United Kingdom and ChinaNovember 7, 2013
My Lords, I too want to thank my noble friend Lord Dobbs for tabling this very timely debate, and also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, on their outstanding maiden contributions today. A happy birthday, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Green, who will be sorely missed in his role as trade Minister.
I declare an interest both as someone with Chinese ancestry and as one who was born and grew up in Britain. This led me quite naturally upon entering your Lordships’ House a few years ago to take a keen interest in the nature of the relationship between the UK and China, of British business and interests in China, and in the state and condition of the Chinese in Britain. To this end, I also declare an interest as the chairman of the APPG for East Asian Business, as co-chair of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese and as a non-executive director of the Manchester-China Forum. I also declare a number of other related interests which can be seen on the public register.
In each of these roles I hear much about the challenges and criticism from both sides in the UK-China relationship, from both the media and through public debate, as well as behind closed doors. There can be no doubt that there has been and will likely continue to be areas of major disagreement and cultural and political differences in the relationship between our two countries. I could spend much of this speech recounting the historic disputes and perceived injustices on either side. These might include British imperial imposition by gunboat on China of goods such as opium and other wares which Gladstone described as morally indefensible and which ultimately hurt us when our protected trade succumbed to global competition. Similarly, companies in Britain at times feel competition from China has been unfairly backed by a favourable currency, state subsidies and an intellectual property framework that historically has been hard to enforce, all under the control of a Government who exert supreme authority over their citizens and media.
I could go on recounting such instances but I will not because these issues are both complex and culturally and politically difficult to resolve. Will we ever get agreement if we see the world just through the Chinese leadership’s eyes? They are concerned to maintain stability in a country that is known to descend into anarchy if not led well and strongly; they are cautious about religion, as past cults have led to extreme acts of violence and terrorism, such as the Boxer Rebellion. The Chinese Government are keen to avoid other countries’ determining their own internal affairs given colonial experiences at the hands of almost every other major power. Or by pushing our western liberal agenda onto China will we get it to agree to open up faster, introduce democracy on our terms, give up its one-party communist system in favour of a fully western one with a strong and free media and full introduction of the rule of law? Your Lordships can see how these divergent approaches might not lead to swift agreement in the short term. Instead, there is another, pragmatic approach—a word that I choose because both the British and Chinese in general are highly pragmatic people. That is to focus not on what we disagree on at the outset, but on what we have in common. There is a lot we have in common, more perhaps than we realise, and more than is the case between China and many other of our competitor nations.
First, we share similar historical journeys. We as the first industrial nation know what it is like to shift painfully from an agricultural society to an industrial and then knowledge economy, with all the attendant environmental, social, and political issues that this creates. We have a lot of experience to humbly exchange with China on how to manage this transition, and we can also learn a lot ourselves as China attempts to do in 50 years what it took us hundreds of years to do, including adapting our politics to meet the needs of a more urban, connected society and innovating new solutions in healthcare, housing and education in the 21st century.
Secondly, we have a common economic interest. China is shifting from an investment-led economy to one driven by consumption. We are the services capital of the world and have a lot to gain by helping Chinese consumers and service businesses in China flourish, harnessing our knowledge, brands, and expertise. Having ourselves made the shift, we can make a living exporting that know-how to help other emerging countries make their shift as well.
Thirdly, we both love learning. Our higher education and independent school system is the envy of the world; many Chinese love to send their children to study here, and the door is wide open for businesses from Britain to share their vocational knowledge. Many UK businesses could make a living from just doing that for the next few decades, let alone trying to directly service clients in China, such as with Martin Sorrell’s new advertising school in Shanghai.
When I witnessed at first hand the recent visit of the Chancellor—where we with the help of the Manchester-China Forum facilitated the announcement on Airport City—and the visit of the Mayor of London, I saw much to praise in these developments, because we focused on what we have in common, and not necessarily just on what separates us. There is progress on tourist visas, on allowing Chinese banks to more easily invest in Britain, and on enabling investors to help fund our recovery. But there is still more that we can do and ultimately, as a country, we have to choose how we want this relationship to develop. Will we choose to let UK neo-protectionists determine our foreign policy just as they did 200 years ago? Our policies on abolishing the post-study work visa, a key draw for Chinese students; on restricting the number of Chinese executives and family members from coming to help Chinese CEOs set up headquarters in Britain and create local British jobs; and on continuing to count students in immigration statistics all seem to be of the same spirit as that which Gladstone denounced, and could do as much damage as certain imperial monopolies did to our competitiveness and to our regions still today.
Equally, will we let China romanticists determine our policy and expect to walk into China naively assuming to be given a red carpet welcome like our first ambassador to the Chinese imperial court, Lord Macartney? Some organisations and SMEs I know still behave in this way, hardly bothering to learn the language, or engage people who can speak it literally and culturally, then wondering why so little was achieved. Or will we perhaps choose another way, which is to provide UK-China bridges, whether between individuals, cities or organisations, to let people build trust and then decide and act for themselves? As much as we have recently, laudably, reoriented ourselves at the centre towards better China relations, we have also to acknowledge that many recent breakthroughs in trade, from Weetabix to Royal Docks to Manchester Airport City, university and other partnerships, often started through the efforts of individual relationships: through the Anglo-Chinese students and business people who became friends and set up their own joint ventures, involving their parents and networks from the UK and China; through stakes being purchased with the advice of lawyers, friends, accountants and bankers; and through the Chinese diaspora in Britain helping to build academic and commercial links. Perhaps our role at the centre is to increasingly get out of the way, politicising less, and making it easier for bridge builders and intermediaries to do their jobs.
Finally, in the recent Pew Research Centre global attitudes survey, we can see that the population of Britain sees China less as an enemy than do other nations, at 7% compared to the US at 18% and France at 10%, and that the young here are generally more favourable towards China. Perhaps we in politics and the media need to follow the public more closely and let the people get on with it. Osborne and Boris can hardly be blamed for making strong overtures to China; increasingly, they and we by doing so are also playing to audiences at home. A strong UK-China relationship is not just potentially good for the economy, but will increasingly represent, for those keen to follow public opinion, sensible politics as well.