlement of an EU-China investment agreement after seven years of negotiations was nonetheless a marker of significant transatlantic differences that will not be easily forgotten, or assuaged, now that Joe Biden is replacing Donald Trump.
Angela Merkel, whose dubious achievement the Brussels-Beijing agreement was, argues that “we must not have illusions at this point; instead we must measure things against the realities”. But this agreement, however useful it might be in terms of trade, is exactly that: an exercise in illusions. For it pretends that China is a treaty partner like any other. Washington understands that this is not the case and so, increasingly, does London.
The persecution of the Uighur minority in western China is only one of the moral abscesses unaddressed by the EU’s deal, for in truth all ethnic minorities in China are now considered suspect by an increasingly assertive, and uncompromising, regime in Beijing. There is only space for one idea of China, and it is the Communist party’s. “All ethnic groups,” president Xi says, must establish the “correct perspective on the country”.
That includes Hong Kong which is, under the cover of Covid, steadily seeing its freedoms and unique prerogatives dismantled. China is breaking its promises and it would be wise to remember this rather than pretend it is not happening or that it can be wished away. This week dozens of pro-democracy campaigners were arrested under the provisions of Hong Kong’s new, controversial, and ludicrous national security act. The writing is, once again, on the wall and there for any who choose to see it.
The new American administration is at least capable of reading. As Tony Blinken, Biden’s prospective secretary of state, tweeted: “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights. The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.” That is what you might call a marker.
It is difficult to imagine Berlin saying something similar and actually meaning it. German industry is so invested – figuratively and literally – in China that any and all accommodations with Beijing may be imagined, regardless of their cost to German dignity. That is a choice too, even if abasement is not an attractive posture.
London, meanwhile, has surprised us. Brexit is, at least in part, a strategic pivot from Europe to the emerging world. Much of that is necessarily eastern. And so it would have been easy for the UK government to stay silent on the quiet tragedy of Hong Kong and easy for it to argue that, however regrettable all of this may be, certain commercial realities must be first accepted and then respected.
Perhaps the best thing about Boris Johnson’s government has been its refusal to take that easy path. It has not shrugged its shoulders or wrung its hands or limply noted that, while disagreeable, this is just the way of the world. On the contrary it has – and I think this merits being better known – made some kind of stand. The decision to fast-track and otherwise waive visa requirements for millions of Hong Kong residents, essentially opening a path to British citizenship for them, may be the best, and biggest-spirited, thing Johnson’s government has done. It is too easy to dismiss this as a mere gesture or the consequence of post-imperial nostalgia dressed up as obligation. For sure, it may be that, but it is also a real matter.
Real politics accepts reality for what it is, no matter how disagreeable that may be. It does not comfort itself with illusions and sometimes choices must be made. One of the EU’s more regrettable shortcomings is its belief that every circle may be squared and all difficulties assuaged if only sufficient quantities of obfuscating language are deployed to cover up harsher, uncomfortable, truths. Beijing and how best to engage with it is a painful case in point. For we should know by now that just as major international issues – most notably climate change – cannot be addressed without China’s participation, so we should recognise that China reserves the right to operate by its own standards, not those of the international community.
China cannot be ignored or avoided but it would be wiser to base engagement with Beijing on a realistic appraisal of what that means rather than wishful thinking. China is what China is and it is neither our friend nor anyone else’s. It is an authoritarian state of a kind that, if it were smaller and less significant, would risk being an international pariah. Its size and importance to the global economy, however, should not grant Beijing any kind of free pass. On the contrary, these are arguments for a more realistic approach, not a gentler one. To pretend otherwise is, in the end, to delude ourselves and little good can ever come from such pretences.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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